An Excellent Medium: Equity in a Circle

Todd Bartholomay

by Todd Bartholomay

For Middle Level

In the Developmental Designs approach, we see the circle as an ideal architecture for much teaching and learning. But that isn't all: I have come to think of it as a medium for equity.

In the mid-twentieth century, Marshall McLuhan arrestingly declared that "the medium is the message"-that is, the way information is communicated is at least as important as the information itself. He used the light bulb as an example of a medium that has a social effect: it enables us to use the hours of night as never before. In Understanding Media, he wrote, "A light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence." And so it is with the circle: students experience and learn equity just by assembling in it-it is equity; it does equity!

Think about that moment before the Circle of Power and Respect meeting has begun: everyone circled together, seeing, maybe feeling each other's presence, all equidistant from the center, everyone in, no one out. The shy kid and the one who tends to dominate are equal. The kids from privilege and those from poverty, too, are equal. All are equally accountable to each other. As the teacher joins the circle, she, too, is a learner, a partner in the great process of education.

The circle experience stands in sharp contrast to what most students have for the rest of the school day: rows or table groupings that facilitate independent or small-group agendas focused on learning targets. In the circle, everyone experiences the dimensions of our humanity, cultures, and personalities that powerfully enhance or inhibit academic success.

Equity is the essence of the circle (note its invariable and relentless symmetry). It symbolically and literally brings the individual parts of our classroom (students and teacher) into a whole, balancing our individual agendas with a shared one aimed at our common good.

The circle contains all other configurations within it: today I share with two peers across the circle; tomorrow I am a teammate with three others. It affords and then reabsorbs all groupings, like an organism or an ecosystem that responds to particular needs and then re-balances itself.

The Circle of Power and Respect honors, respects, and connects its members through the experiences they share. The stories that come to the circle from beyond the school are shared in the light of the circle's equity, which sometimes surpasses the fairness and respect some students experience outside the circle.


As diverse students grow to understand and take ownership for the equity of the circle, they appreciate each other and their differences more and more. They begin to see that their individual actions and contributions make a difference to the wellbeing of the whole. They see that their differences are not the last word, because community is the circle's priority. In this way, the circle mirrors our privileges and responsibilities as citizens. It inspires and teaches us to help build the world we all want to live in.

Todd Bartholomay is the Programs and Special Projects Director for The Origins Program. A long-time practitioner of the Developmental Designs approach, he taught at the middle level for fourteen years. He also served as a principal in the St. Paul Public Schools, where he was in school adminstration for ten years.

Posted October 2013

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[1] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Berkeley: Ginkgo Press, 2003), 8.

Related Topics: 
Advisory, Education for Equity