Inside the circle
News/North examines the use of now somewhat controversial 'sharing circles' at Mildred Hall school
Northern News Services
Mature for their 12-years of age, the girls talked about things their friends had done to cause them grief. The meeting is called a "sharing circle" - an almost daily occurrence for classes at Mildred Hall.
At the start of a sharing circle, students form into a circle while each takes a turn to say something.
Due to school confidentiality rules that forbid students from taking sharing circle discussions outside of the classroom, News/North has agreed not to disclose the contents of the girls' discussion.
Not all sharing circles deal with conflict. Some of the more common discussion items include, "What did you do on the weekend?" or "what are your plans for the rest of the week?"
Twelve-year-old Jessica Mason said one of the best things about sharing circles is that it gives one the opportunity to talk about oneself.
"It's like bragging," said Mason.
She enjoyed the last sharing circle because she got to announce to the class that her mother's birthday had passed.
Mildred Hall principal Yasemin Heyck said she first started using sharing circles while teaching in Lutsel K'e.
She took the idea with her after becoming principal of Mildred Hall four years ago, and has instructed staff to use them as well.
"A sharing circle is a part of aboriginal culture, it's a chance to share," said Heyck, who said that she regularly uses sharing circles with her staff as well.
"There's things going on in their personal life that you just don't know about."
While sharing circles deal with a number of benign subject matters, they also tread on touchy material time to time.
Two weeks ago, the mother of a 10-year-old Mildred Hall student was upset after she was told by his classmate that a sharing circle was employed to air the boy's bullying habits among the class.
An article appeared in Yellowknifer Nov. 22, where the mother complained that she wasn't consulted about the school's decision to bring her son's bullying problems into a classroom discussion.
Heyck said the purpose of that sharing circle was to gather information about the extent of the boy's bullying habits.
The student was excused from the class while the students were asked questions about his behaviour and how it affected them.
Heyck said she excluded the boy from the circle so that he wasn't exposed to his peers' criticisms.
He was then brought back into the room so that the children could express their grievances to him in a constructive manner.
"We invited him back into the circle and said things like, 'When you hit, I don't like it,'" said Heyck.
"We also talked about his strengths."
Regardless, Amanda Mallon, president of the Northwest Territories Teacher's Association, said sharing circles shouldn't become forums for students to complain about each other.
"It should not be a circle for an airing grate," said Mallon.
She added that their intended purpose should be clear, and "participants need to understand the purpose, and you need some follow-up."
Yellowknife Centre MLA Robert Hawkins, who accompanied the boy's mother while meeting with school authorities to find out why the school ordered a sharing circle to deal with her son, said while he supports their use in helping to resolve conflicts, he said parents should be informed when their children's behaviour is the main subject.
"As a parent, I would want to be in the loop a little more," said Hawkins.
After the Yellowknifer article appeared, Heyck gave parents an information flyer explaining sharing circle purposes and rules.
Some of the rules outlined in the flyer include: "No put downs" and "what's said in the circle stays in the circle."
Although students aren't suppose to talk about what's said inside the sharing circles, 13-year-old Keisha Albert noted that's not always the case.
"Kids sometimes make fun of you," she said.
"Kids will be kids," said Terry Brooks, school board chair of Yellowknife Education District No.1, on the downfalls of when one child gets singled out in a sharing circle.
"That's when the skills of the teacher comes in, and they need to focus on the behaviour, not the child," said Brookes.
Mike Huvenaars, superintendent of business for the city's other school authority - Yellowknife Catholic Schools - said that although he was familiar with sharing circles, he knew primarily of their use for team building rather than conflict resolution.
The mother of the 10-year-old boy who was singled-out for bullying, meanwhile, said her son is doing much better, although he didn't go to school for a week following his sharing circle experience.
She said she has since seen positive changes in her son's behaviour since the sharing circle.
"He has a friend who calls him up now to go and visit," she said.
She added that she also understands why the school would hold part of the sharing circle in his absence.
"I don't know if they would have said that stuff in front of him," she said.