In February 2021, 21 librarians from state, public, and academic libraries across Rhode Island participated in a 5-week professional development training on how to facilitate learning circles. This opportunity was offered through the Rhode Island Library Association (RILA) in partnership with Peer to Peer University (P2PU). It was made possible by a donation from EBSCO Industries, Inc., in coordination with the RI Office of Library & Information Services, and supported by staff from the Providence Public Library.
RILA had two goals for offering this training: to introduce this model of peer-driven learning to Rhode Island libraries and to train facilitators who could then bring a special learning circle, titled How to Talk About Race, to library staff throughout Rhode Island.
What is a learning circle?
Learning circles are free, peer-led study groups where people can take an online class together, virtually or in person. P2PU offers hundreds of free, online courses covering a variety of topics and interests. Participants in the training learned how they could also adapt any freely available courses, from sources like Udemy, LinkedIn Learning (formerly Lynda), and others, to the learning circle format.
“Learning circles create valuable opportunities that not only increase engagement and retention in online courses, but (more importantly) also create accessible spaces for library patrons to increase their confidence in topics that are important to them in a supportive environment,” says Grif Peterson, Executive Director of P2PU.
“Learning Circles meet the mission of public libraries head-on!” says Joyce May, Acting Director of East Providence Public Library. “Both value community and shared experiences. Both create exciting opportunities for lifelong learning and, most importantly, both value the integrity of each and every patron and participant.”
Because learning circles use a peer-driven learning model, the person in the facilitator role does not need to be an expert in the material being presented. They are simply there to keep time, move the agenda along, and to learn along with the rest of the group.
“I really appreciated the emphasis on the meeting facilitator not needing to have all the answers” says State Librarian Megan Hamlin-Black. “I think, so often, whoever is steering the meeting feels like they need to be the expert, but that mentality or framework leaves out room for personal growth.”
Learning about learning circles…in a learning circle.
Participants met via Zoom for 5 weeks, for 90 minutes each week, to learn about learning circles and experience what they are like by participating in one themselves. The participants met in two groups, led by Beatrice Pulliam and Sherry Lehane of the Providence Public Library and Grif Peterson and Qumisha Goss of P2PU.
Each week, participants were engaged using a blend of video, text, and large- and small-group discussions to explore how learning circles are designed; how to select, organize, and facilitate a course; and how to hold productive conversations around sensitive topics.
Julie Holden, Assistant Director of Cranston Public Library, said the learning experience was “delightfully different. I very much enjoyed learning in this group setting instead of being lectured to. There was time for verbal participation and time for non-verbal participation using a shared document, plus individual work time; the whole experience was the closest to a classroom experience that I've ever had on Zoom. I never felt Zoom fatigued.”
“The format of the Learning Circle, with check-ins, breakout groups, and time for reflection, helped all of us to feel more comfortable with one another, which led to some great discussion!” says Gretchen Sotomayor, Special Programs and Instruction Librarian at Salve Regina University’s McKillop Library. “Another benefit to the Learning Circle structure is that it does not require advance preparation. Instead, participants review materials together, and then discuss the issue. [How to Talk About Race, the subject of RILA’s upcoming learning circles] is not an easy topic to facilitate, and the session on ‘difficult discussions’ provided guidance on how to navigate ‘moving toward conflict’ and being okay with silence in a group.”
Because learning circles use a peer-learning model, participants are encouraged to take responsibility for their own grasp of the material and look to themselves and their fellow learners for insight. Everyone is a student, and everyone is a teacher.
“I appreciated the evolution of the training experience,” says Meredith Bonds-Harmon,
Head of Reference at East Providence Public Library. “We all seemed to move from awkward and confused to more confident, connected, and assured, or at least I did! As an adult, learning a new skill is not an everyday event. So it did stretch me, and I really appreciated how our facilitators did not try to soothe discomfort but instead move along with us, at our pace.”
Experience a learning circle yourself, and explore how to tackle a tough subject with your peers and patrons.
Our newly trained learning circle facilitators will put what they’ve learned into practice by leading learning circles of their own on the topic of How to Talk About Race.
The How to Talk About Race learning circle was developed as an in-person workshop by Amrita S. Patel and Denise LaForce, former colleagues at Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in North Carolina. They brought the workshop to P2PU because they trusted the learning circle model to responsibly convey their expertise to new communities around the country. Amrita further adapted the course based on feedback from RILA.
“To hear new communities are adapting the content is exciting and exactly what Denise and I hoped for when we adapted ‘How to Talk About Race’ to a Learning Circle”, says Amrita. “Conversations about race can be deeply polarizing, but it can be empowering when you have the resources to navigate them respectfully, confidently, and comfortably.”
“I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of introducing this learning circle topic to the Rhode Island library community,” says Colleen Wolf, Reference Librarian and Technology Instructor at Warwick Public Library. “I am excited about learning alongside my colleagues while we engage in important and perhaps difficult conversations.”
All Rhode Island library staff are invited to participate in one of these free, 5-week learning circles beginning the week of March 29th. There are a variety of days and times available to accommodate your schedule.
Click here to learn more and to register: https://www.p2pu.org/rila/