Teaching Practice: Circle Time
A recent article in Edutopia began with this sentence: “Morning meetings are a nearly ubiquitous feature in elementary classrooms. Students gather on a rug to discuss the calendar, the weather, the news, and how they’re feeling as the day begins.” The sentence is not wrong and the article continues to imagine what it might look like for middle schoolers and high schoolers to have a similar kind of beginning to their day. However, it fails to capture the urgency of Morning Meeting, its pedagogical complexity, and its contribution to a child’s sense of belonging and safety.
The beginning of The Morning Meeting Book by Roxann Kriete (Northeast Foundation for Children) begins in a different and more powerful way: “It is good for students to be noticed, to be seen by their teacher. But it is only a start, not enough by itself. They must notice and be noticed by each other as well: (p. 2). She recalls a letter written to her by a student who was dropping out of school who said: “I will always remember how you said “Hi, Sue” as I walked into eighth period. It made me feel that it really mattered that I came.”
The Morning Meeting (MM) is decidedly NOT about the weather and the calendar, even when those are topics that are included in the conversation. Time given to MM is not wasted academic time nor a pleasant social filler that can be shortened and dispensed with at will. It is an integral part of a teaching approach that makes children visible to the teacher and to each other. Just as an example, here is the recounting of an experience by a Superintendent visiting a kindergarten class (responsiveclassroom.org):
Not too long ago, an urban superintendent from Massachusetts shared a story with me that illustrates Morning Meeting’s value quite well. He spoke of visiting a school in his city one spring morning, and pausing in the doorway of a kindergarten class to watch the children and their teacher as they gathered in a circle in the corner of the room. He hadn’t intended to go in, but as he stood there, a young boy got up and headed toward him. The superintendent moved aside, thinking the boy was leaving for the bathroom, but instead the child looked up at him, extended his hand and said, “Welcome to our classroom. I’m Elias and I don’t know your name, but would you like to come to our Morning Meeting?”
This wasn’t the spontaneous act of a naturally poised child. It was the result of many days of practicing the skills of greeting in Morning Meetings and teaching each child how to welcome a visitor. “I was so impressed that this six-year-old knew how to approach a stranger in a suit peering into his classroom,” said the superintendent when he told me the story. “It wasn’t just that he had the social skills, but that he believed he had the right—even the responsibility—to look me in the eye and invite me in. That confidence and assertiveness is as important to that boy’s future opportunities as his reading and math skills. In fact, it’s what’s going to clear the way for him to get those skills and use them.”
So what is a true Morning Meeting? There are four components including:
- Greeting by name. The Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning ran a conference in Washington D.C. and asked a local elementary school to open their session with Morning Meeting led by the students. The room was full of researchers, policy analysts, educators, and philanthropists. One group was led by a 4th grade student. She began: “Our greeting today will go like this. First you say your name, then you say when you would like to have lived. Then we’ll all greet you back by saying ‘Hello’ and your name. I’ll go first so you can see how it’s done.” There are of course many variations but they all have the key elements of daily noticing each other and treating each other as valuable.
- Too often, this turns into a not very interesting exercise for the students. In one classroom I visited, they were asked what they had for supper with no feedback and no metacognitive insights. The Morning Meeting Book teaches that children are motivated through addressing two human needs: the need to feel a sense of significance and belonging; the need to have fun (p. 12). Sharing as a metacognitive activity certainly addresses the first of these – recounting, reacting, investigating, reflecting, extending. But it is also fun – an “immersion in the pleasure of an activity”. Note that sharing as a deep activity requires greeting first to ensure there is a comfort and security within which risk can occur.
- Group Activity. Through the engagement of the children in songs, games, puzzles, poems, they gain a common vocabulary and shared repertoire that builds community. Typically, this is transferred into every other arena of school life – bus trips are endured through spontaneous use of these practices and common knowledge; other classes benefit from the unity inspired by in jokes and well-rehearsed stories. It is a key to a genuinely inclusive classroom, particularly where there are differently abled students, clear differences of wealth, potential barriers of race.
- News and Announcements. This part of the meeting is centered around a written message that will serve as the focus for this section. Developing and reinforcing language, math, and other classroom skills is a great transition to the subjects the students will encounter through the day. This part of MM demonstrates how much fun learning is (remember the definition of fun!) and leads to the anticipation of continued learning. It anticipates at least one thing the students will do during the day. Note again that successful leaders of MM always move to the metacognitive, even briefly, as they navigate the various items. “We want students to leave the Meeting feeling a sense of their competence and equipped to navigate their day” (p. 99). The main purpose of News and Announcements is to “stimulate children’s academic motivation and give them a chance to practice skills”.
Of course, as with any process / pedagogy, familiarity can breed contempt. Ruth Charney writes: “I find that once a group is comfortable with the order and structure of morning meeting, then varying the pace, tempo, and proportion of structures is essential lest comfort turn to complacency, or worse yet, contempt” (p. 28).
Many schools and teachers rush the beginning of the day believing that real learning doesn’t begin until ‘class’ starts. This misses a critical understanding of the student as a whole being who has to be invited / welcomed into a learning community where each person is valued and seen on a daily basis. Taking 20-30 minutes on a daily basis to do this is an investment in each child’s learning.
Note: it is also important in elementary grades to take 10-15 minutes at the end of the day to send them back to their families from the familiarity and safety of the meeting group.