Learning Circle Guidelines

Learning Circles have a long history as a form of community education. The best Learning Circle practices are ones that encourage participation, so that no one person is the “leader,” but rather all participants have a chance to share their knowledge, perspective, and questions in a space which encourages all voices and engages differences.

Learning Circles are most effective when participants first develop together shared norms of trust and openness. This leads to an ability to deeply explore the topics at hand, turning towards things that may be challenging knowing that one has the support of the group. The cultivation of this trusting, open atmosphere allows participants to practice active listening — a practice which is also central to the work of social justice and transformation. We must begin, first, by listening to one another’s stories.

There are several different ways you might structure your Learning Circle, and several ways again to frame different Learning Circle discussions as they come up in the Study Guide… Here, we’ll outline a few ways to think of structuring the overall experience of your Learning Circle. Consider the following questions.

How many people will you have?

This will have an impact on the way that your group chooses to flow through the Study Guide. If you have a group of ten, you will make different choices about managing your work than if you have a group of three. With a group of three, it is much easier for all voices to be consistently heard, whereas when groups get larger, you will need to set more intentionality around group communication practices so that all contributions are heard.

Where will you meet?

Group size and geographical proximity will help determine this. Meeting in a central location that people are comfortable with, like your parish hall, may be a perfect idea for some groups. For others, perhaps you’ll want to think about making meetings rotate from house to house of willing participants to get to know one another better. You will want to consider in all cases questions of accessibility for all members of the group.

Some of the material that you’ll move through in the Study Guide can be challenging, and you’ll want to be sure people feel as though the physical space creates a sense of safety so they can explore those challenges. Sometimes this means it’s better to meet in a private or semi-private setting. However, if your group is comfortable making intentional space and having deep reflection together in a noisy café, that can work too.

These questions are best decided at the group’s first meeting, which should happen in a quieter, more private space to allow for tone-setting and the building of group norms and covenantal agreements.

How often will you meet?

We all have busy lives, especially right before a big trip. Your group may choose to meet once a week for six weeks before the trip to deal with each unit of the Study Guide separately — or you may choose to work on two units at a time, and meet three times before departure.

Our suggestion is that you and your Learning Circle meet no fewer than three times before your departure. The kind of trust-building work that enables deep reflection and deeper understanding is best done over a series of meetings — you’ll find that after two meetings, your group will be more comfortable talking through the curricular material — even if you knew each other well from the beginning.

How will you approach the readings and other study materials?

A Learning Circle is not so different from a covenant group. As such, it is good to take time and care with setting expectations and guidelines among the members of the Circle so as to promote the most welcoming and productive learning atmosphere possible.

Face-to-face dialogue, done with open hearts and honesty, can sometimes be challenging, even for those who consider themselves old hands at the process. To truly explore the UUCSJ materials, it will be important to take some intentional steps to build the space and trust of the Circle itself.

We recommend taking time, at least thirty minutes, at your first meeting to address the following questions:

  1. What makes a productive and supportive learning space? What are some elements of unsupportive learning spaces that you’ve been in?
  2. What are each individual’s desired outcomes of this group? That is, what brought them here, and what are they excited about?
  3. What are particular fears or challenges that individuals feel they may face, both concrete and general?

To explore the questions articulated above, you may choose to:

  • break your group up into pairs,
  • break your group into small groups of three or four (if you have a large group), or
  • keep the group in its full circle setting to share individually.

For example, if your Circle has eight participants, you may choose to consider the first question — what makes a productive, or an unsupportive learning space — in pairs. To do this, you may share your past positive and challenging experiences with your buddy for two minutes each, followed by a five-minute “report back” to the Circle as a whole, where each buddy pair mentions two or three elements that make for unsupportive, or for productive, learning spaces.

By writing each of these insights onto a flip chart, chalkboard, whiteboard, or large piece of paper, your Circle begins to develop its “norms” for what you are all hoping to have as a learning space.  At the end of your consideration of these questions, you and your Circle will have developed a set of expectations for the purpose of the group and for behavior and communication in the group space.

Active Listening

Participatory learning assumes that no one person holds all the knowledge or expertise on a subject, especially when participants have been exploring a text, or idea, or place alongside one another. A foundational component of participatory learning is a practice called active listening. When we listen actively to each others’ experiences, stories, hurts, and joys, we are not merely waiting for our turn to speak. Rather, we are taking in sacred trust the words of our fellow travelers in this world, and honoring them as a truth that they are sharing.

You and your Circle can practice active listening together in part by being able to reflect a participant’s story back to them. Think about ways to do this together: “What I hear you saying is…”, “I hear that your experience was…”, and “Thank you for sharing this story about…” are all good ways to enter into an actively listening relationship with one another as fellow learners. Best of all, this is a great practice in preparation for being able to listen fully to the stories of those alongside whom you’ll work on your service learning journeys, abroad and at home!

Holding Meetings

Once your Circle’s expectations, desires, and norms are clarified, you’ll have a clearer idea of how to move forward in working with the UUCSJ Study Guide. At a meeting-by-meeting basis, and in the potential online discussion space your group may choose to work with (see below), the group expectations are implicit, and can serve as a ground to return to if difficulties arise.

Each meeting of your Learning Circle can be structured around the simple framework followed by Covenant Groups:

Begin by welcoming people. Then:

  • Light a chalice and open with reflective, scriptural or poetic words (PDF).
  • Hold a few moments of silence so people can get centered together.
  • Enter into a check-in, so people can share their current state of mind/emotion with each other (no more than two minutes per person).
  • Enter into the content of the session (film, reading, written reflection, and/or discussion) for about an hour.
  • Invite the group to conclude by sharing one sentence about what they appreciated in the session and/or what they hope for next time.
  • Close with a short reflective reading (PDF) and extinguish the chalice.

The flow suggested by this format allows for inner and outer reflection, which is a key component to UUCSJ Learning Circles. The process also reflects the nature of your UUCSJ program, which asks for careful consideration of both your inner and your outer journeys.

Collective Learning

Participants on UUCSJ journeys are generally asked to keep a journal, to be delved into before, during, and after the trip. Your Learning Circle can also keep a journal collectively, and if you choose an online method it allows the conversation about materials, discoveries, confusions, and challenges to arise between meetings as well as during them. What came up for you in the middle of your workday, or first thing in the morning, that is burning in your mind enough that you want to share it before the next meeting? Did you find a resonant passage in one of the readings to which you want to call others’ attention as they read? Post it in a shared journal or blog.

Some formats for a journal like this:

  • Google Docs
  • Etherpad
  • A private group blog that all Learning Circle members have access to
  • Dropbox

If your Learning Circle decides to try out one of these formats, it is best to begin doing so early in the process, and should be discussed at your first meeting.

The best thing about an online discussion forum is that it can be a repository for framing the next discussions you have — and this will be especially important in the transition between doing the learning that is entailed in the first six units of the Study Guide, the journey itself, and the last two units, which are to be completed upon the return of the traveler(s).

Your Learning Circle may discover that you need some physical materials specific to your work. Of particular use may be a flip chart on which to keep group notes; a special chalice for your meetings; and a laptop or other means to view videos or listen to music together as you move through the Study Guide.

Getting Ready to Travel

Though the UUCSJ Study Guide can be used in a variety of contexts, it was designed on the assumption that one or more members of your Learning Circle will soon embark on a learning journey. How does your Learning Circle move with, support, and continue to learn with those who will travel?

Direct, face-to-face experience is the most vivid way we can learn something. It impacts us on every level — mind, emotion, body, spirit — and can leave us so changed that we begin to understand both our world and our roles in it very differently.  The preparation you’ve received with your Learning Circle will help you absorb all that you can from your experience; and participants in your Circle will be there to receive your questions, insights, and struggles when you return.  But as you prepare for your journey, it’s important to ask: How might you bring your Learning Circle along with you?

We recommend setting aside one of your meetings to discuss this question, as well as the ways your Learning Circle will be present to the traveler(s) upon their return, for support and to begin again the work of social justice with renewed vigor.

These are the two primary ways that the travelers and non-travelers of your Circle can explore what it means to be accountable to one another as learners, and how to carry that accountability on your journey and then back home again.

One powerful way your group can travel with you in spirit is through what we call “Carrying the Questions.” This is a practice through which you can formalize and make sacred your explorations together as a Learning Circle. In the final meeting of the Learning Circle, develop together one to four questions that are burning in your minds and hearts. These questions should be informed by your readings and discussions so far.

  • Each question is to be sent with the traveler(s) as they embark upon their UUCSJ journey, sent with the sacred trust of the covenant group that is your Learning Circle. The traveler on the journey is to keep their home group’s questions in mind as they engage in the daily practices of spiritual reflection, physical labor, and awareness of social and political justice issues that arise during their trip.
  • Perhaps your traveler will come home with more questions for you as well as some responses to the ones you posed. That is just fine — what matters here is that there is a little piece of the group that travels with the traveler, in heart and mind.
  • This process can be made manifest, if your Circle desires, by the inscription of the questions on some nice paper and placement in an envelope or small tin, making it so the traveler can carry them with her and remember the support she has waiting for her at home, and the curiosity of her fellows.
  • When your traveler comes back, her responses to your Circle’s questions can help guide your discussions and exploration in the final two units of UUCSJ’s Study Guide. And, perhaps more importantly, carrying questions from your home community to  a new place of learning and challenge, and your return with answers and new questions, can strengthen the ties of community that make it possible to do the work of justice right in your home place. How do your group’s questions reflect on the work of justice in the Circle’s home communities? What can your Circle glean from this whole process, and what comes next?
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