Concept Circles

Chris Mullin, high school history teacher in the Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District, tells us how to leverage the "Concept Circles" activity to help students communicate their understanding of key words and concepts, and how their selected terms relate to a larger theme.

Watch the Video


Chris Mullin, High School History Teacher, Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District, Teacher Leader, California Writing Project


Hello, my name is Chris Mullin. I’m a high school history teacher, and I want to talk about Concept Circles.

Concept Circles are something I use because as a teacher of everything from college prep to AP history, I love to have my students be able to pull together various pieces of evidence, weave them together in some kind of common theme. And so what’s nice about Concept Circles is, maybe there’s three good things about it.

 Number one, Concept Circles help students as a group, use their voice to essentially make generalizations that they can look at terms from history and pull them together.

 A second thing it does is when kids are working on Concept Circles, and when they’re looking around at other students, they engage in voice. They end up defending their position on why this piece of evidence is part of a larger theme there. 

When they’re doing that and I’m not doing that, I’m very pleased. I feel like, you know, this is good teaching. And then finally, it really helps literacy and composition skills. They’re basically learning to, later on, take these pieces of evidence and convert what was a discussion, into written material. 

I wanna talk about Concept Circles in my own classroom. And so for example, I very recently taught a lesson on the French Revolution and the French Revolution is a complex era and there are many, many terms from Equality Bread to the Thermidorian Reaction. These are big terms that kids need to learn. So whenever I’m introducing Concept Circles, I always, always, always do pre-teaching and the pre-teaching could be three days of exploration, or it could be 30 minutes, but there needs to be something that comes before. So that once we get into the making of the Concept Circles, the students will have content knowledge, that they’ll have these terms that they need to embed, but unless they know what these terms are, then they can’t really do it.

Okay. So the way that I would do this is I would introduce my lesson. I would gather the class together and I would basically hold up a blank Concept Circle and it’s a circle that has four quadrants in it. And I would say, look, I’m gonna put you into these small groups, and when you get into small groups, you get to take a look at this term list and I would show them the term list. And I would say these are terms that we’ve seen before, but in your group, you’re gonna choose any four terms and don’t communicate with other groups, you’re gonna pull ’em all together, choose any of these four terms, but the one proviso is that they have to somehow be linked together, that these four terms together must create some kind of thematic idea. And so in a minute, I’m gonna let you go, I’ll choose your groups for you, or you can choose your own there, and you’ll start working on it. 

Now, the way you’re work through this is, you’re gonna take your term, put one in each of the four quadrants, and then you’re gonna take crayons and markers and pens, and create fun, colorful images that represent it. Now, if it’s a person, you can draw a picture of a person. If it’s a guillotine, you can draw a picture of a guillotine. If it’s Equality Bread, you can draw a love of bread. But whatever it is, you need to have those two together: the term, as well as the image there.

And then while the kids are doing this, I walk around, I make sure that they’re obviously on task, ‘cause I’m trying to be a good teacher, but also I make sure that they’ve selected four terms, that the group has had a discussion about which four term should go there, and probably most importantly, although actually it’s not necessary – it’s not a bad idea – is to see if they have a common theme in mind. Did they just randomly grab four terms sort of to get the job done or did they actually have a plan? This is kind of a fun part, this is the creative part, and once we reach a point where they’ve all completed these beautiful works here with colorful images and words inside, I bring the class back together and I say, all right, now we’re gonna do the next round. 

And in the next round, you’re gonna walk around with a team answer sheet. And essentially on the team answer sheet, there will be, the word Circle A, Circle B, as many circles as there are around the room. And taking your team answer sheet, you’re actually gonna get up and go on a gallery walk. I have the students take a piece of blue painters tape and stick up their Concept Circles around the room, and then I put each of the groups at a different Concept Circle and I’d say, go. And what they do is, when they’re there, in their small group, they look at the Concept Circles of their peers, they discuss the four terms that they’ve learned about before and now they’re seeing together and they kind of negotiate and defend why these four terms might mean liberty, or tyranny, or revolution, or, you know, the enlightenment – just some kind of common theme.

And once they’ve negotiated and discussed what four terms they’re presented with, they write down their guess on their Circle A, Circle B sheet, and then every few minutes they move to the next one, and they move to the next one, and move to the next one.

So what we’re seeing going on here is there’s been pre-teaching and now there’s terms related to that pre-teaching and then there’s some art going on, and now they’re actually going around the room, using their voice to having just created their own circle, now trying to figure out what the minds of their fellow students are doing.

Now, why visuals, as well as terms? Visuals are very good at communicating ideas, and sometimes kids can see a term, but really only when you have a visual attached to it, do you get a full sense as a teacher about maybe what they think that term means. But also it’s a really good way of helping them convey maybe in a non-literary way their understanding of what a term might mean. And you get some interesting interpretations that come out of it. Once that’s done, we all come back to center. I take down all of the Concept Circles, and then we kind of do a big debrief.

I’ll hold one up, we’ll look at the terms. I’ll ask to the various groups, “What did you think it was? What did you think it was? Why was it?” I go back to the original group and they’re like, “Oh, no, no, no. we were absolutely thinking, that this had to do with, you know, the monarchy…” or something like that. So what you end up with is, well, rather than, you know, be lecturing all the time, students are gonna be able to negotiate with each other, share their understanding together, they’re gonna be able to use art and physical movement, and then ultimately engage in a debrief. 

Now Concept Circles don’t have to just be for history. You could easily do it in a Science class and I’m almost certain it would be very nice in some kind of an English class. Even probably Math class could find a way of using it there. So I’m Chris Mullin, I’m a history teacher and those are Concept Circles.

Accompanying Materials & Resources

Share with Others


At a Glance

Please give us a like if you enjoyed this resource! 

For You

Related Resources


Experts from the California Subject Matter Project (CSMP) share 3 meaning-making strategies you can use to engage students in your classroom.

The Turn and Talk

Daina Yousif Weber, English and AVID teacher in San Diego Unified School District, tells us how to apply the “Turn and Talk” strategy to empower students to make their own meaning by exploring open-ended questions, sharing their thoughts and perspectives, and building upon each other’s ideas.

WOW (Word of the Week)

Kate Bowen, retired elementary school teacher for the Davis Joint Unified School District, tells us how to use the “WOW (Word of the Week)” activity to channel students’ creativity in learning new vocabulary and developing their writing skills.

Scroll to Top

Help Us Improve!

Please help us improve the resources we offer you by answering two quick questions:​