The Talking Stick

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“The two main purposes of class meetings are to help each other and to solve problems,” Jane Nelson says. According to William Glasser, the American psychiatrist who developed Choice Theory, class meetings are a time when “the teacher leads the whole class in a non-judgmental discussion.” I read when my students one day when I was frustrated by all of the complaints my students had.

Among the guidelines were a list of dos and don’ts. For example, blame or put-downs were not allowed. These meetings were a place to solve problems, listen to the person speaking, and give each child a voice.

Just what my class needed.

The next day, I told my students to get in a circle and then showed them a wooden mallet I use for a singing bowl.

“Today we are going to have a class meeting. This is the talking stick,” I said, holding it up. “It is for taking turns. As we pass it around, each person will have a chance to share, but only the person holding it speaks; everyone is quiet and listening.”

The kids started to giggle. A few poked each other in the ribs. I expected this.

“I’ve noticed that lately some of you have had some issues with other kids in our class,” I said in quiet voice. “Many of you have come to me with problems and I set aside this time to work them out. But remember we are talking about feelings, not tattle or name call. If someone shares a concern with you, you have two choices. You either say, ‘Thank you for sharing,’ or apologize. No arguing is allowed.”

I looked around the circle and waited for focus. Many kids nodded and sat up straight, seeming to understand the solemnity of what was about to happen.

I then explained that wanted to create a better class community.  We would get to to know each other better, share joys and gratitude, and work out conflicts. “I’ll start with an example,” I said, I turning to one boy in my class, whose name is changed to ‘Cole’ for privacy.

“Cole, I feel upset about the choices you have made lately. You have thrown things,  and disturbed kids trying to work.”

Cole’s face blanched at first but then he lifted his gaze to meet mine and mumbled a sincere apology.

Recognizing how difficult that was for him, I congratulated him on his bravery  before passing the talking stick to the child on my left.  She could either share an “I feel” messages or pass. She chose to pass but I was surprised to find that many children were very open to sharing.

Over the next twenty minutes, students found their voice. Some faced those who had bullied them and said how much it hurt. Bullies apologized and thanked the speaker for sharing. Two girls, who had been arguing and talking behind each other’s backs, shared about how much they missed each other. A few acknowledged friends and thanked them for being there. Even a couple of my shyest students spoke up to say how they felt about name calling.

On the second pass around the circle I focused on problem solving having each child say; “I know we’ve had problems in the past but I’d like to__________.”  As they filled in the blanks, I was amazed that every single child said they’d like to be friends

At the end of the meeting, I thanked them all with the reminder that this was a special time for our class, not something to gossip about. They could share it with their parents but aside from that, what was said in a class meeting was private.

At the next gathering I was thrilled to discover how much better they’d been getting along. Those who had been gossiping were now sitting next to each other with their arms draped over each other’s shoulders. There wasn’t a single report of bullying.

Oh sure, there are still days when my students push it. But when things start to feel out of control, I gather everyone in a circle to remind them that they have a choice. They can continue letting the bullying and disruption continue, or they can use their words to effect change.

I have found that when children are given the right communication tools, they can rise to the occasion. I think one of my students put it best in a pen pal letter she wrote; “We used to have bullies in our class but now kids are being nice. We know we have the power to make peace.”

 

A teacher, Laurie Woodward is the author of  several novels including Forest Secrets, and the fantasy series The Artania ChroniclesShe also cowrote Dean and JoJoThe Dolphin Legacy and was a collaborator on the popular anti-bullying DVD Resolutions. Bullied as a child, Laurie is now an award-winning peace consultant and blogger who helps teach children how to avoid arguments, stop bullying, and maintain healthy friendships. She writes her novels on the Central Coast of California.

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