It’s mid-morning on a Saturday in March and I am standing in a Skirball meeting room with forty K–Grade 12 educators, listening intently as two women introduce an activity. I am leading a teaching workshop about integrating movement into the curriculum as part of Teaching Our World Through the Arts, just one of several teacher professional development programs offered here. We have been invited to tell the story of a teaching moment that we are proud of, and to follow four simple guidelines in the telling:
- Speak from your heart.
- Listen from your heart.
- Be spontaneous.
- Be concise.
The talking piece—a tennis ball—is passed around the circle, and one by one the stories emerge: a third-grade teacher who helped a student succeed after he spent his first years falling through the cracks; a fifth-grade teacher who shows up at her students’ homes to help with homework if they are struggling; a middle school teacher who learned to be brave by watching a student come out to his mother. The stories range from heartwarming to heartbreaking—eliciting tears, laughter, nods of agreement, and smiles of recognition.
This process, known as “council,” is inspired by talking circles, a ritual found in cultures all over the world. The version we are using in the workshop was adapted by the Ojai Foundation, a nonprofit that has introduced this process to more than 20,000 Los Angeles Unified School District students through its Council in Schools program. Council in Schools provides training and assistance for schools (public, charter, private, and parochial) and educational support agencies to implement council programs.
In my experience with council, its strength comes in part from its simplicity. For teachers, the work is in crafting and developing questions or prompts that engage their students and support the content they wish to share. I spoke about council with Jill Valle, a licensed therapist, council trainer, and school counselor at Wildwood Upper School, who has been leading council as part of her work since 2001. Valle says using council with students “cultivates deep listening skills and concise expression as well as fostering authentic connection between students.” She has used council as both a processing tool and to support academic content. “Whatever your subject matter, there is way to use council as a tool for deepening understanding, ” Valle adds. “Once you have the basic guidelines, the possibilities are really endless in terms of what you can create and how you can use it.” Continue reading