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Inclusive communities and conflictual dialogue

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I haven't had a chance yet to respond to Hoggett's article "Overcoming the Desire for Misunderstanding through Dialogue." I was initially drawn to this article because of the title: the DESIRE for misunderstanding? Aren't we all running around trying to AVOID misunderstanding? And, I am intrigued by his argument that what some would call "dysfunctional" communication between members of a community or a work team (or what have you), is actually essential for functionality.

I find his argument very compelling based on a few experiences I have had in my own life. For one, living in an intentional community for three years after college really forces me to consider this concept seriously. Additionally, this resonates with my time working for Witness for Peace in Colombia and Nicaragua - both circumstances in which I was working and living with my workmates, and our office was in our shared house.

In both of those situations, the intentional community and shared living/working space with Witness for Peace, I found that the worst times were the times of less communication and the best, healthiest times we had together were when we were able to communicate about hard issues and then move beyond them. Each time of moving beyond really felt like a step, a building block to a healthier and stronger community.

That all said, I am still left with the question, where is the line? When do we stop learning from difficult dialogue and start just simply frustrating each other and hitting dead ends? There were times when I was working in Colombia when that difficult dialogue felt it might actually be just simply too hard and not productive - and that it in fact never produced growth, but rather negative stagnation. Some of this I think was related to the way that difficult dialogue was facilitated and some of it was because of a lack of good will among those engaged in the dialogue. However, I think Hoggett is on to something very insightful about group dynamics - and perhaps very useful in many work settings where so many people tend to really shy away from difficult dialogue.

Once a facilitator, always a facilitator?

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I have often wondered about how taking on the role of facilitator - or generally being seen as a facilitator within a given group - impacts ones role in that group otherwise. Since this is something that has been on my mind over the years, I wondered how my facilitation experience in the Spanish circle at Jane Addams School would impact my role generally in the circle afterwards. In the weeks following my learning circle facilitation there I have found (somewhat surprisingly to me) that nothing has changed that is perceivable to me. I think this may be due to a few things. One, although I had never officially facilitated in the circle before I had been involved in interpretation and I am one of a few almost completely bilingual people in the group. Therefore, I think that people already saw me as having some sort of leadership role in the circle even though I had never in fact been involved in the planning of a circle or selection of topics ever before. So, that may have been a part of it. But honestly, I think a larger part of the reason things didn't noticeably change was that JAS is truly such an exercise in participatory democracy that it seems that on any given week anyone could suddenly step up and take on a facilitation role and no one would bat an eye. This is a real testament to the kind of environment that has been created at JAS over the years but I don't think it is completely normal. Furthermore, I think its related to the learning circle technique used at JAS regularly - the idea that the facilitator at JAS is often nothing more than a question asker, but not a source of information is very important in creating an environment where someone can be a facilitator one week and back in a participants seat the next and nothing changes. In many other settings I have found that once I facilitate a session I am constantly seen as someone who has knowledge to share and that I somehow am "important" in the group. In so many ways this dynamic seems counterproductive to me and I have learned a great deal from JAS about how to preempt it.

learning circles = team building

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This summer I was fortunate enough to have worked in New Orleans with a youth program. One of the best things about the program was the new relationships that I formed with my coworkers. It was crazy to me how we were able to become so close so fast. I’m sure it had something do with our personalities clicking and because we lived together worked together, ate together and hung out together. But another factor I’m sure played a role in our close relationships was the learning circles we took part in during the first week. We continued them through the whole summer but I think the ones we did during the training week were crucial in the strength of our team.
We would wake up every morning and start our days out with a Freire Circle, which is basically a learning circle but it’s a little bit different from what we would do in our CI5900 class. It would change time to time but for the majority of the mornings someone would think of a topic, we would then go around and share a story that related to this topic. Many times it was a personal story that allowed us to gradually open up to one another.
One morning, we had an exercise were the facilitator called out different categories and who ever fell into the category would have to step across the line and face the people who weren’t apart of the group. For example, the facilitator called out “if you are part of a minority racial group step across the line?. This went on for about ten minutes. At first the categories were simple and fun, likes and dislikes, then they began to get deeper and heavier. After the exercise we all went back and sat in a circle. We went around and each of us gave our feelings on how the activity made us feel. It was a really powerful experience we had on the third day together and it really gave us a deep sense of who everyone was.
Another way we used learning circles or something similar was during our training seminars. After someone would present we would debrief when they left by using a method called rotating chairs. It was actually a professor at the University of Minnesota, Lisa Albrecht that introduced this to us. Instead of going around in a circle, people who wanted to give their feedback on the training session would raise their hands and the person who was finished speaking would call on the next person to speak. They would have to say the other person’s name before passing it and this was a great way to get to know each other’s names. I also liked rotating chairs because it allowed us to speak when we felt we had something to add. I also thought it was a good idea to use this method and debrief after the speakers because it was another way to get to know about each other. I was learning in the first few days, how my coworkers felt on some big issues and issues that would somehow influence us over the summer. For instants, we had a speaker talk about the effect of natural disasters on young people. Rotating chairs was a great team building exercise too!
Since taking this course, I’ve realized how powerful the learning circles were in helping my crew work as a team this summer. I truly think by allowing us to communicate in this way with one another was the foundation of our strong bond. Because there were about 20 of us, and most of us knew no one coming in, this structure of the learning circle provided us a way to connect with everyone instead of just a few. One incredible thing about the learning circles was that they allowed our diverse group to come together as one family versus several groups. The fact we were so close and one group working as one, allowed us to perform that much better.

The power of relationships

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We come into this world untouched by any influences from others. Although our genetics and biological factors do affect our overall development, relationships we share with others also help mold us into the person we become. In our early childhood stage of development the bonds we have with others have a significant impact. This is because we are still forming who we are and the nurture we receive reinforcement certain behaviors and instills values within us. The concept of relationships influencing our growth, reminds me a lot of the “Nature v. Nurture? debate. In my own life I’ve developed and matured as a result of several diverse relationships I’ve had with others.
Growing up, I lived with my mom, dad, and older sister. Each one of them has in a sense made me who I am. While growing up, my mother showed by her actions that she valued my education a great deal. She would ask me about what I was doing in school, come in to volunteer for my classes, and reward me when I got good grades. This affected the way I developed by causing me to value education. My mother is also very sassy and upfront. Being nurtured by her caused me to become a sassy person, but this personality trait made it possible for me to always stick up for myself and not allow people to walk over me. My father is the type of person who is non-confrontational and gets along with everyone. He is also outgoing, silly, and a hard worker. These characteristics are ones that I have developed also as a result of the relationship we share. My sister is a very sensitive, argumentative individual. Sharing a relationship with her has allowed me to become a patient person, and one who would rather resolve problems versus escalate them. Also, seeing her struggle with feeling accepted and helped me to develop into a person that is empathetic of others’ feelings and situations and she taught me not to ever judge people. The relationships I shared with my immediate family, the nurture I received, had a large influence on the person I am today.
It’s interesting to me to look at the parallel between the closeness of relationships and their affect of self-development. Though me and my mother have a closer relationship then me and my father, I see a lot more of my father’s personality in me than my mother’s. For my sister, she and my father are closer to one another yet she is much more similar personality wise, to my mother. It’s also fascinating to compare my sister and I to see how different we are, although we were raised in the same household. This could be when nature steps in and interacts with the nurturing part of our development or it could possibly be the other relationships we had outside of our home.
Ever since I can remember, I had close relationships with people who were unlike my family and I think this really influenced my development. One of my friend’s mothers growing up was like a second mother to me. We would bake with her, go to her job on the weekends, and every week we’d be at the Laundromat helping wash. She was a very affectionate woman who always gave us hugs and this was something unknown to me because my family was completely opposite. She helped develop me in to a more openly loving person. She also gave me tools to develop into a more independent person by inviting me to be apart of everyday chores. This is one of the many people outside my family who impacted my development.
Through the years I was involved in different youth programs, I had several teachers, I was close with my friends families, and shared several other relationships over my developing stage that helped me mature into who I am today. I think that it’s really important that while a child is in their main stage of development, that they have several positive relationships. In my own experience I feel as though it made me a more diverse person that is able to be in several social worlds and this is a type of power in the world. Relationships are a main component in making us who we are.

Unlearning/ Learing from others

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“We do not lose our way because of what we do not know, but what we think we know?- Rousseau. Many times we get caught up in what we think we know and miss out on the unlearning process that could help us grow as people. If we had all the answers in life then we’d be living in the perfect world, and clearly we are far from that. Each human being has lived a unique life, having different experiences that make them who they are; no two people live the same life. So it only makes sense for us as people to learn from another’s experience seeing that they may have more knowledge in some area that we may have little to none. Or they may look at the same thing that we look at and see something from a totally different perspective. So if we listen to that person’s ideas and they listen to our ideas we each gain a new outlook into what we saw before. Opening our minds to diversity is how we could grow and strengthen our bond with one another. The more we can understand one another, the more likely we will all walk down the same road and less will lose their way.
One thing that I believe would truly open the minds of people is traveling places outside their community and worlds in which they are apart of. Whether a journey consists of going to another country or taking part of a cultural celebration different from your own, it broadens a person’s mind. It’s not until we experience other lifestyles than our own and interact with people different from us that we can truly know the world. How can you form an opinion on something when you’ve never even looked at it through another view point? Think about if a journalist was to tell a story and only give one side; it would be bias and the editor couldn’t even publish it
Opening people’s minds has to start at childhood to be truly effective in changing our society. It can’t be left up to parents alone to open their children’s minds because they themselves may be close minded. So what if there was some type of a system imposed by the school system, something that gave young people a chance to experience other people’s cultures and lifestyles so they could respect others and where they came from. This program could take kids into social settings unfamiliar to them. Maybe they could spend the day with a family of a different race or religion. Maybe the program could take inner city high school students to a suburban elementary school to become mentors for the younger children. This may reverse the negative stereotype that inner city youth get in the suburbs. Another aspect to the program could assign students to interview someone who lives in a neighborhood that has a negative image. It would give young people a chance to see a world they don’t live in with open eyes and base opinions on their experiences versus what others feel. Once we see that everyone is part of the same human race it will allow us to be more considerate of one another and hopefully in turn we will begin to learn from each other instead of fighting.
I’ve been fortunate enough to grow up being put in several diverse situations. I’ve had friends from all walks of life; rich, spoiled suburban kids, to friends that have been through war and severe poverty in third world countries. Although I’ve never been a minority in American society, I have been the minority in many of my social settings starting from childhood to now. These experiences have allowed me to see the world in a broader light and to understand in a sense what it feels like to be looked at as a minority. It’s my wish that everyone could have similar experiences.
I strongly feel that communication is important for us as people to grow together. By opening our minds to worlds separate from our own, it will unite us and this will potentially make the world a more peaceful place to live and a more harmonious one at that.

Jenna's Fifth Post

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I enrolled in this course hoping to learn practical ways of using learning circles in a high school setting. Now that the semester is over, I realize that I’m walking away with a lot more information to draw from than I expected! From what I learned this semester, I believe there are many different approaches to learning circles that would be great to use with high school students. Learning circles enable students to discuss controversial topics without being interrupted and misunderstood. They also arenas in which social justice can be discussed and changes can be made. However, I feel that the two most meaningful ways of using learning circles with high school students focus on the students’ moral and emotional health and development. Oftentimes in public high schools, these aspects of humanity are overlooked. It is considered the job of the family, community, religion, or other social network to encourage students morally and emotionally. However, these types of conversations can and should take place in school. In my opinion, it would help foster community and create strong relationships that could positively influence educational attainment.

The first approach to learning circles for high school students is philosophy-based. This would encourage moral development. In class, we tried out a Philosophy for Kids exercise using a Frog and Toad story. I really enjoyed this activity. Children and young people are rarely asked to give their insights and perspectives on deep, philosophical issues. Too often, public education seeks to fill students up with information instead of enabling them to think critically and discover truth on their own. High school students certainly have the cognitive ability to think deeply about philosophical topics. In fact, high school is a place where students really should tackle these tough questions. Before long, they will enter college or the workforce. They will soon start their own families. In order to be fully mature adults, they need to have a clear understanding of their belief systems and what they stand for. Learning circles can be used to encourage students to develop their opinions on love, honesty, community, peace, and other important topics. While religion may enter these conversations, it is not required to. Morality certainly exists outside of religion. In addition, many religions share similar belief structures. The goal is to develop a value-neutral area in which students can talk about what they believe and why.

Another approach to learning circles for high school students is based on personal reflection. This nurtures students’ emotional health and development. By doing learning circles, I realized that my first, natural response to a question is not usually the one that is the most true. When I sit and listen to other people speak during the learning circle, I have more time to reflect on my answer than I would have in a normal conversation. This period of time, although short, is longer than most people given themselves to respond. It enables participants to really think about what they want to say. In return, learning circle participants understand more about themselves and everyone learns a little bit more about one another.

I believe the learning circle atmosphere encourages participants to show their true selves, instead of the false front that they would like to portray. This type of experience is especially important for high school students. From what I experienced in high school, it was rare when every member of a group was paid equal attention, listened to in the same manner, and given the same amount of respect. In order to be important, students had to behave in certain ways. I think that learning circles remove some of this social pressure, even if only for an hour or so.

On running a learning circle

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After deciding that my learning circle was going to be Gospel Based Discipleship this got a little bit easier for me and a little bit harder. They got a little bit easier because I did not need to do much prep work in order to figure out what my topic was going to be--because gospel lessons are appointed instead of chosen I could look at the appropriate day and have the reading down before I went there. However, while I didn't need to figure out what we were going to talk about how we were going create a comfortable atmosphere in which to talk about it was another story.

Rosalyn's Random Thoughts

I'd just like to take the opportunity to again thank everyone who participated in my "Life (renewing) Circle". I also would like to thank Lynn for her gracious hospitality and for making us all feel comfortable enough to bare our souls.

Finally, I would like to try to answer the question that Lynn asked which I have posted here so that the answer I give will make some semblance of sense: Comments:

Rosalyn, I appreciate your ability to see Bion's ideas in the groups that we are in every day. I was struck by your comment that in a fight/flight group casualties are to be expected (and accepted as inevitable). Your reflections on the relationship of the individual to the self and our ability to withstand being alone stood out for me. I am interested in your ideas about whether learning circles can help individuals create greater abilities to withstand being alone and develop a relationship to the self that does not need others in such a dependent way?

Yes, I believe that Life Circles can help in a small way, because it gives an individual the sense of belonging and camaraderie without the feeling of being an interloper. However, I believe the most important ingredient in being able to be alone without being lonely and dependent upon others is that a person must learn how to develop a love relationship with him/herself. Without getting too deep let me explain it this way: real love is a Spiritual covenant relationship which most people confuse with a physical or emotional relationship. God has put within the human Spirit the desire/need for love. But, His intent was that we would get those needs met through our relationship with Him first, and then with those individuals that we have entered into a Spiritual covenant relationship with, in which He will bind them together heart to heart, spirit to spirit and soul to soul. The reason why so many people are unable to love themselves is because they don't have a relationship with God. They forfeit their relationship with God and try to substitute it with a relationship with another person. But just like trying to bake a cake without following the directions and using the appropriate ingredients, the result will be less than desirable. The same is true of love. Without God, who is love, there can be no love for self or no one else. That is why so many people are in failing marriages - they substituted their relationship with God for a relationship with a man or woman who has no more ability than anyone else to meet their own needs, let alone someone else’s need for love.. Far too many people are in relationships (which means they are not alone), but so many of them are still lonely because they didn't follow the directions in the (Bible) nor did they use the right ingredients.

Rosalyn's 5th Posting

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As I look back over this course called “Learning Circles? which for me are more appropriately titled “Life Circles? (I’ll explain later) I can see that I have come a long way in such a short period of time. As I’ve mentioned before, my original intent in taking this class was to learn all I can and can all I learn to be able to share with those whose paths I will cross in the future. However, it turned out not to be so much a learning experience, but a life saving experience for me. Like everyone else, I had no idea of what I would be going through at this time in my life, but God in His infinite wisdom did, and set up this class as a port in the storm of life just for me. By that I mean, that being part of this small group of fantastic people who participated and shared with me in class, helped me in ways that I can’t even begin to describe., and ways that I know you could never begin to imagine. More importantly, I want to express my most sincere gratitude to you all for all that you shared. It helped me to heal in ways and areas of my life that I didn't even know that I was wounded. My only regret is that like all good things, this course had to end.
I think these experiences called “Learning Circles? are really “Life Circles? because they are all inclusive, and for me were a place where I was personally affirmed, revived, refreshed and restored back to life. Life Circles are a place where relationships can be built and or repaired, barriers can be broken down, misconceptions/ misunderstandings can be cleared and resolved, the weary can be revived and recharged, the weak can become strong and the strong can become powerful. I call them Life Circles, because each person is sharing a part of his/her life and life experiences; even though we, like our experiences may be as different and as far apart as the East is from the West, we are all the same, because we are all playing a part on the stage called life. For this experience and opportunity I am eternally grateful.
Like Brad, the Myles Horton book and the video about Highlander stood out for me the most, because unlike most literature, which is based on speculation and theory, The Long Haul is based on the reality of experience. Reality has a way of teaching us that we don’t have all the answers, but if we open ourselves up to the possibilities we can find the strength within ourselves to become the answer. “We ended up doing what most people do when the come to a place like Appalachia: we saw problems that we thought we had the answers to, rather than seeing the problems and the answers that people had themselves. . . Once you understand that, you don’t have to have answers, and you can open up new ways of doing things? (Horton, 1998). The reality is that although we are all different, and come from different walks of life, we are all the same, because none of us are exempt from problems, pain or suffering. That was apparent when we shared
During the Life Circles, there was a level of comfort that could be felt. This allowed us to share a piece of our souls which in turn allowed those present a glimpse inside of us. With each circle, you could feel the trust building, and each person sharing a bit more of themselves. There was no pretension, no competition, no feelings of superiority or inferiority, just trust, faith and hope, which made the possibilities endless. Our Life Circles did more to restore my faith and hope in people, than any one single act that I have experienced thus far in life. I only wish that we could somehow extrapolate and superimpose our experiences on the political wars that are currently going on in the world. If so, I’m sure we would find we'd have the kind of peace that passeth all understanding. There is so much more I want to say, but I’d better stop now before I have to pay you for the extra content and context that is sure to come if I keep baring my soul. Be blessed.
Well, maybe, I'm not quite finished yet. If I may, I would like to share a few words of unsolicited advice with the young people in our group. Since all of us are in one way or another working and fighting toward justice for all, it is wise to choose your battles carefully and always go into battle with a winning attitude. That way you will always be a victor and not a victim, and you can avoid becoming a casualty (burned out). Also remember that there is no shame in retreating and rethinking your strategy, as it gives you the opportunity to conserve your strength for the next battle.

Brad's Fifth Posting

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Greetings!
For my fifth posting I’d like to observe a more personal sharing and reflection of my thoughts regarding learning circles by setting aside professional implications and how I might make use of them in my classroom and instead share some more personal observations I have noticed. In short, I have been thinking a lot about what kind of personal growth and development I have experienced while participating in our learning circles. Those who know me well, know this is not easy.
One of the things I now understand on a deeper level is that we are more alike than we are different. (I always knew that, but more and more things keep being revealed to me) and that as long as the ties that bind us together are stronger than those that would tear us apart, all will be well. Some churches refer to it as “the communion of saints….? Communion is the key word for me in this context and that is how I often felt while participating in a circle space. Even after classes I felt more connected and together and more comfortable taking risks. Focusing on the “messenger instead of the message? made learning circles more real. As I listened to other people’s experience, strength, and hope over the last few weeks, I realize it is shared…all of it, and in that realization rests much of my “wellness."
Learning circles also became more meaningful for me when I began to focus on the process as well as the “topics? or “stories.? Initially, I witnessed the process and then cautiously participated in the process. But as time went on, I was more conscious about the process…I was able to feel the process much like a movement in a symphony. That learning circles can allow for such growth and dynamic in and of themselves is efficacious.
Perhaps that is what Myles Horton meant when he said, “…it’s important to understand that the quality of the process you use to get to a place determines the end result.? (Horton, 1998). For me this means if I want understanding, I must be understanding; if I want willingness, I must be willing; if I want tolerance, I must be tolerant. The variations on the same theme are endless. Myles Horton put it this way when talking about building a democratic society: “If you want love and brotherhood, you’ve got to incorporate them as you go along, because you can’t just expect them to occur in the future without experiencing them before you get there.? I like the empowerment this idea gives to those who choose to partake. It gives added clarity to the adage you reap what you sow. To be sure, I have been witness to some intrinsic changes that can occur when an environment of trust and care and sincerity is created for all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons.
And as I look back, my process has been enhanced and strengthened. And my lame metaphor of a lock has been opened and tossed aside for a new…!

Rosalyn's Random Thoughts.

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As I think back to our last meeting and consider the topic discussed in the Learning Circle of Steve and Jenna, I can see a direct relationship to the question they asked and the readings. Although I think the question that they originally had in mind was more about inclusion and diversity than just belonging to a group. As I mentioned during the circle, my life experiences have lead me away from groups, more so than toward groups. When I was young I used to think I was strange because I was always excluded, but I was not impacted negatively by that exclusion as I actually preferred it. I recently was searching for something and found some notes that I had written to myself. After re reading this note, it reminded me of the circuitous route that my life has taken. It also made me think that God must have had a specific plan for my life, as I have spent the better part of my life alone but not lonely and actually find peace in being alone with myself.

I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to all my fellow students who have made this a fun semester, and a thank you to Lynn who has made this a very positive learning experience.

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