At the beginning
of last year, I noticed that some students transitioned into middle school
feeling intimidated, shy, highly sensitive, or moody, and they were hesitant to
engage in our homeroom community. I wanted the new, mostly sixth grade,
students to be fully in advisory. I believed if they became familiar with a
predictable homeroom routine and were given time to practice what we did, engagement
would increase. The Circle of Power and Respect (CPR) advisory meeting would be
On the other
hand, I saw several students who could become leaders and role models if I set
things up properly. To support their engagement and help them grow, I wanted to
turn over some leadership of our circle meetings to students as soon as they
appeared ready to handle the responsibility.
I was eager to
support both of these groups and to help everyone increase their engagement and
participation in CPR. I decided to focus on some specific student behaviors I
could teach early in the year and use later as indicators of success. These
included good attendance, eye contact, and participating with an enthusiastic
In our first CPR, I saw that we had a lot
to work on. Most students were not looking at the person they were greeting,
and many spoke so quietly the others couldn’t hear. I modeled how to make eye
contact during greetings, and how to watch the greeting as it was passed around,
then everyone practiced. I also modeled during the first week of meetings how
to greet, share, and play with enthusiasm, and everyone practiced. Thus began
many conversations about how important eye contact and enthusiastic
participation are to the creation of a supportive community.
We created a Y-chart together to define
how a greeting should look, sound, and feel. The students came up with great
examples: the room would look like everyone is facing the greeter; our extra
materials are on the floor, out of the way. They thought greeters should look
each other in the eye (practicing this was a different story!). The students knew
that in order to be respectful, no one but the greeter could be speaking-even
whispering. Because we had had a problem with tapping on desks; they decided
that to show respect and for greetings to be heard there would be quiet hands
and quiet feet.
After we had set expectations, it was a
matter of reminding everyone to stick to our agreements about how greetings
should go. The look-sound-feel chart helped. Although it wasn’t one of my
original indicators, quality handshakes can be almost as important as good eye
contact in the creation of engagement and positive participation, and the students
needed “handshake work.” Most of them had never been taught how to shake hands.
As a result, we
made a similar chart for handshakes, and we worked on them for several days in
a row, until good handshakes became more or less automatic.
After greetings, I regularly ask for a
quick dose of student feedback about how the group did with eye contact,
enthusiasm, or some other element of successful greetings. I might ask, for
example, how the greeting made the students feel, or to what degree their
voices were enthusiastic. Often students come up with a new way to make the
greeting more fun. Once, they came up with “look at someone’s forehead rather
than in the eye” or “look at someone’s nose instead of directly in the eye.”
For the handshake, the students came up with, “hold it like a fish so it
doesn’t get away!” Pretty soon the reminder was simply, “forehead” or “fish.”
When we were focusing on making good eye
contact, speaking clearly and at the right volume, or shaking hands
effectively, I chose a student who had leadership qualities to model the
behavior. This might have been the biggest key to boosting engagement. I found
if I were the only one modeling something, students would buy in somewhat, but
if they saw one of their own classmates leading something in an enthusiastic,
appropriate way, almost all of them were likely to buy into doing the routine
according to expectations. And when it came time to have students lead parts of
the CPR meetings, many were already accustomed to leading.
Students found it easiest to engage in the
sharing component of CPR. We’ve used lots of popcorn shares, whip shares, and
talking-piece shares. Enthusiasm and eye contact were pretty solid from early
on, so I had little need to remind or intervene much during this component.
Our activity for
the first couple of sessions involved making goals and creating a Social
Contract (consensus- derived shared rules). Then we moved to playing games,
learning new idioms or proverbs, and doing team- and trust-building activities.
Using specific language to reinforce positive
behaviors helped to increase engagement. I got into the habit of making
comments such as “I saw you smile when you said good morning to Jessica,” “I
noticed how you looked me in the eye when you greeted me,” or “I could really
hear that you meant what you just said!”
Each day, when a student read the daily news
chart, we worked on reading with enthusiasm and clarity. I reminded each reader
to use an upbeat voice and appropriate volume. Over time, students integrated these
skills, and our chart reading greatly improved. I found that I could increase
enthusiasm further by asking a student to come to the front of the room and use
the pointer while reading. Everyone loves to use the pointer! Further, to help
the student feel more comfortable, a quick personal question about their day
loosened them up.
To reinforce the
importance of reading with enthusiasm, we often do a quick assessment of the
job the day’s reader did. For example, we may pause after the reader finishes, and
I might ask, “What was positive about the way Jack read?” or ask for thumbs up
or down regarding the clarity of the speaker’s voice while he read.
Each day for the first trimester, I quickly
took attendance right when class began. I used my students’ on-time percentages
as one of my engagement indicators: if students found advisory engaging, I
believed they would have more incentive to arrive on time. We modeled and practiced
entering class on time, and we discussed multiple times what it felt like to
arrive on time.
At first students
struggled with this expectation, reflecting their feelings that CPR wasn’t a
valuable part of the day in middle school. Over time, students shifted their
feelings about CPR, and on-time attendance improved. I believe that the
different ways that we worked together to establish student leadership, rigor, and
fun in the meetings resulted in this positive change. I needed to teach my
students why these daily meetings mattered.
The Circle of Power and Respect is a
daily, whole-group gathering designed to build community. CPRs’ format of
greeting, sharing, activity, and daily news is a friendly ritual that creates a
safe space for middle-level students to build trusting relationships that
Kirner teaches sixth grade at Black Hawk Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin.
Published August 2012