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Peace Circles Cool Tension, Warm Relationships

On an August afternoon at Ames Middle School, 15 students pulled their classroom chairs into a tight circle. One 8th-grader began the conversation, holding a microphone in her lap. The microphone wasn’t on—it was simply a prop, and over the next hour it was passed around the circle repeatedly, allowing only its holder to speak.

Called a “peace circle,” the activity was meant to build trust and reduce conflict by giving kids a chance to express themselves. Students and staff credit the daily ritual—which took place every afternoon at 4 p.m. throughout the summer—with transforming the climate among the 30 kids enrolled in Ames’ Elev8 summer programs.

Boys needed greater encouragement to open up and talk about their feelings, but open up they did.

Gordon Walek

Before the peace circle, [kids] would start yelling at each other, and a fight would break out,” said 8th-grader Karolina Skerrett.

Sometimes conflicts just simmered, said her classmate Alex Alverio. “People gave each other dirty looks.” 

But having a structured way to talk through problems led to resolution rather than resentment, students said. “It helps everybody vent,” explained student Angel Cintron. “Whatever they say stays in the circle,” he explained, “so they feel safe.”

Creating social supports for middle school students is one goal of Elev8, a national demonstration project supported by The Atlantic Philanthropies that’s been launched in five Chicago schools. Teaching conflict resolution has taken on a special urgency at Ames. In the past year, the school lost two of its students to gang violence.

The peace circle proved such a success during the summer that Ames is adding it to the Elev8 afterschool program this fall.

“Before the peace circle, [kids] would start yelling at each other, and a fight would break out,” said 8th-grader Karolina Skerrett.

Gordon Walek

"The kids that sat in that circle every day began to develop an identity as a group,” observed Adriana Portillo-Bartow, Elev8 director for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Ames community partner. Beyond conflict resolution, “They talked about their parents, about their sexuality, about politics. They loved to sit in that circle and discuss whatever was on their minds.”

Many of the students resisted opening up at first. “Especially the boys,” said Juliet Maldonado, one of the summer program leaders. “They didn’t want to say anything.” Staff eased them into the circle with safe topics such as their favorite color, favorite movie, and the superhero power they would choose to have if given the opportunity to have one. “It’s fun to hear what everyone has to say, and everyone starts laughing,” said Skerrett.

As the group grew more comfortable, the staff helped them to discuss conflicts with other group members in a respectful way. “If you’re having a problem with someone, you can just tell them and get other people’s opinions,” explained 8th grader Amanda Ocasio. “After they get it out, everyone is all friends.”

Staff members also got a chance to talk about their own frustrations with student behavior in a way that didn’t make kids feel accused, said Maldonado. As result, they tended to listen and respond, she explained. “Usually, they admit when they’re acting wrong and give the reason. And we try to resolve it.”

“The kids that sat in that circle every day began to develop an identity as a group,” observed Adriana Portillo-Bartow, Ames ISS director. “They loved to sit in that circle and discuss whatever was on their minds.”

Gordon Walek

As the group moved into riskier territory, the ground rules became increasingly important: Listen to others with respect, don’t interrupt, and what goes on in the circle stays in the circle — a rule that students said they took seriously.

As kids got to know each other, staff said they witnessed some startling transformations. Several students regarded as trouble makers in school emerged as leaders in the circle. One girl considered “weird” became accepted once the others understood her better. “She’s one of the cool girls now,” Maldonado observed.

Gradually, the staff handed over much of the circle’s leadership to students. Ocasio, who led this morning’s discussion, posed her own questions such as, “What is your favorite memory?” and, “If you were president, what would be the first thing you’d do?”

The conversation ranged from serious to silly. Some students said they would use the presidency to end the Iraq war or pursue immigrant rights, while others saw it as leverage to date a pro basketball player or disband a rival sports team.

At times, the conversation grew more personal. One girl said her favorite memory was of her cousin before he went to jail “because he was funny, and I don’t think I’ll ever see him again.”

Throughout the hour-long discussion, the students displayed a respect for each other’s ideas and an ease with sharing them. The last exercise, however, still made some squirm and blush. Program leader Cody Spencer directed them to compliment the person on their left.

Amid much giggling, the students complied. “You’re good at dodge ball, you’re funny, you have a lot of hair and you’re really tall,” one boy told another.

Cintron said later that giving compliments is one of his favorite parts of the peace circle hour. “It makes people feel good about themselves.”

Posted in Education, Logan Square

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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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