Every Classroom Should Be a Safe Space for Students. That's Why We Started Community Circles.

Mar 2, 2017 12:00:00 AM

by Mark Gozonsky

Increased raids from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and new orders from Homeland Security to deport millions of immigrants impact my classroom on a daily basis. These actions are immensely unsettling to my students at our “majority-minority” public high school in downtown Los Angeles and are a daunting challenge to teachers everywhere concerned with maintaining a positive classroom environment when many of our students and their families face growing anti-immigrant sentiments and uncertainty about whether they will be able to continue to live, work and go to school in our country.

Personally, I have responded to this challenge by getting active with a Teacher Action Team on DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) to increase opportunities for undocumented students to remain in the United States. We’re explicitly marking our classroom as a safe space, using student-made signs and resources on immigrant rights and no Social Security number-required scholarships, and by implementing a strategy called “community circles.”

My students have truly embraced community circles as a way for them to deal with the anxiety they are facing, worrying about their families’ and their own safety and security in these uncertain times. For example, picture this: One of my 10th-graders, Esperanza (not her real name) arrives long before the bell rings, unafraid to be the first person in the class, because she wants to know if we’re going to be doing a community circle. If it’s Monday I usually say yes, because that day we have shorter class periods and community circles work great as a constructive use of short class period time. On other days, I generally respond probably not today, but most likely next Monday—because I like to avoid telling a kid a flat-out no. Esperanza, however, is not one to take “maybe” for an answer. Nowadays she is set on doing community circles, and when I ask her why, she sets her no-nonsense expression and says matter-of-factly, “So we can talk about what’s going on.” The essence of community circle protocol is to get the chairs in a shape roughly suggesting a circle, then to take turns talking. There’s a great guide on these restorative practices. The results in my high school English classroom have been heartening. Although we certainly haven’t solved our country’s immigration issues, students do typically say that they appreciate our “chill” class where [pullquote position="right"]they feel their voices are heard.[/pullquote] Let us not underestimate the value of chill—in "eduspeak," the lowering of affective filter—in times of crisis. Students can cry and gain solace. They can cope. Coping is good. It lets us solve problems within our span of control. For example, in one class, two seniors solved their conflict over who would get to sit close to a charismatic and caring third kid. They decided to share. Score one for sharing! One of those two also apologized to a fourth kid for suggesting that fourth kid might be a jerk. Score one for apologizing! That’s two points for civil discourse in an age when some of our elected officials often model extreme incivility. All this from arranging the chairs in a pattern so that no one has their back to anyone else, asking each kid how they’re doing, and opening up the floor to questions-comments-concerns they want to share with the class. And, it works for Esperanza. These circles inspired her to focus her abundant energy on drafting an essay analyzing the pros and cons of advocacy journalism; and another giving advice to writers who want people to care about immigrants in the United States. Tell a story, Esperanza advises. Tell a story about one kid. We have more kids absent than usual since the Homeland Security directives came down. Kids who are usually here are gone. But Esperanza shows up every day, first kid in the class, insisting we do community circles.
An original version of this post appeared on E4E as All Students Belong in Community Circles.

Mark Gozonsky

Mark Gozonsky, a founding member of E4E-Los Angeles, is a writer who teaches high school English at a public school in downtown Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated online and Entropy, and is forthcoming in EduSource and The Santa Monica Review.

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