Today’s class was another time trying something new for this cycle: Academic Circles.
What is an Academic Circle
Circles come out of our school’s effort to utilize Restorative Justice(RJ) practices across the school. Restorative Justice practices in schools serves is an answer to the very real problem of the school-to-prison pipeline which is rooted in traditional school discipline systems. Because traditional school discipline is punitive, and because New York has a strong police presence in our schools, students who are often in trouble get directed out of the school community with suspensions and expulsions, and often into the juvenile justice system. These students, who need to learn self-discipline skills are denied the chance to learn it and instead learn that the school doesn’t want them as part of their community. At a Restorative Justice school, students are pushed to remain in the community and correct the negative effects of whatever bad behavior occurred. One of the things that typically happen is that students go to a restorative circle. In the circle there is a structured conversation with the people affected by their action and seek to repair the harm they have done to the school, thus restoring the school community to it’s previous state. To help make the circle process a respected part of the school culture, this year we’ve been encouraged by include the slightly different “academic” circles in our classes. I have seen circles in people’s advisory classes, humanities classes, and even science classes, but not in math. Well….not yet!

A typical academic circle consists of students sitting in a circle, with nothing in their hands, and a talking piece that is passed around to designate who can talk. Sometimes there can be questions that students draw out of a bucket and use as a prompt. In the circle you want to build community among students, and you want them to know that their voice matters. (There are probably better definitions of the circle out there, and I will try to post links if I can find some).

What I am trying

For math this posed a difficult test. In a class where there is a lot of calculation, and easily discernable right answers, it might kill conversation, and community, to have conversations about one problem, that it would be hard for everyone to provide interesting contributions. Given how real math phobia is, I decided to not have any calculation going on in the circle at first. There is also the need to produce multiple representations in math that are just as important as words. It might be useful to have kids be able to draw a quick graph or look at what everyone else is thinking and discern trends and patterns.

So far I have decided to focus on error and estimating. Each Friday for the first two classes of the cycle I had the students sit in a circle in class. The students each have a mini whiteboard and marker with which they can draw their answers. In later classes we can use these to draw graphs or express creativity, but for now they will be used to answer the questions. The questions for the circle were tricky, if I want everyone to feel successful. Instead of making prompts, I’ve asked the students to create the questions as we go around. For today’s class asked students to think about a question that can be answered on a scale of 1-10. One kids question was be “How do you like today’s music on a scale of 1-10.” Students will also make a prediction to what they think people will say. As they answer this, I am jotting down the answers on a board that is in the chair next to me on the circle as a little dot plot. This allows me the chance to jump in and point out when the data looks interesting “What makes this dot plot stand out form all the others?”

The kids seem to enjoy it, and the improvement in community is noticeable compared to last cycle. It gives them a chance to speak their mind (which is a bit much for some people), and it is a break from the regular. I also have the chart paper saved, so I have an interesting pool of data that I can use for a yet-to-be-designed lesson or activity. The yet-to-be-designed activity will be around the question “Based on the data how good are we at guessing what people will say?” and will lead into a discussion of inferential statistics. Another idea I want to do is collect a bunch of statistics around a topic and ask kids to pick a stance on the topic, and pick a different statistics that supports or challenges that stance. It is rough trying to involve everyone in the circle, with the bottleneck being my writing down the numbers. Perhaps, I could tap the numbers into my phone or some kind of laptop so I could write faster, and the kids can figure out the results form reading people’s boards. If you have done anything with Academic Circles, or RJ, please let me know in the comments.