Engagement for All

Build community with a daily, whole-group Circle of Power and Respect.

CPR advisory meeting offers growth for everyone

For Middle Level

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 our routine.

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 attitude.

Getting started

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.

Visual aid

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.

Quality handshakes

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.

Forehead or fish

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."

Students lead

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.

Sharing came easily

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.

Positive and specific

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.

Arriving on time

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 facilitate learning.  


Melanie Kirner teaches sixth grade at Black Hawk Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin.

Published August 2012


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