by Tanya Franklin
Tanya Franklin is UCLA School of Law’s inaugural Education Law Public Service Fellow at MHAS.

As part of my work with Restorative Justice (RJ), I have the great fortune of working closely with the RJ Coordinators at three schools. Gilbert Salazar is the RJ Coordinator at Markham Middle School and today he shares with us his perspective on sitting in circle.


Being in Circle is a Process

I can sometimes have a hard time sitting with a group of people, listening to each person respond to a question and then waiting to receive an object that will signal my turn to talk.  The odd part about this is that as the Restorative Justice Coordinator of Markham Middle School, I can spend large portions of my day sitting in a circle doing just this.  Being in circle is a process.

Being in circle is a process of listening – pure listening.  This is a hard task for many adults and so when I see twenty to thirty students seated in chairs facing each other in a circular design, I know that what I am expecting of them can be challenging.  I take the process step by step with them, discussing the first two of six circle agreements.

Restorative Justice Circle Agreement #1 – Respect the Talking Piece

“Respecting the talking piece means when I have the talking piece I talk, I can share, I can respond to the question, but when I don’t have it,” (at this point I ask the student next to me to hold out his or her hand in an open palm) “I can’t.”  Now I’ve placed the talking piece in student’s hand and I shrug my shoulders and mimic a frustrated silence.  I take the talking piece again, “But when I get it again, then I can talk.”

With middle school students at the possible apex of burgeoning adolescence, with students with developmental, social, behavioral, cognitive, and other challenges, and/or with a community that have experienced the struggles and hardships of daily or historic trauma, the voice of these collective populations can shout a clear question of – “You expect me to do what!?”

Thus far, the best talking piece came one day after two periods of using a HOMIE figurine when a teacher asked if we could use something other than what I had brought. “Of course,” I reply.  She immediately goes to the wooden anatomy model and says, “Since we’re talking about speaking from the heart…” and she removes the heart from the model.  For the rest of the day, we passed a heart as we engaged in circle.

Restorative Justice Circle Agreement #2- Speak from the Heart

“What does ‘speaking from the heart’ mean to you? Imagine an alien came down to us today and asked this question.  If the alien has no idea what this means, what would you say? I’m going to stand up and raise my hand above each of you. Imagine this creates an imaginary wave.  Once the wave reaches you – once my hand is over you – you’re invited to shout out your answers.” The wave begins: “speak kindness, be fair, don’t hate, truth, be honest, don’t lie, use your words, be real, trust, be truthful, be respectful, don’t use bad words, don’t be mean, kind, honesty, real, love.”

After a full day of being in circles with students, I visited a friend I hadn’t seen in a long while. I later observed myself fully taking in what she was saying.  I found myself immersed in what she was telling me. The more time I spent in circle with middle school students, at a school often marked with negative reputations of its students and community both from within and outside Watts, the more I feel I am being taught how to respect a talking piece, how to speak from my heart and ultimately, how to listen… how to really listen.

Thank you, Gilbert, for working with our scholars at Markham Middle School.  The work you lead is both crucial and beautiful.