Opening the Circle
Opening the circle is concerned with setting the culture and establishing the practice for learning circle interactions. Putting people in the same room and simply giving them time to talk, or connecting them on a network with space for chat does not make them a well-functioning group, much less a community. A learning circle is not technically a community, however, the people in the learning circle can, of course, be and often are, drawn from a common community of practice. But it is important to understand the differences. The goal of arranging people in learning is to maximize diversity and then use that diversity as a resource. However for diversity to be a resource, there needs to be a high level of trust and respect. Activities described in these phases work to ensure the development of trust and respect.
Building Community. A central goal of the first meeting is to create trust and respect that underlies group work and knowledge building. Attending to the development of professional ties is essential for setting the conditions for effective collaboration. The telling of both personal and professional stories is a powerful way to begin the process of building relationships. Friends remember our history and use this to help us reflect on current problems or issues. Often you can provide better help to another person if you know something about who they are and who they are trying to become.
Collaborative Learning Skills. Identity is closely tied to learning. Who we are is shaped by who we associate with. Each person makes a contribution to the group identity. The group identity will shape the forms and process of learning. So activities that help participants reflect on their identity will help initiate the learning process.
Setting Expectations. Depending on what happened during the getting ready phase and the participants' experience with learning circles, the first meeting is also a time set expectations. If you have the option of face- to face sessions, then it might be possible to create a sense of being in a learning circle. A face-to-face session (2 hours to several days) can be arranged so that you work through issues in phases that match a learning circle with each phase lasting minutes or hours rather than weeks. This can provide a sense of the process and reflections at key points can help surface issues that can be troublesome in learning circle interaction. If the "opening the circle" phase extends over a few days, community circle reflections (see below) can be a valuable tool to help create trust and respect.
Comfort with Technology. Finally, the opening session is a test run to make sure that everyone can use the software that will be used for meetings and projects. This can best be done in person as it is often hard to assess technology readiness from a distance but of course, it can be done. If there are issues, a great tool to help circle participants is JING. Once installed on the computer, it is very easy to add voice-over anything that is displayed on the screen and form an instant movie. If something is not working, it is possible to show the sequence of steps that led to the error message. But of course, if the problems are the basic connection to the internet then the phone is likely to be the next best tool.
Examples of Activities to accomplish these goals
Introduction Activities: Building Trust and self and group identity. The activity or activities selected will depend on the age range, focus of the learning circle, time frame of the circle, and place or technology for the first meetings.
Online Identities -- Establish a place where each member of the learning circles can upload pictures and basic information. This page serves as a membership page and might also have contact information.
Professional Identity Portraits-- This project was done with evaluation research and the goal was to help the participants think about how to represent themselves to their colleagues.
Surveys to Explore Common Dimensions - for students one activity has students list their favorites in a number of different kinds of areas. This helps the students understand what dimensions of popular culture are pervasive and which show regional differences. For adults, a survey might be used to help profile the skills of the groups so that there is a greater sense of the social capital of the group.
Story Telling: There are a number of ways to engage in story-telling.
"Two truths and lie" is a playful activity often done online or in person. Each person describes two interesting facts about themselves to mask one lie they also relate. The group then tries to figure out which one is the lie. They can ask for more details about any of the stories to help decide which one is untrue.
"Tagged Stories" Another one is that someone begins with a story, the next person has to tell a story from their life that overlaps with some part of the story (imagine that it is tagged and the next story matches one of the tags. It can be a similar situation, it can take place in a similar time frame, or with similar relationships.
"Cartoon Contexts" is a way to characterize one's place of work in a humorous way.
Voice Threads as a form of storytelling - using this online tool people place a digital artifact -a drawing, a quote, a photo- in the center and then people can comment on it either by leaving a voice thread, a video, or a text comment. One Learning Circle changed the members to select a "Meaningful Moment" in their professional or personal life and invite group members to have a discussion around memorable or meaningful connections from their experience.
Strengths-finder Self Assessment--Students/Participants read the introduction to the text, Now Discover Your Strengths, by Buckingham and Clifton. They use a code in the flap of the text that allows them to access an online strengths assessment. The assessment provides a profile of their top 5 signature strengths. Students/participants read the text to learn more about the 34 themes of the StrengthsFinder instrument. They learn about the relationship between talent, strength, and skill; how to use their strengths to manage their areas that are not strengths, and how to build strengths-based organizations.
Prompted Discussion--Students read an article or a book that is related to their common purpose. At this point, it might not be good to start with something that will get people to take sides. Ideally, the reading is to help map out ways in which they share ideas. Debora Loesch-Griffin created a project on voice threads which can be seen in the movie " TAKE A STAND" attached at the bottom of this page.
Legacy Project - This is an introductory activity that can also be a closing circle activity. Initially, circle members engage in reflection about their past work experiences and the leaders and leadership practices that have influenced their thinking and actions and share these with their partners. Circle members think about the stakeholders with whom they interact and the roles they play as compared with the roles that they desire to fulfill. Then each person develops a legacy statement, -- What knowledge, tools, advice, or practice would they like to leave to those who follow them in their position? Share the statements in the learning circles, and finally construct a plan of action to live into their desired legacy. At the end of the circle, they revisit and reflect on the future and their own legacy.
Collaborative Projects: understanding norms and developing individual and group working patterns
Creating Web Gifts-- Making something for someone else is one way to get to know them better and to introduce them to the group. It can be a collage, a set of resources for a lit review, a review of software that might help the person address a problem, an unusual use of the internet. The gifts can be given in a round-robin fashion around the circle.
Lego Challenge - This is done in a face-to-face context as a way of creating a context that models the process of working together.
Collaborative Puzzles - We use a range of challenging puzzles that can be found online. Building structures out of straws and marshmallows, forming structures with a set of nails, and other similar challenges help a group problem-solve together and provides the interpersonal knowledge that is foundational for working online.
Reflective Activities: Understanding multiple Perspectives
Community Circles - At the end of most of our face-to-face days, we have a community circle. This is a chance for each of the members to "check-in" and let the group know what the experience looks like from their perspective. The practice is for the group to sit in a circle and for each person to take a turn. The first person begins by saying "My name is.... and I am checking in." Each person can talk as long as they like and there is no interruption, commentary, or feedback after the turn. In the end, the person repeats, "I am [name] and I am checking in." The next person can choose to talk or pass (those that pass get a second chance to add something at the end). This practice helps everyone with names as they hear the name both at the beginning and the end of the short talk, they hear stories and connections that help create multiple pathways to knowing more about each person in the group. Often this sharing is very emotional as people chose to share things that are cultural, social or personal which help others reinterpret their actions. These frames of understanding serve a very valuable role in learning to work together. While we have not done this in Zoom, it should work online as well as in person.
Personal Journals in the form of online blogs - Students share their blogs with each other as they work through their action research. Students do not have time to follow all of the students in the class but by putting them into learning circles they can follow the blogs and information that is shared by their smaller group. This creates a sense of intimacy that is missing when there is a whole class to follow and not enough time to even do the work that is assigned.
Planning the Set of Projects: Individual Sponsorship of Collaborative Circle Projects