Westwood teachers employ the practice of Council to develop listening skills and empathy and to give students and their families an opportunity to connect in the school community.
The Council program encourages deep and honest communication. Based on indigenous, worldwide cultural practices, including Native American traditions, as well as contemporary organizational management practices, Council is a formal, structured process of sitting in a circle and passing a talking piece to address a prompt from a trained teacher-facilitator.
At Westwood, we teach students the “Four Intentions” of Council – to speak from the heart, to listen from the heart without judgment, to speak spontaneously without planning, and to “keep it lean” so everyone has time with the talking piece.
Council is a non-hierarchical forum for discussion. Instead of standing at the board delivering instruction, teachers sit with students in the circle. This allows participants to hear each other in a way that is sorely lacking in the traditional school and classroom culture.
Each individual teacher or team determines how to best use Council in his or her classroom.
Why use Council?
Developing expressive, compassionate, listening skills, Council is the best tool we have found to help children appreciate the diverse backgrounds, experiences, and opinions of their classmates. Regular use of Council promotes a classroom culture where children learn to connect meaningfully with their peers and with adults.
Being “in Council” helps students develop attention, concentration, and listening skills; to express themselves fully and appropriately; and to “suspend” preconceptions.
Participating in Council has the same benefits for adults in a school community – at staff, committee, teacher/parent, or community meetings. Teachers at Westwood agree that governing the school using Council as a tool helps us model the adult behaviors we wish to encourage in students.
Council allows participants to practice listening without thinking about a response or a right answer, so that we can be better listeners during math class, at the supermarket checkout, or with our families. It’s a welcome break from the typical teacher-led classroom discussion where the teacher talks a lot, and a few children respond.
Many children speak about Council as one of the most important things that happen at school, because they feel that their peers and teachers are really listening to them. That’s something we need more of at school and everywhere.
Foundational Skills for Literacy
Council also provides students with experiences that underlie basic literacy. In Council, students learn that their experience matters, that they have stories to tell. They also learn that their peers — and their teachers — all have valuable and diverse life experiences from which we can all learn. Council focuses on the speaking and listening standards in the Language Arts curriculum (although it is useful as a meaning-making process in other disciplines as well).
When students learn that they have a voice, that they have something of value to say, and that when they express themselves from the heart and with care for the listeners, this elicits their desire to express themselves in writing. When students listen from the heart to the stories of others, and find that they are touched and informed, they will be more likely to transfer this deep listening to their reading, and so more fully comprehend meaning in text
Does LAUSD endorse Council?
LAUSD recognizes the value of council at schools as a community building, character development program; as a conflict resolution program; as a powerful tool for delivering curriculum; and as a vehicle for developing speaking and listening skills, elements of the District’s literacy program. The District offers salary point classes to teachers on using council in classrooms.
In August of 2006, the LAUSD established the Council Practitioners Center (CPC). The CPC trains teachers, counselors, and administrators throughout LAUSD. For the 2007-2008 school year, Westwood was chosen to become one of five new Council pilot schools.
The CPC continues to support Westwood by providing the following:
- Experienced council mentors to all teachers new to Council
- Professional developments linking council to state learning standards in all academic disciplines
- Staff councils
- Parent presentations and parent council facilitation
- At the end of the year, a curriculum book based on actual Westwood council sessions from each class
- An independent evaluation of the program conducted by WestEd
Why use bells & centerpieces?
Although effective councils can certainly be held anywhere or anytime two or more people agree to speak honestly to each other, a formal classroom council involves some ritual elements to help children separate the time that they are “in council,” and the specific listening and speaking intentions that entails, with the rest of the school day.
Creating a beautiful centerpiece with a cloth, flowers, items from nature, or talking pieces children have collected helps give the circle a center and a place where students can focus attention when not looking at a speaker. Students love to help move furniture or set the room up for a council session. Ringing a bell or gong and listening until the last sound waves stop resonating brings a welcome separation from the noise and activity of classroom life, and reinforces the idea that silence can be valuable. We speak of creating a “container,” a safe space respected by everyone, in which students are free to speak openly or to spend the time they need to express themselves completely.
The talking piece is a tool that signals whose turn it is to speak and when that person is finished. Following the talking piece helps students develop attention and concentration. Holding the talking piece encourages students to take their time, check in with themselves, and see what they might have to contribute. Councils also usually end with some kind of signal–a holding of hands, a simultaneous handclap, a song–a way of acknowledging that our council time is coming to a close.
What happens in Council?
Developing social skills and supporting curriculum
Of course, the nature of a council session might vary according to the ages of the students, the character of the group, or any issues that may have arisen on the yard, in class, or elsewhere.
A typical recent council session in the second grade began with everyone sharing a story about a time when they had fun. On another day, students took a silent walk around the campus and then told the varied stories of their journeys.
At other times, fourth grade students might pass the talking piece to share stories about their favorite place at home in order to develop ideas that they will then write as a memoir, or “personal narrative” piece.
Third grade students might be invited to share how they felt about a handball conflict on the yard involving many students. In a recent council dedicated to exploring a conflict, one student got the talking piece early in the circle, and she shared a story about a time years ago when she had been mean to another girl, and how badly she feels about it now.
Other students shared how badly they felt about being in disagreements with their friends. One student got the piece and shared that after listening to his classmates, he realized that his enthusiasm for handball led him to be more aggressive than other students liked, and he apologized to everyone.
At the other end of the spectrum, council activities are linked directly to curriculum in each of the academic disciplines. Councils are used to explore themes in literature, personal connections with historical events in social studies, experiences in scientific observations, reflections on physical activities, and study skills such as time management, prioritizing, and intention setting. Council is also used for pre-reading and pre-writing activities as well as to review information and to check for understanding. Councils can involve games, drums, art, singing, even tossing beanbags–anything that involves developing student awareness within a group dynamic.
How are teachers trained?
Many teachers at Westwood had already used some form of circle share or talking piece format. A number of Westwood teachers took the LAUSD training several years ago and began using it in their classrooms. Our belief in the importance of having a school-wide communication tool led us to request that the LAUSD Council Practitioners Center (CPC) provide training for the whole staff. This training occurred in August 2007 and involved staff members in many personal experiences of the various forms of council as well as protocols for council facilitation and linking council to the curriculum. Subsequently, all teachers who are new to Westwood have been trained and mentored in the practice of Council.
Each year, several of our teachers will have mentors. Each mentor is an experienced public school council facilitator, many of whom worked in the council projects at the Open Charter Magnet, at Palms Middle School and elsewhere. These mentors work directly with our teachers in the classroom for 10 weeks, providing assistance with planning and debriefing the sessions as well as demonstrations. In addition, mentors are available for “refresher” sessions for teachers who have already been trained.
Is Council confidential?
Children are encouraged to share council topics at home. Some teachers are hearing stories of children teaching council practice to their parents so that they can use this tool at home, too. We hope that these discussions will continue to develop communication between home and school.
However, personal experiences shared by class members are private. Part of listening with respect is also honoring that privacy, and not repeating others’ stories outside of the council circle. We tell the students that it is fine to tell people outside the council what the topic was and what you had to say, but it is not okay to tell another person’s story.
How can parents get involved?
The first is to consider becoming a “community participant.” The CPC defines this involvement as adults in the community (parents, caregivers, grandparents, local business owners, etc.) who commit to regular attendance at the scheduled student councils. They provide a “listening presence,” showing our students that when they speak the elders will listen. These community participants, in effect, model good listening for our students. These adults are also trained by CPC staff to tell age-appropriate, “facilitating” stories that create the possibility for students to tell their own.
Who can I contact for more information?
Contact members of the Westwood Council Leadership Team:
Diana Greenstein (Site Coordinator)