Circle Time: A Reflection on Policy & Public Purpose

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Chris Thinnes

Don’t believe the hype, it’s a sequel
As an equal can I get this through to you?
…Don’t believe the hype.
Public Enemy

More talking, less yelling.
Peter Gow

Thomas Hobson writes regularly stunning blog posts that document both the learning of his preschool students, and his reflections as a preschool teacher. You should follow his blog right now — or, at the very least, his Twitter feed — if you haven’t already done so.

In a recent post Mr. Hobson explores his sense of the appropriate protocols for “circle time” in the preschool classroom: should all children be expected to join the circle, or not? Hobson explains:

The main idea of circle time is to convene the entire community on a daily basis, to set aside a time during which we check in with us, an opportunity to discuss those things that impact us all, with at least the potential of all ears listening and all voices heard. And until we’re ready for that, to at least get in the habit of coming together, accommodating one another, taking turns, and generally sharing time and space in a large group. I think of circle time (along with clean up time) as what stands at the heart of our little democratic society: this is when we discuss the things that matter to all of us like rules… projects… or other plans for our future. When voices are missing from these conversations, everyone loses… Circle time is ours.

We read this at a time that our country’s education policy is constructed by education researchers, consortia, and think tanks that seldom invite the voices of teachers or students into their circles, despite their protestations to the contrary. We read this at a time that financially dependent and ideologically invested ‘foundations’ have shaped the tone and tenor of a national conversation about education that creates and then preys on our anxieties about the future. We read this at a time when policy and pedagogy have been shaped by sloppy metaphors about ‘the market,’ and ‘data,’ and ‘grit,’ and when value is ‘measured’ in an explicitly competitive frame — between students, between teachers, and between schools — and driven by the unfettered pursuit of self-interest.

Hobson reminds us of what every preschool student in his class is learning:

It’s important, too, that kids know that this is their time, that they have a voice, that they have power, that they have the ability to shape the tone and direction of our time together. This is how all citizens should feel in a democracy.

I have been thinking, recently, about the definition of “public purpose” shared by former NAIS President Pat Bassett. He defined “public purpose” like this: “to make the waves that raise all boats.”

I can’t help but notice that he didn’t say “to make the waves that raise our boat,” and that he didn’t presume to say “to make the waves that raise other boats.” And he surely didn’t say “to make the waves that knock other boats over, if that’s what it takes to float upright.”

This reminds me of what John Dewey must have meant when he suggested that “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”

It seems to me — in the wake of several exchanges this week that leave me hopeful that such things might really be possible — that the wave that will raise all our boats is not the tide of competition — between our students, between our teachers, between our schools, or between our ‘sectors.’ I don’t know how to make the wave, but I’m sure it will involve a call to Circle Time.

Now’s not the time for ‘value added’ proposals; now’s the time to share goals. Now’s not the time for think tanks or speakers; we’ve all heard enough at this point. Now’s not the time for pithy thought leaders, but to honor the dreams in all kids’ eyes.

As Mr. Hobson sings to his children:

I’ve been waiting for you to come to this place.
I’ve been waiting for you to come to this place…
If you want to make a painting, I’ll paint with you.
If you want to build with blocks, I’ll build with you.
Wherever you’re from,
I’m glad that you’ve come.
I’ve been waiting…
for you… and you… and you.

It feels like time for “Circle Time.”

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You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes

  • Barbara Bomes

    Anything that can bring inclusiveness and respectful conversation BACK into our society is a good thing.