I teach eighth grade Spanish. In my classes this year, I wanted to try Circle of Power and Respect (CPR) meetings, because the model fits nicely with my belief that content is taught through communication and learned through social interaction: every student needs to feel social acceptance so they can focus on learning. 

CPR has become the most vital key to social acceptance and academic learning in my classroom. The meeting format consists of a greeting, sharing, activity, and daily news message. On Day One of this school year, I had students sit in a circle on the floor. We began greeting each other in Spanish. Speaking in a language other than English was brand-new for most of the students, so I assumed no prior knowledge and started very simply. The greeting consisted of having two neighbors look each other in the eye and say “hola,” one at a time, while the others watched. The students felt a bit uncomfortable, but everyone was willing to participate: the task was low-risk and simple. I noticed that they were sitting a great distance away from each other, a sign that we were just getting started and had some work to do before everyone felt safe.

The next step was to have them share something. Since it was the very first day, I asked them to share their names. I wrote a simple Spanish greeting on the board: “Me llamo _______” and asked “Cómo te llamas? (What is your name?).” As I asked each student, he or she used the example on the board to reply, “Me llamo Charlie,” or “Me llamo Britney,” etc. We repeated these two elements of CPR for a few days until they felt comfortable enough to move to the next level of social acceptance and language skills.

Una actividad
During the first week’s activity time, I chose simple games, such as Le Pasa la Pelota (Pass the Ball). In this low-risk activity, the students learn each other’s names and a few vocabulary words. One person is in the middle of the circle with her eyes closed. Seated in a circle, players pass the ball around the circle behind their backs as they chant “le pasa la pelota.” Then the student in the middle is told in Spanish to open her eyes and guess who has the ball.

Over time, I incorporated other team-building, trust-building, and acknowledgment-based activities into the meetings. These helped the socially awkward eighth graders to feel a part of the group. Occasionally they were able to let their guard down and just have fun. By the end of the trimester I had the students playing Knots, a higher-risk activity. Several students asked the next day to play Knots again, which indicated they were comfortable with one another.

Noticias diarias
The daily news message was also a social and academic element in the classroom. Every day I posted the messages in Spanish. They always began with the date and the day’s weather, then I included words and greetings that would be used in the meeting. There was also a question of the day that pertained to the circle share we’d be doing.

Buenos días, clase, Hoy es lunes el
7 de septiembre, 2011. Mañana sera
martes y ayer fue domingo. ¿Qué
tiempo hace? Hace mal tiempo. Yo
tengo un perro. Mi perro se llama
Iska. ¿Cómo se llama tu perro o gato?

Soon, students were excited to figure out what the chart said, and, especially, what the question was. They quickly learned they’d be responding to the chart’s question, and they needed an answer. They would gather around and use their notes to make sure they read and answered the question correctly.

A few weeks into the class, I started having students read the message of the day to the group. At first, some were reluctant, but when they completed the task they appeared happy and proud of themselves.

Leading in Spanish
By the end of the seventh week, they were all willing to stand in front of the class to teach something in Spanish. Confident leaders with everyone cheering them on became common.

I noticed great changes in my students’ behavior. Eventually, they always made eye contact and used each other’s names. They became so comfortable with one another that they were willing to do a friendly Spanish-style greeting that included a kiss on the cheek!

At the beginning of the trimester, some students in each of my classes were a bit hesitant to participate in CPR. These few would enter class and sit far from the circle, almost as if they were trying to disconnect from the group. By the end of the trimester, these same students were asking me when we could start certain activities, and were socializing with a lot more students in the classroom. All students sat closer together in the circle, their “personal bubbles” having shrunk.

A growing community
I allowed students to choose their seats. Generally speaking, when teachers do this, students tend to choose one spot and stick with it. Interestingly, in both of my Spanish sections the students began picking different spots each week as they became more comfortable with each other. By trimester’s end, both classes were accepting of everyone and were engaged in their learning.

Gail Harju teaches Spanish at Rocori Middle/High School in Cold Spring, Minnesota.

This article first appeared in Developmental
Designs: A Middle Level Newsletter,
 Spring 2012.