Community Learning Exchange

Breaking Isolation Through Talking Circles

After being a pastor for 10 years, Mike Townsend left the ministry and dove into education — a place he never thought he’d be — and fell deeply in love with asset-mapping and community building.

 

Mike is firm in his belief that the classroom is a place to make a positive impact, “If I’m going to change the community, the classroom has to be the front line.”

 

For Mike, the classroom was the perfect place to empower students to have agency in their education.

 

Bringing CLE Concepts to the Classroom

Mike was first introduced to the CLE through Dr. Chris Janson at the University of North Florida in a counseling course that incorporated talking circles. That led Mike and his wife to take part in a local CLE gathering, where they found the experience, especially talking circles, very reconciling, both with one another and events of the past.

 

Talking circles are still new to Mike, but he didn’t miss a beat in incorporating them into his classroom, a method that was only reinforced during his time at the Jacksonville CLE.

 

Using the Question Formulation Technique in which students are encouraged to create, improve and strategize with their own questions in tandem with talking circles allows students to drive their curriculum.

 

“Everyone wants to be student-centered, but they don’t really know how. I think circles are the way to do it.” Mike emphasized, seeing first-hand the impact of these strategies in the classroom.

 

The Power in Talking Circles

“‘Man, I thought I was the only one,’” Mike quoted, something he’s heard from more than one student who has participated in talking circles in his class, “I love that takeaway.”

 

Talking circles build community and create solidarity between students that didn’t exist before, diminishing feelings of isolation and creating stronger social bonds on top of effectively giving students a voice in their education.

 

“It’s interesting because students are so used to that banking method of teaching,” explained Mike, “Talking circles throws them off! A lot of kids were on guard thinking it was [about] their deepest darkest secrets until they realized it was as much about me learning from them as them from me.”

 

Moral Courage in Tackling Tough Issues

The local CLE that Mike attended ultimately led to his participation in the national Jacksonville CLE in October 2014. Around the topic of moral courage, Mike came to the realization that he has to keep taking risks, not only in how he teaches his students, but in what is taught.

 

“I have to be courageous to talk about code shifting, systemic racism, economic ceilings for sexes, sexualities and races. None of that stuff is supposed to be talked about. We’re supposed to be so neutral as teachers, but I still need to do it because it’s what’s right. No matter what happens, I’ll know I did right by my students.”

—Mike Townsend

 

Coming Out of Isolation

For Mike, the most powerful moments at the Jacksonville CLE were small. He noted that the informal moments were where he found himself impacted, “A lot of times, you feel isolated. When you talk to your coworkers, they’re like ‘that’s weird or crazy’ and those informal conversations were so refreshing and a reminder that I wasn’t alone.”

 

It was in the car rides and on the day spent at the beach during the Jacksonville CLE where Mike felt most connected. Everyone was there, enjoying the sun and surf and the company of people from all over the country, sharing memories and building relationships.

 

Through the CLE and the use of talking circles, Mike found not only reconciliation and personal healing, but definitive reminders that he is not alone. That same realization — that they have a voice that matters and that they don’t have to exist in isolation — now comes to the students in his classroom.



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