Circle Up

By Kevin Hunter
“Circle Up”. If I have said these two words once I have said them a thousand times. If it were up to me these two words would be said at least once each day in every classroom across the country. As a teacher, counselor, administrator, presenter, and facilitator I have used these words repeatedly over the years with groups from ages 6 to 60. As an adult educator, I don’t know that there is a more powerful tool I can share that can impact both recruitment and retention. Let me explain.

When adult learners make the decision to re-enter the world of education, there is a great deal of apprehension. By quickly forming a circle with new learners you are sending a clear message that everyone is equally valued. Such an introduction of staff and other learners is quite different than any previous learning environment they’ve experienced, which is probably a good thing. The message being, we do things different in adult ed.

In addition to allowing people to introduce themselves and begin to put a face with a name, the initial “circle up” with new groups should always focus on the reason for participating. I usually ask this pretty bluntly, “Why are you here?” Not only does this cause each person to reflect, but they also find out why everyone else is participating. This usually allows them to understand that they are not alone, common goals are shared, and they begin to make connections and feel safe — which is a must for our brains to function at capacity.

Once groups are formed, I like to use “circle ups” just prior to a short break. A former mentor of mine used to say, “The mind can only absorb what the seat can endure.” He would be proud to know that scientific brain research supports this old adage. So for those of you who see no benefit in taking a break from learning, or think it is a waste of time, I’d like for you to reconsider.

I witnessed first hand the impact on student attendance and performance when ACE Academy in Dale, Indiana combined our ABE classes with ESL classes for a big “Circle Up” time. It was amazing how walls of diversity came tumbling down and people who had barely spoken to one another began to interact and look forward to that social time. With such a large group, nearly forty learners, the activity took an extra five minutes. Yet, our average number of instructional hours per person and the percentage of gains from post test increased to our highest levels.

Still don’t believe me? Suit yourself. But think about giving “Circle Ups” a try. If you’re not sure how to do it, let me remove that barrier. Here is a link to instructions and activities that I developed over time. Some of the circle up prompts may have been contributed by two of my colleagues, Sindy Harris and Mary Balbach, but since I compiled them I am taking full credit. Unless you find a prompt that is not politically correct, then I’d say it was probably written by Mary. 🙂

So say those two magic words, “Circle Up” and see how a group of individuals can be transformed into a team of learners.