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Civil Conversation Circles

In a world with a shortage of civil discourse, we have reduced talking to talking at people. There is a binary process where we say yes or no, turn on or off, incude or exclude people. This leads to thinking in limited ways about choices we face. In fact, I think we end up dependent on those we perceive to be in charge to make decisions on our behalf. This is happening in education as we try to figure out how to get students back in class. As I listen to politicians, educationalists, teachers, parents, etc., what impresses me is we have limited our choices to re-opening schools completly, often without adequate resources and human capacity. or some form of remote learning, as if these are the only two choices. Other choices e.g. home school seem to be excluded, understood as marginal.

Quite a few years, I introduced daily conversation circles. We used them to clarify from my perspective, Also, students shared what they wanted. At the beginning of the school year, each student introduced themselves. It seems small, but this often goes unattended in groups, regardless of where they exist. In my experience, each student, humans in general, want a voice in their learning and work; a voice often cancelled.

In our conversation circles, we used a ‘talking stick.’ The person with the ‘talking stick’ is the speaker and others listen. The ‘talking stick’ was a gift from a parent who was a member of a First Nation. It had some traditional meaning attached to its design. In an era of digital technologies, the talking stick reinforces a civilty of face-to-face conversation which we increasingly need in our world.

In our small school, parents played an integral role, including and not limited to meaningful teaching in the classroom, teaching complementary courses, teaching at home, etc. I shared about our small school in a post called Soul’s Choice, so won’t add more here. My experience and research suggests, after Kindergarten, parents and teachers are somehow on a different team. But, as one teacher proposed, “We share something; the love of a child.” In bringing children back together, we need to hear from two essential voices, often excluded from the conversation about teaching, parents and teachers.

The following is a poem that rattled around for a few days. It might be a bit rought around the edges, but I thought it needed to see the light of day.

Reducing to binary,

Simplifying choice–

0 or 1,

Silencing others.

Inserting ‘and’ in conversations,

Accepting ambiguity–

Listening with one’s heart,

(In)forming community.

Embracing each child,

Loving without conditions–

Parent and teacher raison d’être,

Centring our calling.


Sharing purpose–

Making whole,

Caring and healing together.

The picture is the talking stick, which I still have. The following is a short description of the symbolism of the talking stick. The wood is driftwood which came from a local lake and reflects nature’s contributions to conversation circles. Someone carved a bear head into the top of the stick. In some traditions, the bear symbolizes courage, freedom, and power. The feather is from a hawk. Hawks are visionary and guide the person. The coloured ribbons represent the four directions in the circle. The parent attached a medicine bag. The medicine bag heals, guides and protects, and has materials or objects of value to its carrier.


About ivonprefontaine

In keeping with bell hooks and Noam Chomsky, I consider myself a public and dissident intellectual. Part of my work is to move beyond (transcend) institutional dogmas that bind me to defend freedom, raising my voice to be heard on behalf of those who seek equity and justice in all their forms. I completed my PhD in Philosophy of Leadership Studies at Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA. My dissertation and research was how teachers experience becoming teachers and their role as leaders. I focus on leading, communicating, and innovating in organizations. This includes mindfuful servant-leadership, World Cafe events, Appreciative Inquiry, and expressing one's self through creativity. I offer retreats, workshops, and presentations that can be tailored to your organzations specific needs. I published peer reviewed articles about schools as learning organizations, currere as an ethical pursuit, and hope as an essential element of adult eductaion. I published three poems and am currently preparing my poetry to publish as an anthology of poetry. I present on mindful leadership, servant leadership, schools as learning organizations, how teachers experience becoming teachers, assessement, and critical thinking. I facilitate mindfulness, hospitality retreats. and World Cafe Events using Appreciative Inquiry. I am writing and researching about various forms of leadership, how teachers inform and form their identity as a particular teacher, schools as learning organizations, hope and its anticipatory relationship with the future, and hope as an essential element in learning.

14 responses »

  1. Reducing to binary…feels this way very much these days…listening is hard work. Wonderful post Ivon…thanks for your teachings. Smiles Hedy ☺️

  2. So true. All we have to do is listen to our senators during “hearings” where people are not even listening attentively. Some stand and leave the room. Some are simply rude thinking that by being loud and obnoxious they will get more people to listen. “It had some traditional meaning attached to its design. In an era of digital technologies, the talking stick reinforces a civility of face-to-face conversation which we increasingly need in our world.” Thanks for this post. I love your idea about the talking stick. I plan to teach this to the young children in my family. Be safe!

  3. Brilliant, your work. Everyone has something to offer, if they’re enabled to have a voice.
    Over the years, in my therapy practice, I’ve often introduced the idea of talking stick, or a talking stone, for groups and families. A safe zone, with no interruptions, and no judgement.
    It’s always worked, often with great success. ☼

  4. I do not have an heirloom talking stick, but have, instead, fashioned one within the ‘theme’ of any get together I’ve invited others to, in order to have those conversations & bridge gaps, over my adulthood – they WORK! Simply by introducing the concept of the talking stick AND a short intro on why I invited those folks to the ‘get together’ re; We share this….We all hope for this…. Let’s explore how to….

    That said, binary thinking in many systems we rely upon, including education is sometimes, (often?) our greatest vulnerability and threat to improvements –

    Kudos on this excellent post – this kind of thinking is needed on many fronts – not just education, but we each speak and introduce it to the areas/fronts it’s needed in that are within our ‘spheres of influence’ and through that work – in my heart, I see just the ‘introduction’ of such things reaching out to start bridging gaps and bringing various spheres into tandem to face the challenges of complex issues and bringing more viable options for many, to the table – 🙂

    • Thank you TamrahJo for the great comment.

      They do work. I found in junior high classrooms I had one or two students (boys usually) who struggled with the dialogue aspect.

      Yes, dialogue is needed in many areas. Juanita Brown developed World Cafe conversations and protocols for them and using appreciative inquiry alongside them works super well.

      • yes, there are kiddos who don’t always take to the dialogue perspective as we hope – usually because they haven’t had adults around them who demonstrate such things’ – thus, often, in my world, it’s the ‘error’ of the adults, rather than the kiddos (which is funny to me, as the past few years has had ‘ageism polarization’ growing on many fronts – and I ask, sometimes more aggressively than I should, “and if they don’t know/don’t practice/don’t get, whose fault is it? Did you or did you not always say ‘it takes a village to raise a child? But now you tell me their parents are just lame/lazy? Which is it?” — 😀 Bull in China shop am I – sometimes – – 🙂 Thanks for the share of site/name – put on my ‘to explore/reading’ list – ya know – you’re an educator – sometimes my High School education brain can’t keep up or grasp all that you share here and there – it’s too ‘academic, thesis ‘ style written – but your poetry and stories? Ahh yes, THOSE I get! 🙂 Until I get more educated…. Cheers! 😀

      • As I moved along in my career, I began to ask questions about “what causes this child/youth to act this way?” Often, meeting parents and listening to them gave me insight. For example, some students were allowed to act this way and be the centre of attention. Others came from abusive homes where they had no voice.

        I agree with you comment about “ageism.” Where will the wisdom come from?

        Take care and be well

      • My little motto is, if you want to know what is going on in a home, just observe the kids and the pets – 🙂 – That said, in the times and places where I interacted with children and teens, I always got a kick out of the parents who were overly worried about their kids ‘not behaving’ while at the public place, group or event – The young ones that were always such a joy to be around, a blessing in the space and so helpful and collaborative with others, were the ones whose parents would say, “Now if they get out of line, you call us – ” and I would say, “I’ve never seen that from them, so don’t expect to get a call” and they laugh and say, “Oh, you don’t know! They are really kicking into the ‘terrible twos’ or the ‘no I’m an individual threes’ or the tween/teen transformation – ” and I always figured, well, they act out at home, rebel there and question your authority because they feel safe to do so – they get it out of their system there and are perfect little angels here – :). As a parent, it was my greatest wish to raise kids who didn’t blindly follow whatever some in authority said, if their gut or brain was telling them different – first for their safety when they were small and not physically strong, and later, because I wanted them to be good citizens, to think, to not just ‘follow the crowd’ off the cliff – – my ex really despaired their ‘backtalk’ – for me? I had to call them on ‘being respectful while disagreeing’ a few times and yes, we had our moments, usually when I was overwhelmed with a lot of stressful events in other areas of life, but overall, I always thought, they only learn to question authority, question the status quo, become brave enough to ask, “Is this really the best ‘we’ can do, right now?” if they had plenty of practice with those they knew loved them – – safe sparring partner, if you will, to build the skills needed when they went out into the world of strangers and not-so-trustworthy others – 🙂

      • The school I taught in was embedded in a larger school and our students accessed complementary courses and Phys Ed in the larger setting. Over the years, several teachers commented on what a joy it was to have our students in their classes. They sang without any reserve in choir and asked what they could help carry in at the end of Phys Ed.

        As teachers, we visited our students at home to assist with their learning and got to know the families. It was interesting how helpful those same students were at home.

        When I taught other students who misbehaved. I wondered what was going on in their lives and began to ask. That is a question that does not get asked. The result was affirming for me. Students responded in positive ways as best they could for me. It was still challenging as some of those students had little to no parental care at home, compared to my Stony Creek students.

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