Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Sharing Circles: Cyphers

By Guest Blogger, Johanna Masis, Program Director at Oakland Leaf

Johanna Masis
At Oakland Leaf, all of our programs incorporate the practice of Cyphers. We believe in the power of people's stories and life experiences regardless of how many years they have been alive.  There is a collective wisdom that exists and needs to be honored. When we practice Cyphers, or community circles, the benefits are immense. I have seen the culture of a 100 person program change for the better in less than a month by creating the space and putting in the work to Cypher. The benefits of this practice include increased familiarity with people's stories, empathy building, idea sharing, harm repair, healing for the individual who is hurting, and compassion building. The additional value add for our Newcomer youth is that they get to practice their English in a low-risk environment. 

Cyphers are used as a space to do intentional community building in the form of having a discussion on any topic.  The Cypher is meant to serve as an emotionally safe place for each participant to say their piece without interruption or judgment. Youth have very few venues where they can speak their truth without interruption, let alone without judgment. Make sure that if chairs are used, then everyone must have a chair. If you are sitting on the floor, then everyone sits on the floor. Everyone should be able to see each other. Sitting in the circle diminishes hierarchy and overall power dynamics. Everyone is equal. 

There has been mention of some intangible components of the Cypher such as the discussion, the shared values, and emotionally safe space. However, there are tangible components, too. They include: a centerpiece where youth may focus their attention; a talking piece that can be brought by the facilitator or made by the group; and something from nature (a plant, glass/bowl of water) to remind us that we are connected to the earth. I have seen youth bring a toy or a picture of their families to the circle as an offering to the group during the Cypher.

Cyphers are encouraged to happen at least once a week and many of our programs calendar them in so that youth know when they will occur. The values of the collective are held throughout the Cypher. I would encourage you to have youth share a value they bring to the first few Cyphers.  People do not have to speak but are expected to hold the talking piece for 5-10 seconds before passing the talking piece.  If there are people absent on the day of a Cypher, then a place is still held for them in the circle.

Photo Credit: Oakland Leaf

For those considering to integrate the practice they should:

  1. Model and practice with the adults and/or youth that will facilitate. Do not assume adults are natural keepers of this space. Practice with each other in staff meetings to increase comfort levels.

  2. Be honest about your role as facilitator. Based on the reason for the Cypher, if the facilitator has been harmed or has done the harm then they should not facilitate. 

  3. Use Cyphers for different reasons not just to repair harm. You don’t want to “anchor” Cyphers as these intense conversations that make people cry.

  4. Allow time for each person to share at least twice during a Cypher. If the purpose is to plan, then you may be able to have multiple Cyphers to accomplish the task. However, if repair is needed then allow a realistic amount of time for that type of Cypher.

  5. Be prepared for the vibe to get deep. Youth will share extremely personal experiences. Be prepared to sit in that discomfort. Hold everyone accountable to the values if they veer from them because of that discomfort. Remember: it may not be intentional to break from values. Defense mechanisms manifest differently for people.

  6. As the facilitator, have discussion prompts and reflection questions prepared. Sometimes a Cypher can take its natural course and as a facilitator you do not want to lose the capacity to close up the circle. 

The more often you practice having a Cypher, the easier it gets. Youth will come to expect it and for many of our youth in Oakland this is the only part of their day or week where they can speak freely. Honor each other’s voice and experiences. 

Johanna Masis majored in Religious Studies at UC Santa Barbara and did her graduate work at Holy Names University in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL). She started her career as a high school teacher and later joined AmeriCorps. She taught abroad in Japan and has, since then, dedicated herself to promoting creative ways for youth to learn in different capacities. Johanna first joined Oakland Leaf in 2013 and is currently the Program Director. She completed the CalSAC LDI 360/365 fellowship in March 2016, and she has since been an advocate for the powerful, learning experiences and network opportunities the fellowship provided. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Power of Sharing Circles

By Sam Piha

We know that bringing together young people and offering them the opportunity to have their individual voices heard in the larger community is an important practice. We are referring to “talking or sharing circles” - bringing youth together in a circle and asking each individual to speak while the rest of the group practices active listening.

In youth programs, these circle meetings are often called “sharing circles” or “community circles”. In the classroom, these are often called “morning meetings” (see video below). In our next blog post, Johanna Masis from Oakland Leaf will describe their circle practice called “Cyphers”.

There are many benefits of sharing circles that include:

1.  Promoting social and emotional learning (self awareness, social awareness, group belonging, etc.) 

2. Promoting a positive climate and learning environment.

3. Promoting emotional safety and youth voice (see California Quality Standards for Expanded Learning Programs). 

4. Providing youth with the opportunity to express themselves and practice active listening. 

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1. Offer the circle leaders facilitation training to ensure that they are prepared to support their young participants and know how to handle difficult responses. These might be responses that are very sensitive, provoke difficult feelings of the other youth, or raise legal or ethical issues for the facilitator.

2. Decide the schedule and frequency of your circle time. Some programs do this everyday to open the group or once a week.

3. Establish group agreements that pertain to “circle time”. These group agreements can be created by the youth. The question is “what do you need to feel safe and supported when you are sharing?”

4. Discuss what is known as “active listening”. This is very important to promote a sense of safety and support for the group. 

Photo Credit: Teaching Restorative
Practices with Classroom Circles
5. Select a “talking object”. This is an object that each speaker holds when they are sharing, and they pass to the next person, which signifies a new person is sharing. These objects are often things from nature like a beautiful feather or a piece of driftwood. Some programs have several objects in a basket and one youth is asked to choose the talking object for that day. 

6. It is often recommended that the circle facilitator uses questions or prompts that young people can respond to. This can be very helpful for young people who are not accustomed or comfortable with sharing with others. Some programs have a jar of prompt questions which can be drawn by a young person for that day’s prompt. 


Thursday, May 3, 2018

Closing the Communication Gap and Finding Time

Katie Brackenridge
Katie Brackenridge is the vice president for programs for the Partnership for Children and Youth (PCY) and a leading member of the Expanded Learning 360°/365 project. At PCY, she oversees initiatives to improve the quality of and access to after-school, summer and community schools efforts in California. She also makes recommendations and advises decision-makers about policies related to the expanded learning field.

Katie is very active in promoting social emotional learning in classroom, afterschool, and summer learning settings. Below are two articles that she has published around these issues. 


Closing the Communication Gap Between School‑day and After‑school Teams

By Katie Brackenridge, originally published by Youth Today 

As a 23-year-old after-school worker in Brooklyn, New York, my “teacher” role was deeply intertwined with the personalities and interests of my kids. I wanted to know everything about what sparked the interests of each child in my room — what was funny, irritating, intriguing, intimidating.

I weaved this knowledge into the content of units and lessons, adapting as quickly as possible when they let me know that the activities were boring, easy or stupid. I used my relationships to understand when kids weren’t doing what I hoped they’d do.

Rather than enforcing what might have seemed like arbitrary rules, I circled back constantly to talk about how the rules did or did not support their needs or the needs of the group to get work done or to have fun. These practices were instinctual as a young adult with energy and optimism about the intrinsic ability of every child, and these practices were embedded in the youth development trainings I received.

Unfortunately, when teachers at the school saw my class in action, they often had concerns: Why are the children lying on the floor? Who will clean up this mess? What’s all this noise? These interactions intimidated me because I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain what I was doing. I couldn’t affirm confidently that by creating a safe space, listening to students’ voices, offering authentic learning opportunities, I was helping them self-manage, be socially aware, have self-efficacy. In short, I couldn’t translate the youth development practices into school-day language.



Photo Credit: Edutopia

Finding Time: Leveraging After School And Summer Programs’ Social And Emotional Expertise

By Katie Brackenridge, originally published by Transforming Education

Because they understand the importance of out-of-school activities, families with resources pay for classes, sports, and camps so their children continue to advance in the 80 percent of time they are not in school. They know the exposure, skills, and experiences are essential for their children’s academic, social and emotional development. In fact, over the last 40 years, upper-income parents have increased the amount they spend on their children’s enrichment activities, like tutoring and extracurricular programs, by 10 times the amount of their lower-income peers. Students from low-income families have increasingly less access to engaging activities, new experiences, and caring adults outside their families, and fewer opportunities to build social and emotional skills. This unequal access has contributed to a widening opportunity gap, with immediate consequences for academic achievement and long-term consequences for success in work and life.

Fortunately, there is a resource—though often overlooked—to address this opportunity gap. Free or low-cost expanded learning programs (that take place after school and in the summer) can offer an additional 690 hours (or 115 days) of learning time.


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

New Educational Trends and Terms

By Sam Piha

Sam Piha
In America, educational trends and thinking don’t evolve. Instead, they tend to swing like a pendulum or cycle back and forth. To see a good example, just look at the writings of John Dewey from the early 1900s. 

Regardless of these swings, it is important for afterschool leaders to keep up on “new” educational trends and related terms. Below are some new terms and their definitions, as well as some resource links to learn more. 

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Trauma-informed practice involves adults recognizing the high likelihood that some (or many) youth participants have or are currently experiencing trauma. Skillful adult mentors possess a basic understanding of how trauma can impact children’s behavior and development and they strive to organize a program that is sensitive to the vulnerabilities and triggers of trauma survivors. 

They focus on providing a safe, supportive environment to promote healing from trauma and healthy development so youth may not only survive, but also thrive. They orchestrate activities and form networks of care aimed at restoring a sense of belonging to young people, their families and communities. (Dr. Marnie Curry, UC Santa Cruz)

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Culturally Responsive Teaching is a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students' cultural references in all aspects of learning (Ladson-Billings,1994).

Some of the characteristics of culturally responsive teaching are:

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Restorative justice aims to shift the conversation away from how a punitive legal system can enact retribution on an offender and instead looks to help the offender make reparations to their community, usually through justice mediation, counseling, or even reparations. (Scott Johnson, Social Solutions)

Competency-based learning is a student-centered approach to instruction and assessment where students advance upon mastery of a set of skills and knowledge as they progress through their education. (AYPF, Forum for Thought Blog)

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Personalized Learning is student-centered education that involves a significant amount of student voice and choice. Personalized Learning can be broken down into five principles: competency-based learning, flexible learning, student-driven learning, dispositions for learning, and authentic learning. (Center for Collaborative Education)

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. (

Character education addresses many tough issues in education while developing a positive school climate. Educators from a diverse array of schools have transformed their school cultures, reduced discipline referrals, increased academic achievement for all learners, developed global citizens, and improved job satisfaction and retention among teachers.Character education includes and complements a broad range of educational approaches such as whole child education, service learning, social-emotional learning, and civic education. All share a commitment to helping young people become responsible, caring, and contributing citizens. (