Those Circle Things

Those Circle Things - First Civilizations

Sometimes it’s the simplest ideas that end up being the most useful.

If you’ve ever led a workshop or presented at a conference, or even prepared something for in-district PD, you’ve probably had this basic experience:

You devote yourself to coming up with a useful topic, constantly rearranging to find just the right balance of explanation, supporting visuals, engaging examples, small group interaction, etc. For me, it can mean hours just trying to find the right clip art (I’m not proud of this) or pithy video to insert, or making sure I have a sample historical or literary text that’s accessible to a diverse audience but somehow fresh and engaging at the same time. You may even buy supplies, practice your audio-visual timing, or otherwise go above and beyond trying to make the experience useful and meaningful for participants (but not as part of your desperate bid for validation in a cold, meaningless universe, because I’m way more secure than that, I swear).

In short, preparing for an effective and engaging six-hour training can take days – sometimes weeks. Especially if you’re creating it from scratch.

You go. You share. You engage. You sweat. You even pray a little along the way. As you’re wrapping up, you open the floor for questions, hoping perhaps a few of the teachers who’ve been playing along more or less politely might have something insightful to ask, or maybe even (fingers crossed!) positive to say. Yes! Yes! Hands go up! You prepare yourself to elaborate on the pedagogical principles or insights into effective application of the activities or…

“That video clip you showed at lunch, from Jimmy Kimmel – is that on the flash drive you said we’d get?”

It’s essential you exhibit no outward signs of your soul shriveling and dissolving into dust at that exact moment. Um… yes, yes it is. Anyone else? OK – this lady looks academic. Let’s see what…

“So, did you download that somehow? YouTube is blocked at my school.”

You get the idea. Whatever you actually poured your heart and soul into, you never really know what’s going to matter to others or resonate with your participants. To survive, you have to be OK with this. I’ve learned to embrace it. Sometimes the really good stuff just isn’t that complicated. Quite often, it’s not even mine.

Several years ago I co-presented a workshop with an amazing woman named Ayn Grubb. Now, I pride myself on getting along with other consultants or trainers or whatever they happen to be called that week, but I’m sure it won’t surprise you to learn that there are really only a handful I genuinely admire and for whom I maintain an irrepressible teacher-crush. Ayn is one of that handful. Her style is quite different than mine, but she works a room of educators like Yo-Yo Ma works a bow or a hibachi chef works a seafood combo for eight.

At one point, she went up to the white board at the front of the room and drew the simplest little thing – a circle divided into four quadrants. In each quadrant, she wrote a single word. (I don’t even remember what the topic was; I was too busy having a life-changing experience.) She asked us which one didn’t belong and why, then gave us time to discuss.

That was my “did you download that funny video for us?” moment. I immediately stole the idea and never looked back. I have no idea if she lifted it from somewhere else or came up with it herself. I’m sure it would never occur to her to take credit either way. And, to be fair, the underlying idea does sorta go way back…

Sesame Street: One of These Things Sorting Song with Animals

I started using variations of what I’ve come to simply think of as “Those Circle Things” in workshops, in class, and sometimes just to annoy friends at parties. They make great bellringers, discussion-starters, and I’ve even used them as informal assessments.

They’re also pretty easy to use with Google Slides or Pear Deck or whatever technological platform makes you tingle, and work equally well for synchronous or asynchronous discussion. They're especially useful when you need ideas for "e-learning" on snow days, or when you’re huddled at home hiding from the coronavirus and wondering if you’ll have to throw out the bottled water and granola bars you left in your desk three months ago when you assumed we’d be back in a few weeks and god I need a haircut.

Whatever the context, I always begin with something non-threatening and not content-based. Since I’m a sucker for superheroes, here’s one I use regularly:

Those Circle Things - Superheroes
What do these four things have in common? Which one doesn’t fit, and why?

The first few times I use something like this, whether with students or teachers, we’re establishing norms or procedures or classroom dynamics – whatever you call it in your world. See, we don’t actually CARE about these four characters, at least academically. What we care about is the process and the approach.

At the risk of preaching to the pedagogical choir, I’ll be annoyingly specific about what I mean.

  • We’re learning a new skill with non-threatening content (and usually learn new content with familiar skills).
  • The first few slides shouldn’t require much in the way of specialized content knowledge in order to participate. Anyone can come up with a few things even if they’re not particularly deep. This should be encouraged.
  • As it becomes clear that some of us know more about the topic than others, this should be celebrated. It demonstrates that we all have different backgrounds and bring different insights to the discussion. If I know more about Luke Cage than you do, that’s not because I’m “smart” or you’re “stupid.” One's depth of knowledge regarding Luke Cage is not actually how we evaluate one’s usefulness or potential as a human being these days.
  • Along those same lines, it’s better to be “wrong” than to be afraid. For example, if someone were to suggest that three of the characters have superpowers and one (Agent Carter) doesn’t, others might disagree and argue that Green Arrow is really just a guy with money and toys who exercises. As a result of this discussion, however, we may end up exploring how we’re using terms like “super” or “hero” or “abilities” in useful, enlightening ways. If the person who was “wrong” about Green Arrow hadn’t floated his or her idea to begin with, we might never have gotten there, and that would be sad.
  • As with many classroom discussions, it’s important to find ways to be inclusive. The most basic is to encourage students or participants to ponder each slide in small groups for a few minutes before we talk about them as a whole. This allows individuals to bounce ideas off of one another, resolve minor errors, and learn from one another before “speaking up” and taking what often feels like a greater risk before the entire group.
  • When we’re learning a new skill or procedure, the process is more important than the content. We're modeling academic courtesy and discussion, learning to take risks with information about which we may be uncertain, and practicing the sort of listening to one another and civil disagreement which is often essential for real learning to occur.

Let’s try another one. Keep in mind we want to discuss ways they’re all the same as well as identify which one doesn’t fit, and why:

Those Circle Things - Dystopian YA
You probably figured out pretty quickly that there’s usually more than one solution to which one doesn’t fit and why. These aren’t multiple choice questions with one objectively “correct” answer. It’s the process of examining each item in comparison with the others that forces us to review what we already know, reinforces the information we use to argue whatever point we choose to make as a result, stretches our understanding of each item a bit, and lays the groundwork for actual analysis and argument should we eventually go there.

It’s a critical thinking thing. It just doesn’t look like it right away because… Twilight.

Once the idea is established, these can be used in endless iterations depending on your needs and goals and the depth of knowledge expected of your students. If part of my goal is academic reinforcement or informal assessment, then eventually these "circle things” will require students to have specific content knowledge in order to discuss them usefully. The process will be about strengthening, stretching, and connecting knowledge rather than the skill alone.

It bears repeating that generally we practice new skills with non-threatening content, then learn new content with familiar skills. Eventually, they reinforce and improve one another – or so the theory goes.

I’m tempted to continue sharing my thinking on various applications for “those circle things” and how I choose to manage those small group or full-class discussions or individual written responses, but I suppose that would be missing the point. Instead, I’ll simply leave you with a few more of my favorites in recent years. Some are a bit more complex than others, which is a function of the activity’s purpose at the moment and the level of the students for which each was created. There are also a few for which the visuals are unrelated to the text, an inconsistency I may one day rectify but which at the moment merely requires a bit of clarification each time. I have no doubt you'll figure out which is which.

Those Circle Things - Presidents

Those Circle Things - Texas Revolution

Those Circle Things - Numbers

Those Circle Things - Conquering


Those Circle Things - Amendments

Those Circle Things - Continents

Those Circle Things - Speeches

Those Circle Things - Trade Routes

Those Circle Things - Steps Forward

Those Circle Things - Black Spokesmen

Those Circle Things - Ethical Systems

Those Circle Things - Progressive Eras

Those Circle Things - Inventions

Those Circle Things - Russians

Those Circle Things - Early Elections

Those Circle Things - Elections

Those Circle Things - American Woman

Those Circle Things - Legal Codes

Those Circle Things - Chinese Dynasties

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I guess I changed your life!

This is a great read! So awesome to see your style...and know that you’re still in there, Mr Koehn! I looked away for a moment and you turned prolific. I’m glad for all of the times we presented together and look forward to reading about all the other great ideas you stole from me!

Seriously, though, I love what you’re doing here.


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