1-Readings and Learning Circles

Each reading that is assigned on the syllabus will be uploaded to this blog by Friday of the week before. Most, but not all, of the readings will be the topic of a class discussion. In the course of your reading the assigned article or chapter that will be discussed, you will be asked to choose one idea, or argument, or image that was most alive and powerful for you. All class participants will be expected to share the passage they have chosen, and talk about what made it resonate so powerfully.

The format we will use in class to discuss the assigned readings is called "Learning Circles." Learning Circles are used in many democratic educational models. In the words of UMN Philosophy Professor John Wallace:

- Learning Circles are small gatherings of people who come together to share their ideals, goals, practices and experiences. Learning Circles are conducted in open neutral environments where participants can create dialogue and exchange ideas on any topic. The goal of Learning Circles is to help participants develop new practices or action plans they can take back to their lives, campuses, and communities.

- For over 100 years, Learning Circles have proven to be powerfully effective tools of creating vital social change. Community organizations, unions, churches, and movements have used this technique to galvanize members into addressing social concerns through dialogue and taking action.

- Learning Circles are spaces for learning that foster a community of inquiry. The spaces need to have the following characteristics:

* people feel safe to say what they believe and what they feel, to speak from the head and from the heart

* there is a spirit of peaceful and alive attentiveness; deep listening is easy and natural

* there is a spirit of equality, of mutual trust and respect; an assumption that each person has valuable experiences and ideas to contribute informs the space

* there is a spirit of cooperation, not competition

* there is a spirit of creativity, not compliance; people are often surprised at what they say and what they hear others say, no one is following a script or reciting pre-established positions

* there is a sense that the participants are creating together, here and now, on the spot in real time, the safe and humane space; everyone contributes to making the space, so everyone owns it and takes responsibility for it

It is a kind of grace when all of these characteristics come together in a group of people. How do learning circles work? They can vary in size from 4 or 5 to 20 or so, and shouldn't be much more than 20. The group sits in a circle so that everyone can easily see everyone else. The discussion process proceeds in three stages. First, the facilitator poses a question. Then, going in a regular way without interruption around the circle each participant has an opportunity to express his or her thoughts in response to the question. Third, after everyone has either responded or chosen to pass, the space is opened up for cross-talk--questions, comments, and further thoughts that have been called to mind by what has been heard in the circle go-around. In all of this the facilitator is both facilitator and full-fledged participant in the process--she sits with everyone else in the circle; she takes a turn responding to the question; and enters into the cross-talk as the spirit moves her.

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