It's story time at Amelia Earhart Continuation School, a place where high school students who have ditched class, flunked out or otherwise fallen behind in their academic credits come to catch up.
On this day, the students in Nancy Stringer's English class sit in a circle. As they pass around a "talking piece" — a black rubber rat named Scar — they share stories of elementary and middle school.
I stabbed a kid. I broke my hand. I got my first kiss. I got straight A's. I was scared of ghosts because a janitor committed suicide.
It may seem simple, but the North Hollywood students say that sharing stories in this way — a practice known as "council" — has made a huge difference in their lives. Through stories, they say, they have come to know and trust one another, building strong bonds that have helped them stay in school.
"Here, everyone cares about each other," said Jessica Beristain, a 17-year-old sophomore who added that she used to ditch her classes constantly to escape "screaming teachers" and hostile students at her previous school. "Now school is fun."
Cultures worldwide have long used speaking and listening circles — most notably, Native Americans. But now a modernized form, developed by the nonprofit Ojai Foundation, has spread to 12,000 students via 600 trained teachers in more than 60 schools, many of them in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Joe Provisor, who helped launch the program in the district in 2006, said research shows that strong school relationships are critical for a student's success. But those bonds are harder to forge in today's educational climate, he said, where academic pressures have crowded out time for social and emotional development.
"This is bringing humanity back to the schools," said Provisor, a teacher advisor with the district's office of curriculum, instruction and school support. "Schools are so focused now on testing and assessment — the download and regurgitation of content. Council is the practice of listening to children and to one another."
Judy Elliott, L.A. Unified's chief academic officer, called the program a "very powerful tool" to help students transcend race, gender, disabilities and other dividing lines. It also gives teachers a strategy to make the curriculum come alive, she said.
At Amelia Earhart, for instance, Stringer has used council for literature, asking students to say which character they most identified with in the novel " One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Another teacher, Ron Narita, has used it for his Earth science class — asking everyone to tell a story about an earthquake, volcano or other geologic event.
"It helps them respond to curriculum in a more open way," Narita said.
Not everyone is a fan. Some have criticized the program as an unlicensed attempt at therapy, a "spiritual" or Native American practice and a drain from teaching time, Provisor said.
But he and others stressed that no psychological counseling is involved and, in public schools, no religious teachings are promoted. And some schools try to steer students away from some controversial topics, although teachers are required to report abuse or other criminal behavior.
At places like Pressman Academy, a Jewish day school affiliated with Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, teachers and students use council as ways to convey Jewish values.
During a recent session, Headmaster Rabbi Mitchel Malkus presented three religious texts related to bullying and exclusion. He reminded students that Jews, having suffered exclusion for centuries, had an obligation to stick up for those similarly treated. Then he asked students to share stories about bullying.
The Ojai Foundation, an educational retreat center, developed the practice of council in the 1980s to help teachers at the retreat center learn to do a better job of listening to others, Provisor said.
The Herb Alpert Foundation donated a three-year, $750,000 grant to Ojai to establish council in L.A. Unified. Additional grants from the Annenberg Foundation and Furlotti Family Foundation have helped sustain it, Provisor said.
At Wilshire Park Elementary School in Koreatown, about a third of the teachers have started councils.
On a recent day, Alex Dia's second-graders sat in a circle with a center display of stuffed animals, a plant, a pillow, wooden tigers, stones, shells and a candle. They reviewed the council guidelines to speak and listen from the heart, opened with a ritual and offered dedications to loved ones.
Then they responded to Dia's prompt for the day — to tell a story about kindness. The aim was not only to promote the value of kindness, Dia said, but also to launch the district's six-week literature theme and build verbal expression and the elements of good writing through stories enriched by details.
My brother let me play with his iPod. I helped grandma bake cupcakes. My friend took me to a movie and bought me popcorn and nachos.
Zianne Hinojas, 6, said she has learned to be respectful and "don't disturb others when they're talking." She said she would like to bring the practice home to her three brothers, who grab her toys.
Back at Amelia Earhart, once-perennial ditcher Jamie Cruz, 17, said that she has befriended classmates she never would have acknowledged before. The friendships have drawn her back to school. And that, in turn, has helped her discover a passion for writing.
"We share a bond now, and that's made school a place I want to be," she said.