Study Circle participants converse, connect

Abby Kee

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Photo by Rutajit Shetty

Students and teachers sit in a circle in the Student Commons for Study Circles as admin Nicole Morgan speaks. Over 40 students and staff participated in the October two-day retreat.

Students participate in partner discussion during Study Circles. Left to right: junior Suryan Plenz, sophomore Erin Dobbs, senior Sebastian Beltran Gomez and English teacher Janelle Ryan. (Photo by Rutajit Shetty)

Coordinated by AP Psychology teacher and Head of Staff Development Melanie Schwed and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion teacher Alison Hoefling, Study Circles returned to WJ on Oct. 10 and 11 to foster conversation and dialogue between students, staff and facilitators.
MCPS conducts Study Circles for staff and students to have a safe and welcoming place at schools to voice their opinions about controversies on both school and worldwide topics. Throughout the two-day retreat, around 40 staff and students gathered together in the Student Commons and discussed a wide variety of topics such as systemic racism, stereotypes and student engagement. Another emphasized part of the circle was differentiating between debate and dialogue.
“The moment when they highlighted the difference between debate and dialogue, it really hit home for me. I really thought to myself this is why we’re here, like to really understand each other, not necessarily to agree on these topics. The goal is to understand where other people are coming from,” English teacher Janelle Ryan said.
During the planning of WJ’s first Study Circle this year, Schwed and Hoefling collaborated closely with other facilitators at Montgomery County’s central office Equity Initiatives Unit to ensure the agenda was ready to go, as well as organizing staff and students to be involved. Their efforts paid off as staff and students were able to bounce ideas off of one another about how to improve WJ.
“I think it went great. There were a lot of really good conversations. A lot of issues or systemic problems that are at WJ were discussed, which is great, and a lot of solutions were brainstormed,” Schwed said.
After participating in Study Circles, students and staff feel that they understand the importance and impact of why WJ holds these programs.
“I found it’s so important and so enlightening to hear the perspectives of both students and teachers on sensitive topics,” Ryan said.
Students felt similarly to teachers about Study Circles
“[They] create a space where students and teachers can be honest with each other about how to make WJ better,” participant senior Sydney Akpebu said.
During Study Circles, students and staff had the opportunity to share their experiences and get placed in the shoes of their peers on what it’s like for them at WJ.
“I think baseline it creates empathy for students and for staff to be more understanding about other people’s experiences. You might not know what it’s like to be a student of a different identity at your school or a staff member,” Schwed said.
Many students and teachers who participated for the first time were moved by the eye-opening experience.
“I think it was a really cool experience. I had never done it before, I had only heard about it. It was really good to hear everyone else’s perspectives on diversity in the school and things we can do to help,” junior Neena Tavik said.
WJ plans to hold three more Study Circle sessions this year.
“My goal is to have all staff members here involved in the next couple years. I want as many students who want to be there to be involved, and I want to continue to incorporate the student voice data in our school improvement plan and our professional development,” Schwed said.