Thursday, January 16, 2014

Circle Time

I reserve the right to change my mind about this, but I think it's necessary that the children at Woodland Park be expected to take part in our community meetings, what we call "circle time." There are play-based educators out there who disagree with me, who believe that circle time ought to be optional, and there are always a few kids in our classes who would wholeheartedly agree.

You see, to me the main idea of circle time is to convene the entire community on a daily basis, to set aside a time during which we check in with us, an opportunity to discuss those things that impact us all, with at least the potential of all ears listening and all voices heard. And until we're ready for that, to at least get in the habit of coming together, accommodating one another, taking turns, and generally sharing time and space in a large group. I think of circle time (along with clean up time) as what stands at the heart of our little democratic society: this is when we discuss the things that matter to all of us like rules, safety, projects, celebrations, or other plans for our future. When voices are missing from these conversations, everyone loses. Even most democratic free schools have mandatory "meetings." Circle time is ours.

People often write me about circle time, asking for the nuts and bolts of how we do it, and specifically how we manage to "prevent" children from wandering or goofing off, so that's what I'm going to try to do here. Of course, the real answer is practice, to facilitate hundreds if not thousands of circle times, to gain experience and learn to be quick on your feet, to know when to drop your agenda, to develop a feel for not just preschool group dynamics in general, but also for this group in particular. Nothing works all the time, you'll "fail" a lot, and unless you're prepared to run circle time with an iron fist (and if so, what's the point?) there will be days when you keep it short and sweet and get them on their way.

During the school year, Woodland Park is really three separate cooperative schools, with three different schedules, so each class does things slightly differently, but for the younger kids at least, circle time takes place after clean up time. I think this is important, especially for the two-year-olds, because when one of them decides to wander away from the group, which they do quite often during the first month or so of school as they're getting to know our routines, an adult can go with them, shadowing them as they explore the "closed" classroom. When the child attempts to undo our clean up work by getting out toys, the adult will quietly say, "That's closed," and help them return whatever it is to the shelf. They do this until the child reaches our library where the books are always open: quietly looking at books is the alternative to participating in circle time. Most of the time it's just a quick tour of the room like this before returning to the group, although we did have a couple of older boys last year who decided they didn't like the singing, and would often choose to "read" during circle time, remaining within earshot and often rushing back to our checkerboard rug to participate when conversations turned to subjects that appealed to them.

With the youngest kids, circle time is largely about running through our list of a couple dozen or so familiar songs. During my first year teaching the Pre-3 class, we never moved beyond a core group of 10 songs because if I tried to skip even one, say when I wanted to try substituting a new one, there would be such a hew and cry that I had no option, so we went an entire school year with a virtually identical song set. My current group likes to shout out requests. I don't expect these youngest children to be raising their hands and taking turns like I do the older ones, so our discussions are short, usually prompted by an excited child blurting out some interesting fact about themselves or their lives: "I have a new puppy!" "I have an owie on my knee," "The sun is in my eyes," then it's back to the songs.

As the children get older, we still sing songs, often extending them with faster or slower cadences, new verses, or creating our own hand gestures or finger plays to go with them. I know that many of our most squirrelly kids will stick out circle time solely in the anticipation of weaving Star Wars or Snow White or Transformers into their favorite song. I've found that the older kids get, the more variety they require. By the time they're in our 5's class, songs are fairly rare, and most of our circle time is consumed in discussions, usually around topics of community interest like rules, feelings, social concerns, or plans. I sometimes sit down with a sketchy idea of topics we might want to discuss, but often I just call the first hand I see raised and we're off. The basic idea is for them to make this time their own.

For me, as the facilitators of circle time, one of the most important parts is to read the energy of the group. On most days it takes a good five minutes for everyone to settle in. I have a couple of rambunctious, silly songs I like to launch into as the kids convene, songs they find, as a group, funny. And by that, I mean they are songs that prompt them to laugh together, focusing on me for the "punch lines." For instance:

I've been waiting for you to come to this place.
I've been waiting for you to come to this place.
Wherever you're from,
I'm glad that you've come.
I've been waiting for . . . . . you and you and you and you and you (pointing at kids in a rapid fire motion)
. . . to come to this place.

I'll sing this a couple of times, often with the kids hiding behind one another to avoid being pointed out, or insisting, "You didn't point at me!" to which I respond by pointing at them, "and you!" I then remind them of their day so far with the second verse:

If you want to make a painting, I'll paint with you.
If you want to build with blocks, I'll build with you.
Wherever you're from,
I'm glad that you've come.
I've been waiting for . . . (etc.)

By the time I've run through this 2-3 times, most eyes are upon me because they know the big joke is coming, that joke being that I pretend to forget which pronoun to use, singing something like, "I've been waiting for he and she and it and we . . . No, no, no." It's always a big laugh line: kids bond when they laugh together in large groups. I'll do this a couple more times, getting that laugh each time, until several of the kids are loudly correcting me: "You and you and you and you," usually imitating my staccato pointing gesture.

I'll say, "Oh, right. Now I've got it." By this time, the entire group is usually following my every word because they know the next big joke is coming as I sing through the verse, finishing with "You and you and you and you," except this time I'm pointing at myself. By the time they've corrected me, they're usually ready for circle time.

Sometimes I'll get in a wrestling match with my stool. Sometimes I'll start singing a familiar song, but replace all the nouns with kid's names. Whatever the case, I've found that this kind of predictable silliness is a great way to get the kids focused on the fun of being together, laughing together, singing together, and ultimately talking together.

As the kids get older, hand raising becomes a vital part of circle time, which I've written about in more detail here. I work very hard at creating space and opportunity for all the kids to speak, even those who decline: I want them to know that we're always interested in their thoughts and ideas.

As far as length, I'm aware there are pedagogical guidelines, but it's best to just keep reading the group, assessing their energy, and discovering their immediate interests. My background as a baseball coach comes in handy here (or at least it did when I started teaching). When it's just one or two rowdy kids, we can usually handle it by reminding them that they have all day to "goof around" with their friends, but this is "everyone's time." With the youngest kids that sometimes means encouraging them to take a seat on a parent-teacher's lap: laps have a way of settling an unsettled child. When it's more than a few unfocused kids, I tend to like to ramp things up instead of calm things down. We have several boisterous full-body songs, ones that involve lots of jumping up and down. We have others that we sing louder and louder or faster and faster, all of which serve to get the kids up to the same energy level. I can then bring them back down together so we can get back to business.

Still, there are days when the kids, as a group, simply have a different agenda, and circle time is apparently not part of that. On these days, I like to tell a story. I urge all preschool teachers to develop a collection of stories they can tell to children at the drop of a hat. I've stolen many from the author Robert Munsch. There is magic in storytelling, a magic that isn't present in simply reading a book. It's a rare kid to goofs off during one of these stories.

On the other end of the spectrum are days in which a child or two brings in a burning interest. Perhaps they've recently read a book or seen a documentary or attended a play or taken a trip that has sparked an unquenchable urge to share with the rest of us. Almost always they spark a flurry of hands to shoot up, kids with their own similar stories or information to share. Or maybe there has been a conflict or controversy the kids need to discuss. On these days, I try to let these kids go as long as they can, moderating the discussion, which is, I think, the gold standard of a teacher's role in circle time.

All of this plays into how long circle time runs. I'm usually shooting for at least 20 minutes, but there are days when we're done in 10, while other circle times have run as long as 45 minutes and only end because I'm ready to move on.

At bottom, "successful" circle time is a lot about habit and schedule. Even kids who start the year by objecting, begin to take comfort in the familiarity of coming together for a time in a small space with these familiar people. It's important too, that kids know that this is their time, that they have a voice, that they have power, that they have the ability to shape the tone and direction of our time together. This is how all citizens should feel in a democracy.

That said, I know there are many great teachers working in great schools who have found other ways to incorporate circle time into their days, and others who forego it altogether. I know there are great teachers who dread circle time, for whom the idea of holding an audience is challenge. I believe there are as many different ways to run a circle time as there are teachers. The secret is practice and after a decade or so, you'll start to realize you know just enough to get by.

If you want to read more about circle time, just click on the "circle time" tag over there in the right hand column under "Teacher Tom's Topics."

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Basbusa's Mama said...

Thank you!! That was just what I was hoping for! I really appreciate it :)

Anonymous said...

Hi T-T,
You gave me advice before, it was so very useful! I run a Waldorf After-School care, for kindergarten children and Class 1 kids (all aged between 5-8). I have one smart boy with some pretty big issues, and I'm trying to get the hang of him. He's good natured in general, but is still getting over having been adopted a few years ago and has ADHD. I have brought the idea of making rules, and democracy in to my room. But he (aged 6) really wants to stay in control.
Today he spent the first half hour giggling and shouting to the others to 'not do as they're told!' So I sat everyone down to 'remind us and discuss' the rules, and of course he disagreed loudly and riotously with them all (running around the room and throwing toys between my reading.)
I understand he's testing my authority over the group. He has a HUGE need to be in control. When I insist on a rule, he will do something - ie break a piece off a basket and cling to it during time out. Sometimes it even descends into a dumb tug of war. Rules are something he balances up with testing the adult involved. It's trial by fire!
I don't want to stamp him down, it's not me or my style, but I also don't want to let him run riot when the other children adhere to their own laws.

Have you come across this kind of behaviour in your time?

Many thanks

Unknown said...

Teacher Tom, would you be willing to share the tune you use for your song:

I've been waiting for you to come to this place.
I've been waiting for you to come to this place.
Wherever you're from,
I'm glad that you've come.
I've been waiting for . . . . . you and you and you and you and you (pointing at kids in a rapid fire motion)
. . . to come to this place.

Teacher Tom said...

@Kate . . . It's a Tom Hunter song . . . I think it's called "I've Been Waiting For You." I'm pretty sure you can find it online.