By Guest Blogger, Johanna Masis, Program Director at Oakland Leaf
At Oakland Leaf, all of our programs incorporate the practice of Cyphers. We believe in the power of people's stories and life experiences regardless of how many years they have been alive. There is a collective wisdom that exists and needs to be honored. When we practice Cyphers, or community circles, the benefits are immense. I have seen the culture of a 100 person program change for the better in less than a month by creating the space and putting in the work to Cypher. The benefits of this practice include increased familiarity with people's stories, empathy building, idea sharing, harm repair, healing for the individual who is hurting, and compassion building. The additional value add for our Newcomer youth is that they get to practice their English in a low-risk environment.
Cyphers are used as a space to do intentional community building in the form of having a discussion on any topic. The Cypher is meant to serve as an emotionally safe place for each participant to say their piece without interruption or judgment. Youth have very few venues where they can speak their truth without interruption, let alone without judgment. Make sure that if chairs are used, then everyone must have a chair. If you are sitting on the floor, then everyone sits on the floor. Everyone should be able to see each other. Sitting in the circle diminishes hierarchy and overall power dynamics. Everyone is equal.
There has been mention of some intangible components of the Cypher such as the discussion, the shared values, and emotionally safe space. However, there are tangible components, too. They include: a centerpiece where youth may focus their attention; a talking piece that can be brought by the facilitator or made by the group; and something from nature (a plant, glass/bowl of water) to remind us that we are connected to the earth. I have seen youth bring a toy or a picture of their families to the circle as an offering to the group during the Cypher.
Cyphers are encouraged to happen at least once a week and many of our programs calendar them in so that youth know when they will occur. The values of the collective are held throughout the Cypher. I would encourage you to have youth share a value they bring to the first few Cyphers. People do not have to speak but are expected to hold the talking piece for 5-10 seconds before passing the talking piece. If there are people absent on the day of a Cypher, then a place is still held for them in the circle.
For those considering to integrate the practice they should:
The more often you practice having a Cypher, the easier it gets. Youth will come to expect it and for many of our youth in Oakland this is the only part of their day or week where they can speak freely. Honor each other’s voice and experiences.
Johanna Masis majored in Religious Studies at UC Santa Barbara and did her graduate work at Holy Names University in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL). She started her career as a high school teacher and later joined AmeriCorps. She taught abroad in Japan and has, since then, dedicated herself to promoting creative ways for youth to learn in different capacities. Johanna first joined Oakland Leaf in 2013 and is currently the Program Director. She completed the CalSAC LDI 360/365 fellowship in March 2016, and she has since been an advocate for the powerful, learning experiences and network opportunities the fellowship provided.
By Sam Piha
We know that bringing together young people and offering them the opportunity to have their individual voices heard in the larger community is an important practice. We are referring to “talking or sharing circles” - bringing youth together in a circle and asking each individual to speak while the rest of the group practices active listening.
In youth programs, these circle meetings are often called “sharing circles” or “community circles”. In the classroom, these are often called “morning meetings” (see video below). In our next blog post, Johanna Masis from Oakland Leaf will describe their circle practice called “Cyphers”.
There are many benefits of sharing circles that include:
1. Promoting social and emotional learning (self awareness, social awareness, group belonging, etc.)
2. Promoting a positive climate and learning environment.
3. Promoting emotional safety and youth voice (see California Quality Standards for Expanded Learning Programs).
4. Providing youth with the opportunity to express themselves and practice active listening.
TIPS FOR BEGINNING YOUR OWN “SHARING CIRCLE”:
1. Offer the circle leaders facilitation training to ensure that they are prepared to support their young participants and know how to handle difficult responses. These might be responses that are very sensitive, provoke difficult feelings of the other youth, or raise legal or ethical issues for the facilitator.
2. Decide the schedule and frequency of your circle time. Some programs do this everyday to open the group or once a week.
3. Establish group agreements that pertain to “circle time”. These group agreements can be created by the youth. The question is “what do you need to feel safe and supported when you are sharing?”
4. Discuss what is known as “active listening”. This is very important to promote a sense of safety and support for the group.
5. Select a “talking object”. This is an object that each speaker holds when they are sharing, and they pass to the next person, which signifies a new person is sharing. These objects are often things from nature like a beautiful feather or a piece of driftwood. Some programs have several objects in a basket and one youth is asked to choose the talking object for that day.
6. It is often recommended that the circle facilitator uses questions or prompts that young people can respond to. This can be very helpful for young people who are not accustomed or comfortable with sharing with others. Some programs have a jar of prompt questions which can be drawn by a young person for that day’s prompt.
Katie Brackenridge is the vice president for programs for the Partnership for Children and Youth (PCY) and a leading member of the Expanded Learning 360°/365 project. At PCY, she oversees initiatives to improve the quality of and access to after-school, summer and community schools efforts in California. She also makes recommendations and advises decision-makers about policies related to the expanded learning field.
Katie is very active in promoting social emotional learning in classroom, afterschool, and summer learning settings. Below are two articles that she has published around these issues.
Closing the Communication Gap Between School‑day and After‑school Teams
By Katie Brackenridge, originally published by Youth Today
As a 23-year-old after-school worker in Brooklyn, New York, my “teacher” role was deeply intertwined with the personalities and interests of my kids. I wanted to know everything about what sparked the interests of each child in my room — what was funny, irritating, intriguing, intimidating.
I weaved this knowledge into the content of units and lessons, adapting as quickly as possible when they let me know that the activities were boring, easy or stupid. I used my relationships to understand when kids weren’t doing what I hoped they’d do.
Rather than enforcing what might have seemed like arbitrary rules, I circled back constantly to talk about how the rules did or did not support their needs or the needs of the group to get work done or to have fun. These practices were instinctual as a young adult with energy and optimism about the intrinsic ability of every child, and these practices were embedded in the youth development trainings I received.
Unfortunately, when teachers at the school saw my class in action, they often had concerns: Why are the children lying on the floor? Who will clean up this mess? What’s all this noise? These interactions intimidated me because I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain what I was doing. I couldn’t affirm confidently that by creating a safe space, listening to students’ voices, offering authentic learning opportunities, I was helping them self-manage, be socially aware, have self-efficacy. In short, I couldn’t translate the youth development practices into school-day language.
Finding Time: Leveraging After School And Summer Programs’ Social And Emotional Expertise
By Katie Brackenridge, originally published by Transforming Education
Because they understand the importance of out-of-school activities, families with resources pay for classes, sports, and camps so their children continue to advance in the 80 percent of time they are not in school. They know the exposure, skills, and experiences are essential for their children’s academic, social and emotional development. In fact, over the last 40 years, upper-income parents have increased the amount they spend on their children’s enrichment activities, like tutoring and extracurricular programs, by 10 times the amount of their lower-income peers. Students from low-income families have increasingly less access to engaging activities, new experiences, and caring adults outside their families, and fewer opportunities to build social and emotional skills. This unequal access has contributed to a widening opportunity gap, with immediate consequences for academic achievement and long-term consequences for success in work and life.
Fortunately, there is a resource—though often overlooked—to address this opportunity gap. Free or low-cost expanded learning programs (that take place after school and in the summer) can offer an additional 690 hours (or 115 days) of learning time.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.