Below are suggested agendas for sessions. Each agenda item is preceded by the time (in minutes) devoted to it. Remember, these are only suggestions. Please use your own judgment about what is most appropriate for your study group.
Excitement Sharing – 5 mins.
This is a good tool for starting each meeting on an “upbeat” note. Sometimes it can be used to draw the group together if people are still milling around and saying hello.
To start excitement sharing, the facilitator asks “What is something good that has happened in your life since we last met?” People then have the opportunity to share an event, accomplishment, insight, or experience that was a “plus” during the week. Each story should be brief and concise and responses by others should be very limited. If every story shared is very brief, then everyone may be able to say something, but time limitations will probably restrict the number of people who share a story to just a few.
Excitement sharing has several benefits: it starts the meeting on a positive note, it develops a more personal tone among the participants, and it is enjoyable (and thus may encourage people to arrive on time).
Some groups begin their meetings with a check-in in which everyone speaks briefly about their state of mind. This lets everyone have a chance to speak early in the meeting, allows people to share a bit of their lives, and allows them to express and then let go of whatever thoughts might be bothering them. However, a check-in of this sort in a group of 10 typically takes at least a half hour and it may introduce heavy emotional feelings that bog the group down. For these reasons, we recommend you do excitement sharing instead.
Personal Introductions (if the group members do not already know each other) – 10 mins.
We encourage those groups in which participants have never before met to devote extensive time to introductions — enough time that people feel safe and comfortable with each other. Even groups in which members already know each other should spend some time getting to know each other better. This encourages cooperation and makes the process go easier and faster later on. No matter what introductory process is used, each person’s comments should be fairly brief and each person should be given approximately equal time to share with the group. Here are some suggestions for things that might be shared:
- Your name
- Where you live
- What work you do or your main interests
- Where you grew up
- A language other than English you speak or read
- Your favorite food prepared by your parents or grandparents
- The origin of your last name
- What spurred your concern with societal change
- What effect your economic/social/cultural background has had on your political viewpoint
- One significant consciousness-raising experience in your life
- A time when you acted really well (or saw someone else act really well) in a difficult or conflictive situation
- One thing you have done well in changing society, and one thing you would like to be able to do better
- One thing you would like to be doing in social action; what is preventing you from doing it; what you might do to overcome those barriers
So that people can answer adequately, choose only three or four of these items for people to answer in the initial meeting and maybe a few more at a later meeting.
Generally, it is not a good idea to ask people simply to tell what change work they have done since that often produces a situation where a few people in the group talk at length about their experience while others say little or nothing and feel inadequate because they have had less experience.
Here are two ways you might structure the introductions:
Go Around the Circle
Traditionally, people sit in a circle and each person introduces her/himself in turn around the circle. This has the advantage of allowing everyone to speak for her/himself and to take the time they need, and for everyone else to hear what they have to say. However, it has several disadvantages: people may talk too long, those who are comfortable speaking about themselves in groups may talk much longer than those who do not, and some people may boast while others minimize their accomplishments.
If you anticipate encountering these difficulties, you can either limit each person to a set time, or use the following process:
Break into pairs of people (each person chooses the person sitting next to her/him or someone she/he does not know well). For 2-3 minutes one person in each pair introduces her/himself to the other (and the other listens and, perhaps, takes brief notes). Then the timekeeper calls time and the other person introduces her/himself for 2-3 minutes. The group reconvenes and each person, in turn, introduces her/his partner to the group as a whole.
The content of what people say to each other in the pairs may range over many themes, so individuals should not be expected to be able to remember everything to re-tell to the group. Indeed, this is an advantage since almost no one can talk about another person for an excessively long time. This process also is usually much safer for those who do not like to talk about themselves or those who have trouble talking in front of a group.
Introduction (presented by the meeting convener) – 10 mins.
The person convening the group may want to take 5 or 10 minutes to give some background information. The convener should briefly outline what is required of participants so everyone has a realistic idea of what they are getting into.
Also, depending on the group, the convener may want to introduce explicit ground rules for behavior. For some groups, agreeing by consensus to ground rules will make the group feel safer since it will be clear that obnoxious behavior will not be tolerated. But for others, establishing group rules at the first meeting will introduce the worry that others in the group might be problematic. In this case, it is better to wait and discuss ground rules only if problems arise. At the first meeting, you want to establish a hopeful, upbeat atmosphere and suggest that things will probably go well, not focus on potential problems.
Some possible ground rules:
- Everyone will treat the other members of the group well and respect their ideas, perspectives, and cultural practices
- Everyone will explore ideas together, investigating and challenging ideas to see if they make sense and effectively solve problems, but will do so thoughtfully and in a way respectful of others
- Everyone will be prepared to enforce this agreement if necessary, intervening if somebody is out of line, and stopping inappropriate behavior.
Agenda Review – 5 mins.
Near the beginning of every session, the facilitator should present the proposed agenda for the meeting. The agenda can then be reviewed and changed if necessary to accommodate new ideas or different priorities. The agenda should be recorded on a wall chart in view of the whole group so that everybody can be clear about what they have jointly decided to do.
We suggest that every item on the agenda be assigned a time limit. During agenda review, the group can adjust these limits so that the total length of the meeting is acceptable to everyone. If it is necessary to adjust the agenda as the meeting progresses, make sure that the meeting end-time is kept the same or that the group explicitly consents to extending the meeting length.
It is usually frustrating — and essentially anti-democratic — when a group is lax about sticking to the time it has allocated to various portions of the agenda. In particular, if earlier items run long, then items at the end may be inadvertently truncated. The agenda can, of course, be changed at any time, but this should only be done with the consent of the group and in consideration of other agenda items.
There are tendencies in every group to go beyond the time limits, especially when the subject is of great interest. Of course, there may well be particular reports of sufficient interest to the group that it makes a conscious decision to suspend the “rules” and extend the time. Just do this with due deliberation and consent.
Business and Logistics – sign up for special roles for this session, choose topics – 10 mins.
The business and logistical items that need to be addressed will depend on the nature of your group. Here are some typical items to discuss and decide:
At the beginning of the study group
- The length of the course (number of sessions)
- The topics to be covered and in what order they should be addressed
- The length, start time, and meeting place of each session
At each session
- Planning the next session (general topic, specific agenda, questions to consider/discuss, exercises)
- Choosing people to perform various roles at the next session (facilitator, assistant facilitator, recorder, timekeeper, vibes watcher)
- Choosing people to prepare reports for the next session
- Business items can easily expand to fill (or exceed) the allotted time, so they should be dealt with efficiently so that other items are not neglected. If it appears that business will take significantly longer than the allotted time and it is possible to do so, postpone the discussion and ask a small group to meet outside the group and come up with a specific proposal on the items in question for presentation at the next meeting
In particular, rather than taking time at a meeting to develop specific plans and a detailed agenda for the next meeting, the facilitator, assistant facilitator, and other interested participants should probably meet separately (or talk on the phone or communicate via email). Planning straightforward meetings should not take much time, but planning more complex meetings (a new exercise, direction, or undertaking) might require an hour or two.
Distribute copies of Democracy Charter – 5 mins.
Individual Reading — participants read sections of the Democracy Charter out loud or silently – 20 mins.
Presentation and Discussion – 45 mins.
In a presentation, one person speaks while others listen. You should decide beforehand whether it is acceptable for people to interrupt the presenter with questions or whether questions should be reserved until the end of the presentation.
In a typical discussion, various people speak — some at length, others more briefly. Sometimes people will ask questions or try to synthesize others’ ideas. Sometimes the discussion is stimulating and enjoyable. However, if talkative people end up dominating the discussion, it is rarely as enlightening or fun.
To ensure that discussions are more egalitarian and productive, the facilitator should limit long-winded speakers and encourage those who are usually quiet. If that is not sufficient, these techniques can also be used:
Go Around the Circle
Have each person talk in turn around the circle. It may help to pass an object of some sort (a “talking stick”) from person to person to ensure that others do not jump in before their turn.
Give each person three pebbles or other tokens. Each time someone speaks they must put a pebble into the center of the circle. When a person’s pebbles are gone, they cannot speak again until everyone else has used up their pebbles.
Think and Listen
This technique is very helpful in giving each person a safe space to sort out and communicate her/his thinking.
In a “think and listen” session one person is given a set amount of time to share her/his thoughts while the others listen attentively. It is particularly important that the listeners do just that — and not comment on the thinking, interject personal experiences, initiate discussion, or even ask questions. This helps establish an atmosphere of safety where people can feel free to share things that may be too personal, tentative, seemingly unimportant, or otherwise scary to come out in regular discussion.
Speakers should be encouraged to “think out loud” and need not be apologetic if their comments are not organized in precise categories and steps. However, time limits should be strictly observed. It is usually helpful to inform the speaker when she/he has one more minute remaining so that she/he can wind up her/his thoughts.
If time is limited (or to make the situation safer), the group can split into small groups of 3 or 4 or even “think and listen pairs” (one person speaks while one other person listens, then switch roles). At the end, each group or pair can, if it is useful, bring important points back to the whole group.
Small Group Discussion
Sometimes it is useful to break into small groups of 3 or 4 people for discussion. Quiet people may feel intimidated unless they are in a small group. Also, putting all the talkative people in one small group is a way to allow everyone else to have a chance to speak in other small groups.
Sometimes people feel more comfortable discussing certain topics in small groups that close friends. Other times, in order to facilitate discussion and to increase learning about differences, it helps to break into groups in which people do not know each other.
Break – 10 mins.
A good break is an essential part of any meeting. A 10-minute break gives people a chance to stretch, get something to drink, or informally say hello to others and talk about what is going on in their lives. But it is often hard to limit the length of breaks, so the group must be careful about monitoring itself. To draw everyone back into the group, it is sometimes useful for the facilitator to suggest singing a song or playing a simple game.
If people tend to wander off during breaks and not return on time, you may want to replace breaks with a short, lively group activity such as a song or game.
Besides being fun and distracting, games can help a group relax and release the tension that comes from learning about our harsh world. Games can also encourage playfulness and cooperation when people are faced with difficult decisions. Remember not to be too serious while playing games: enjoy yourself and be silly!
Here are a few simple cooperative games:
Everyone stands in a circle. One person passes a ball to the person to their left and that person then passes it on to the next person, on around the circle. Before the first ball returns, the person might pass a second ball around and maybe a third in the other direction. As the balls go around, each person might juggle it a bit, balance it on their nose, and bat it off their elbow. The balls might be invisible. Other things might be passed: a silly word, an odd sound, a comical facial expression, a skewed stance, or a funny walk.
Everyone stands in a circle. One person begins by taking an invisible object from one side, manipulating it in some way and passing it to the next person who does the same. Doing their best to create a wacky assembly line, people might lift the object, lower it, flip it, rotate it, plane it, or drill it in their best mechanical fashion.
Machines have many parts that move in a variety of directions. Create a large, strange machine by each person rhythmically acting out one of those moving parts with their arms, legs, or bodies and in conjunction with others.
Everyone stands in a circle facing each other, holds hands, and bends over. Then, together, they all raise their hands up and make an ever-louder “mwaaa” sound as they rise. When they have risen to an upright position, they may jump in the air a little bit. Wow! This is a quick way to get people moving and making noise — perfect for a group in which people don’t know each other well and are feeling uncertain. Generally, the sillier the leader, the more relaxed everyone else will be. But be careful if some people might have bad backs.
Exercise – 35 mins.
There are many kinds of learning exercises. Some exercises, such as working together in a group to develop a proposal, simply allow people to learn in a different way than the typical lecture/discussion mode. Experiential exercises, especially roleplays (in which people take on various roles and act them out in a particular situation), give people a chance to try out new ideas or practice specific skills.
In choosing an exercise, think about your group and what ideas or skills the members most need to learn. Choose exercises that use the strengths of the group — for example, a group of writers might find it easiest to do exercises that largely rely on individual writing. Or choose exercises that push the group to do things they are not good at — for example, pushing a group of writers to play roles in a dramatic enactment of a proposed group action. Modify exercises to address current situations, to fit the interests and needs of the group, and to fit the time you have allocated.
Questions and discussion about the study discussion group – plan next meeting, sign up for special roles for the next session – 15 mins.
Many decisions, especially those involving the agenda, can be made quickly and easily by the facilitator (or someone else) simply suggesting a plan and then everyone else nodding their agreement. More difficult decisions may require more discussion and synthesis of various options.
Evaluation – 10 mins.
At the end of every meeting, it is important to have an evaluation in which positive and exciting things that happened at the meeting can be mentioned and affirmed. Also, an evaluation allows participants to identify those things that they did not particularly like, why they did not like them, and how those things might be done better in the future. Usually the main focus is on the process — how people interacted, how the ground rules held up, whether people felt insulted or encouraged, how people performed their special roles, whether the presentations and discussion were useful, and so on — but you may also want to evaluate the agenda, the reading materials, and the meeting room environment.
One particularly effective way we have found to evaluate meetings is for the group to brainstorm these three items:
- What was good about the meeting? (+)
- What was bad about the meeting? (-)
- How could the meeting be improved? (^)
The recorder can draw a plus sign, minus sign, and up arrow as the headers of three columns across the top of a sheet of paper and then list the brainstormed items under the appropriate header. We usually brainstorm all three questions simultaneously, thus letting people say whatever comments, praise, criticism, or better ideas they have — and then if it is not clear, the facilitator and recorder can help figure out which column it belongs under. But if it works better for your group, you can brainstorm each question sequentially.
After brainstorming, the group then very briefly discusses and selects the most promising improvements for use in later meetings. In the interest of time, the details of these changes should usually not be worked out by the whole group at this time. Instead, the facilitator and assistant facilitator for the next meeting should refine them in their planning meeting/phone call.
Excitement Sharing – 10 mins.
Agenda Review – 5 mins.
Business and Logistics – 10 mins.
Presentations and Discussion — reports on readings – 60 mins.
Reports on Readings
A major part of most sessions is the presentation and discussion of readings on topics chosen for discussion. At each session, typically 5 people will give verbal reports on what they have read. Participants in the course usually learn the most from hearing reports and from discussing them with the other participants. The better the reports are, the more everyone will gain.
Before presenting reports, the group may want to generate or review discussion questions concerning the topic of the day. The group can then be attentive to possible answers in the information presented during that session. These questions may have originated in the discussion questions that accompany the readings, been brainstormed by the group, or arisen in prior discussions.
How to Give a Report
- Put some time into preparing your report. This is helpful not only to make a clearer presentation to others but also to consolidate the learning that you have done.
- While five minutes is a very short time for a rambling discourse, a well-organized report can say a great deal in this time
- It is easy to get frustrated by the prospect of condensing 50 pages of information into a five minute report and the temptation is often to talk twice as fast as usual in order to get everything in. Don’t — people can’t digest information that quickly.
- Start by reminding people of the report topic and, perhaps, briefly naming the titles and authors of the materials.
- Instead of trying to summarize everything, pick out the two or three most important points or insights that you got from the readings and explain them.
- If you find one of the discussion questions particularly compelling, focus on it and the ways the readings answer it.
- Alternatively, criticize the reading. Are important points backed up by reliable data? Were the ideas and inferences of the authors logical?
- If appropriate, prepare visual aids to go along with the report. Statistics, for instance, are often easier to see than to hear.
- Do not get trapped by paralysis of analysis. As you begin the reading, think about what problems are being identified, what solutions are being suggested, and what the implications are for social action. You may want to spend some time in your report on the latter — what new goals and/or projects might change groups adopt according to the reading? If it is useful (and not disruptive), the recorder might write these ideas on permanent wall chart sheets as reports are given and during group discussion.
The facilitator should be sure to keep the reports to the agreed-upon time. This will encourage people to select the best ideas from the readings rather than trying to completely describe them, and ensures there will be adequate time for full group discussion of the issues.
How to Discuss
There are varying ways of making report presentations and discussing them. We recommend this procedure, which has worked well for other groups:
Discuss each report immediately after it is given. You might allocate 5 minutes to each report, followed by 5 minutes for discussion of that report, plus 10 minutes at the very end for general discussion about all the reports.
In this mode, the “report and discussion” part of the agenda, therefore, is basically a long discussion in which every 10 minutes there is 5 minutes of input in the form of a report on that general subject matter. This format brings in factual information from five different sources (reading reports) and provides a space for active group participation.
Having prepared reports that are interspersed through the discussion and strictly governed by time limits helps people to focus and keep from getting sidetracked too much, and it adds a sense of accomplishment and progress to the meeting. The 5 minutes for reports and 5 for discussion are suggested times; each group will want to work out for itself what feels most comfortable depending on time constraints and amounts of information to be covered. Our experience is, however, that whatever time limits are decided upon, people should be disciplined in keeping to them.
If your session length — the total length of your meetings — can be extended to 3 hours, then this allows more time for presentations and discussion — perhaps 6 minutes for each report and 9 minutes for discussion after each report. This probably will enable you to have much better discussions and allow more learning.
There are also several different ways for deciding what order to hear the reports. You can follow a list in order. Alternatively, you can just see who wants to present next. Sometimes there will be somebody who feels that her/his report follows logically after another one.
Note: If report presentations or the discussion regularly feels rushed or runs over time, or if participants find the readings too demanding (and don’t read what they have agreed to), you might reduce the number of report presentations to just 4 (or even 3) each session. Leave participants wanting more, not overwhelmed with too much.
Break – 10 mins.
Exercise — 40 mins.
Decision — plan next meeting – 5 mins.
Evaluation – 10 mins.