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South Glens Falls High School students participate in second annual “Day of Dialogue”

December 18, 2018

Students talk in circles during the high school's second annual Day of Dialogue.In early December, 51 South Glens Falls High School students and 19 staff members had a chance to sit down and talk. Their conversations weren’t just the typical high school banter, either. They talked about what they love about their school, what makes them feel safe and how to make the environment better.

As part of the second annual Day of Dialogue, students and staff leaders gathered off-campus at the nearby Pine Knolls Alliance Church community space, separated into small groups and talked in about the school culture throughout the day. The discussions were guided by the ideals of Restorative Practices. These practices include talking in small groups, talking pieces that allow for focus on the speaker, and making sure everyone has a chance to speak.

“The experiences of our students are of absolute importance to us as faculty, staff and administration. The purpose of the day was for students and staff to engage with each other in meaningful conversations about their lives and the issues most important to them,” said SGFHS Principal Pete Mody. He noted that this is the second time the school has held circles this school year. The first time was a 45-minute activity in October for the whole building. “In October, we focused on working together as students and adults to create a positive school climate. The Day of Dialogue was so again well received, we are looking to hold another one in March.”

Last May, a similar Day of Dialogue was held to discuss topics surrounding school climate. The idea of using circles as a means for discussion and conversation at the high school is rooted in restorative justice practices. Restorative justice is a process by which participants are asked to consider their actions and take steps to resolve issues and to make connections and communicate openly and honestly.

By bringing students together to talk in circles, the goal is to be proactive by working on relationships and ideas for improving the school and culture.

Students talk in circles during the second annual Day of Dialogue.“As high school students, the best thing we can do regarding school culture at first is try to understand it,” said SGFHS Student Government President Nicholas Brennan, who was a facilitator. “As these conversations develop, participants get a better idea of what school culture looks like and how to improve it. For participants, I feel that the most rewarding component is a feeling of acceptance. Quite often we forget that our peers face such similar problems as us, and we can feel alone in our struggles at times as a result. Circles provide that critical reminder that we really are all in this together and there is always someone to talk to when we have a problem.”

During this week’s activity, students and staff sat in circles in groups of six to eight people. South High students who have been trained as community building facilitators led the conversations. Student facilitators established ground rules for discussions and built trust among participants so they could open up and talk about their thoughts and feelings.

Some of the earlier rounds that day started with lighter topics as participants adjusted to the idea and the flow of circles in general before moving into deeper dive topics to talk about significant concerns, feelings and emotions regarding school and life. And that’s all part of the process, according to Mody, because establishing trust and sharing openly takes time.

“Simply giving our school the opportunity to talk and helping them understand how we structure these discussion builds the groundwork for future dialogue,” he said. “Having students serve as the facilitators also shows that these are conversations must focus on student voice and leadership if we want to move forward as a school.”

“To change a culture, you have to understand what drives it,” said Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum & Instruction Tim Dawkins. “We want to know what students are feeling, what they think about their school and what can be better. To do this work well, it takes time. And that’s okay. We are committed to the work of improving our school by empowering students to use their voice to speak up and lead.”

Students had an opportunity to discuss safety—emotional, physical and mental safety—at school; who they feel safe with at school and why. They talked about what a good school climate looks like, and they discussed student relationships with staff and faculty as well.

Students were also able to talk about school discipline, the biggest problems for high school students, alcohol and drug use among students, popularity and how both the faculty and the student body can help make changes to the school culture.

“Altogether, circles promote communication among all levels of the building, leading to a sense of unity shared by all: the very essence of Bulldog Pride,” Brennan said.

“I think the day was helpful to overall culture because it got a chance for me to see that I am not the only one going through the everyday struggles I go through, and that there are people who will listen to me,” said SGFHS student Vanessa LeBrun. “My concerns were definitely heard and I feel everyone got an equal opportunity to voice theirs.”

What’s next? New students will be trained as facilitators beginning in December, and the entire school will participate in circles in February to further the discussion.

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