Thursday, November 5, 2015

Talking Circles in Math Class

Earlier this week I went to a professional development day where I had the pleasure of listening to Janet Milanowski present on Talking Circles. Prior to this professional development I had experiences and knowledge about counting circles but I had never heard of a talking circle before. I was intrigued with these talking circles because I could tell instantly that they would be a great way to build community within a classroom. During a break that day I pulled out my November issue of Mathematics Teacher (this month's issue is about creating classroom communities) and I thumbed through to the first feature article. To my delight it was an article written by Marcus Hung on, you guessed it, talking circles! So I figured that was a sign from the math deities to write a post about talking circles, so here we go!

What is a Talking Circle?

Well, it is actually kind of what it sounds like...a circle where people talk! More specifically though it is where students in a classroom pull their chairs (or desks) around in a physical circle and everyone takes turns responding to a prompt in a structured way. These prompts can be anything from community building questions, to conflict resolution, and even content-based questions. Talking circles can last anywhere from ten minutes to a whole class period depending on the goal of the circle. There is normally a facilitator or "keeper" or the circle, their job is to lead the meeting, uphold the integrity of the circle, create a welcoming and risk-free environment, and most importantly participate in the circle! The keeper is usually a teacher, but once the routines and expectations of the circle have been well-established a student may also be chosen to be the keeper of the circle. 

In addition to the keeper there is another important piece to a successful talking circle, and that is the talking piece. The talking piece is what is used to help keep the flow of the conversation positive and productive. Only the person with the talking piece is allowed to talk in the circle, which helps to prevent students from being interrupted. The talking piece moves in one direction around the circle until everyone has had a chance to share about the given prompt(s). (Some students may want to pass and that is okay! But they should be given the opportunity to share at a later time in the circle if they would like) Some circles have the talking piece go around twice before the circle is completed to allow students to respond to what another student said or to add a new idea or thought to the discussion. The talking piece prevents one-on-one debates within the circle, and also encourages shared responsibility for the discussion. 

So what is the Format for a Talking Circle? 

Talking circles normally begin with an opening. The purpose of the opening is to create a sacred space where everyone will come together, and also to set a positive tone to transition into the circle process. After the opening is completed the guidelines and values of the talking circle are explained. These guidelines should be something that are decided upon as a class and something that every participant is held accountable to. Once the guidelines have been reviewed then it is important to explain or review the purpose of the talking piece. Before the discussion begins it is important to check-in with the students to see how they are feeling, physically, mentally, and emotionally, at the moment. An example of this might be to have the students describe how they are feeling by explaining what weather pattern would describe their mood today. Now that all of the guidelines have been set, the talking piece explained, and you have checked-in with your students the discussion can begin!

The discussion is the "meat and potatoes" of the talking circle. Like I stated previously, these prompts can be used for community building or to talk about content. One of the prompts that we discussed in my professional development meeting what "What was your favorite Halloween candy as a child?", and then later on we had a prompt that was to explain "Why you decided you wanted to be a teacher.". The responses to the prompts should be consolidated, to prevent rambling and also to give everyone an equal chance to respond.

The talking circle is concluded with a check out. The check out is an opportunity for students to express how they are feeling at the moment, or explain what they are taking away from the circle. This gives time for reflection which helps to consolidate what was just discussed.

How can Talking Circles be Content-Based?

Our professional development meeting mainly focused on talking circles as a way to build classroom community and culture, but what interested me the most was the ability to bring math into the picture. In Marcus Hung's article in Mathematics Teacher he talks about how he uses talking circles for equitable student participation in his math class.  He observed that during whole-class discussions the majority of students who were responding were students who were mathematically confident, and they were the same three or four students every time. Even in the small group discussions in his classroom Hung observed that while there was more discussion happening it was still done mainly by students who were mathematically confident. This did not give the equitable participation that he desired in his classroom so Hung made the choice to use talking circles (which he had already implemented for community building) to discuss mathematical content. Hung used prompts that are both open-ended and direct to get his students to open up and share their thinking about the topics they are learning about in class.

I imagine using talking circle to introduce new topics and start conversations about students' prior knowledge. Talking circles would could also be a great way to review material before an assessment by going around the circle and taking questions or having students explain a concept that their are still unclear about.

(Figure taken from Marcus Hung's article "Talking Circles Promote Equitable Discourse" in Mathematics Teacher)

Pros and Cons of Talking Circles

As mentioned before the two biggest benefits of talking circles are that they create community in the classroom and also that they allow for equitable discussion and participation (and get the quiet students in class a voice). When students (and teachers) participate in talking circles they get to know each other and build relationships, which will create a welcoming environment in the class, and also potentially increase participation outside of talking circles as well. Talking circles also promote problem solving and critical thinking skills while students listen and respond to their peers' thinking. 

One of the biggest downfalls with talking circles is that there is most likely going to be a lot of repetition with responses, and students might just share what another student already shared as a way to avoid answering the prompt. Another downfall with talking circles when used for community building is that there are some questions that are very high risk. For example something as simple as "How was your night/weekend?" can cause some students to shut down if there is something they are struggling with going on in their lives. It is important to know your students when you are planning the questions to ask in a talking circle. 

I think that talking circles are a great way to add variety in a classroom. Talking circles are not meant to replace whole-class or small group discussion but to present a different form of discussion. While I have not personally planned a talking circle yet I am very excited by the idea of them! Doing number talks in a talking circle format would be a great way to increase students number fluency and get them comfortable with explaining their thought processes. I look forward to reading more about talking circles and updating this post once I have done one myself!

Here is a the link to Marcus Hung's article in Mathematics Teacher if you are interested in reading more about how he using talking circles in his math class!