Section 2.F: Descriptions of Agenda Items Common to Most Sessions
In this Section:
- Agenda Review
- Time Limits
- Excitement Sharing
- Business and Logistics
- Presentation (General)
- Discussion (General)
This section describes general topics and activities that are likely to appear on the agenda of most of your meetings.
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. Each item on the agenda should generally include four things: (1) the amount of time allocated to it, (2) what kind of item it is (presentation, discussion, decision, exercise, etc.), (3) its subject matter, and (4) who will present or facilitate it.
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. This often happens when people are giving reports. The time limits we suggest are based on the experience of seeking a balance between providing enough time for substantive reports but not so much that people lose interest. We suggest 5 minutes to report on the usual 50 pages of reading. 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.
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.
To build group trust and understanding, it can be useful to periodically (perhaps every fourth or fifth session) allocate a longer time for excitement sharing (perhaps 20 minutes) to allow more people to tell an exciting story.
Business and Logistics
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 START course
- 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) — if you use the roles form (pdf) (or Microsoft Excel format), then you just need to choose a new Vibes Watcher and remind everyone else of the roles they are shifting into
- Choosing people to prepare reports for the next session and having them choose particular sets of readings
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.
Brainstorming is a process for generating/gathering a large number of creative ideas or questions on a given subject from a group in a relatively short period of time. In brainstorming, the group picks a topic or question and then opens the floor for people to toss out ideas. Participants are encouraged to contribute ideas (saying a very brief phrase is best) no matter how wild or impractical they may seem. Each idea is quickly recorded (by just a few words) on a wall chart in front of the group. There is no discussion and no evaluation of the ideas during this part of the exercise.
Once a lengthy list of ideas has been collected, the group may then go back and sift out the proposals that seem the most promising. A good brainstorming session rarely needs to go longer than 10 minutes and often can be done in 2-5 minutes. In groups larger than six it is sometimes helpful to ensure broad participation by limiting each person to one or two brainstormed ideas until everyone else has contributed at least one.
Brainstorming can be used for a variety of situations. It can be used near the beginning of meetings to develop questions for the session’s discussion (for example, “What questions do we have about today’s topic — taxes?”) or at the end to develop questions for the next session. It is a good way to generate action proposals for a project idea (for example, “What can we do to double the recycling rate in our town?”).
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.
For more ideas about specific presentations, see the detailed suggestions below and in Section 2.G.
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 are determined in one of these two ways: (1) break into small groups of close friends or (2) break into groups according to sex, class, race, age, newcomers, etc. 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, in which they are dissimilar, or in which they actively disagree.
Presentation and Discussion of Reports on Readings
Reports on Readings
A major part of most START sessions is the presentation and discussion of readings on various topics. At each session, typically 5 people will give verbal reports on the set of special readings 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 — think of the impact of a good 30-second TV commercial.
- 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 personal change and 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. We recommend this if it is possible.
There are also several different ways for deciding what order to hear the reports. You can follow the order as listed in the reading list. 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. Participants may learn less, but they might enjoy the meetings more (and actually learn more). You could still ask 5 people to read a set of readings, but just ask 3 or 4 of them to give presentations. Or, you may want to reduce the total number of reading sets that your group reads overall.
It is best to be relaxed about what is included in your START course. Please realize that there are always vast amounts of information that you will not be able to read, consider, or discuss. Do the best you can with the resources you have and within the time that you have allocated. Leave participants wanting more, not overwhelmed with too much. You can always set up another START course (or some other process) to learn more at a later time.
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. For one useful method, see Randy Schutt’s “The AD Method of Decision-Making”:
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. See the descriptions in Section 2.H for specific exercises that you might use in each segment (though they may be appropriate at any time depending on your group — please rely on your own judgment).
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.
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.
Everyone stands in a circle, then turns to the right and gives a shoulder and back massage to the person in front of her/him. Also try this while sitting on the floor or on chairs. This is a good tool for encouraging people to trust one another, help one another, and accept help from others.
Everyone stands in a line facing the same direction. The person in the back then crawls between the legs of each person. As she/he passes through, each person gives her/him a head, shoulder, and back massage. When the person reaches the front of the line, she/he joins the line while those in back start to crawl.
Everyone stands in a circle. One person calls out “touch blue” and everyone then finds a blue piece of clothing on someone else and touches it with her/his hand. Besides colored clothing, some things to try touching: elbow, hair, fingertip, shoe, nose, breath. Participants should be careful not to touch others in inappropriate ways.
Everyone lies on the floor with her/his head on the belly of someone else (as much as that is possible). Then everyone chants together “Ha Ha.” It shouldn’t take long before you all erupt in laughter.
Everyone stands in a circle and holds hands. One person lets go of the hand on her/his left and then turns clockwise and winds the whole group up around her/himself. Once assembled into a tight jellyroll, the person in the middle might crawl out between people’s feet pulling everyone else along behind, often making quite a mess.
Everyone stands in a circle, with eyes closed, places her/his hands into the center, and grasps another person’s hand with each hand. Then everyone opens their eyes and tries to sort out the knot they have created by having people climb over and under each other’s arms until they are all standing in an unbroken circle (though some people may be facing outward). Remember to follow your arm and cooperate with others.
With more than 5 people, you often end up with two or more interlocking circles or with an undoable knot. Sometimes cheating may be called for to untangle the knot.
Try doing the whole exercise with eyes closed.
Everyone stands in a circle, then turns to the right, and puts their hands on either side of the waist of the person in front. One person lets go of the person in front and begins to lead the group around, walking or dancing from place to place. Everyone follows the motions of the person in front as that person extends her/his foot to the side, ducks her/his head, leans to one side, hops on one foot, jumps up and down, crawls, etc. Everyone might also make warbling or popping noises. (This is good practice for joining a charismatic cult!)
Everyone stands very close to one another in a circle. Everyone turns to the right and then sits down in the lap of the person behind her/him. Ask everyone to massage the person in front. If you are successful in actually doing this without falling down and laughing, begin walking (while still sitting), left foot first, then right. That should ensure that you all fall down.
An Instructive Variation: For any of these games, appoint someone to be in charge: this person stands on the outside and tells everyone how they should move — and people should only move as they are commanded. Wow, is that difficult! It is also a good demonstration of why dictators are dependent on the people they command and how a little civil disobedience can undermine an autocratic regime.
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.