OBJECTIVES FOR THIS DOCUMENT:
Help teachers and other educators and other community stakeholders better understand Project-Based Learning, project management, and 21st Century Learning, as well as their value as keys to educational success.
Become a more thoughtful, contributing participant in community education transformation conversations.
Help civic and business leadership in the region to better understand why school districts are engaging in a shift to Project-Based Learning and Work-Based Learning and how that will result in a higher-skilled workforce.
Understand the benefits of a participatory conversation in collective initiative and how to be an active participant and/or facilitate one if needed.
Strategize with community leaders about how to build strong ties between the employer community and local schools.
Help teachers and other educators better understand Project-Based Learning and the value of PBL to help them and their students reach their goals.
WHO TO INVITE TO COMMUNITY CONVERSATIONS
WHERE TO HOLD A COMMUNITY CONVERSATION?
SETTING THE STAGE
SUGGESTED TOPICS AND QUESTIONS
“The facilitator’s job is to support everyone to do their best thinking.”
Conducting outreach and research will help to uncover the community assets and moving trains that can support Project-Based Learning. After these initial steps, one tactic that may be helpful in building a coalition and jumpstarting the push toward PBL is to convene Community Conversations on school transformation. A Community Conversation could be a single gathering or a series of gatherings that brings together key community leaders to share information, build support for PBL as an effective approach, work through differences of perspective, and determine next steps. While not all relationships and plans will be formed at Community Conversations, they can be crucial events for building a shared understanding of the importance of PBL, the role of 21st Century Skills, and designing the plan of action.
An intermediary organization is likely to be the appropriate group to convene Community Conversations, and is also likely to have access to employees and/or volunteers with facilitation experience. (In fact, convening and facilitation are core skills for most intermediary and backbone organizations.) In that case, interested professionals in the community can help to plan and participate actively in these conversations as experts on project management and workplace needs. This resource document offers some valuable tips about joining participatory conversations and moving toward a shared agreement among all parties.
However, some regions do not have a suitable and easily identifiable intermediary or other stakeholder leader with facilitation skills. In that case, it may fall to other stakeholders in the employer/business sector to convene and even facilitate Community Conversations.
Facilitating a productive and collaborative conversation requires an entirely different set of skills from managing a project or mapping community assets. Each brings together people who come from a diverse set of backgrounds and perspectives, and everyone approaches a group conversation from his or her own very specific frame of reference. Even participants who are in the same field may have very different personalities, status levels within their organizations, and experiences with public schools.
Since many professionals do not already have experience in convening and facilitating such diverse discussion groups on policy topics (and because bringing together a cross-sectoral group like this will be very different from the typical project team), this document provides an extensive set of tools and advice covering all aspects of preparation, from who to invite to room setup to facilitation techniques for a participatory conversation.
When presented with the same set of information, people from different segments of the community will naturally have different reactions – sometimes very different. This often leads to misunderstandings and even conflicts about the way forward – and at times about the facts in front of them. But, it also offers opportunities to draw on a wide range of experiences, approaches, and ideas. In order to take advantage of the participants’ diversity and move the group through the challenges that accompany it, organizers will need to take on an active role in facilitating a participatory conversation.
The outcome of a participatory conversation is a sustainable agreement on the way forward because participants have developed:
a mutual understanding of each other’s perspectives;
trust in each other (at least in this area);
confidence that the final outcome will benefit them and their community;
greater willingness to follow through;
access to a much larger set of information that is shared instead of held back; and
increased capacity for resolving future problems together.
The main task of facilitating a participatory conversation is to help make sure that everyone understands the information being presented and each other’s perspectives about it; encouraging everyone to speak, identifying differences; and, in fact, probing for them – not hiding them. There is a significant difference between being the facilitator for a conversation and the leader; the facilitator(s) is there to support the participants in reaching the group’s goals.
Note that bringing forward different perspectives and developing mutual understanding will take time. The experience of discovery can be uncomfortable, as participants have the chance to air their views and are exposed to those of others. That’s OK; change requires struggle and often causes natural anxiety as people’s long-held views and ways of working are challenged. And, often, this process is also thoughtful and energizing for participants.
The role of a facilitator is NOT to forestall all frustration or smooth over the (often very real) differences in the room, but instead to support individual participants as they wrestle with new perspectives, to encourage the group as it works through this process, and to find ways to help build shared understanding. The techniques described below will help to succeed in this role, as will preparation beforehand and patience during the Conversation.
While group facilitation is not typically part of formal project management training, professionals may have more experience at it than they know. Many project managers utilize facilitation skills every day as part of their work within project teams (and some do go on to get training in this area). These existing skills can be brought to bear in the framework of a participatory conversation.
WHO TO INVITE TO COMMUNITY CONVERSATIONS
The invitation list for Community Conversations will probably look very similar to the sectors and community leaders that are included in community readiness research. The learning that results from mapping a community will also inform participant selection greatly.
Focus on identifying the right representatives from several groups to invite to Community Conversations:
- Business leaders
- Political leaders
- School district leaders and principals (and perhaps teachers’ union officials)
- Leaders from local colleges and universities and notable out-of-school education programs like science centers
- Other community leaders, including philanthropists and executives/Board members of civic organizations.
In all cases, the best candidates are leaders who have important contributions to make to a joint effort and who are engaged in the community beyond their own organizations. A healthy proportion of leaders who will be the ones actually following through on contributions and implementing action steps should also be invited, rather than only top leaders who would pass off implementation to other officials who were not present. One way to identify the right leaders is to look back at community interview notes and figure out who is mentioned often as a partner or stakeholder by respondents.
Given the broad nature of this group, the invitee list will necessarily be a large one. In fact, a good target is more than 20 participants at each Community Conversation. This will help to ensure that most stakeholder perspectives are represented and that the right people are in the room to drive decision-making and follow-up actions. A large number for participation also emphasizes the importance of initial conversations and interviews to garner buy-in and excitement – both of which will be necessary to get these leaders to the Conversation.
Remember also that, while this is a broad discussion among high-level leaders in the community, that does not mean that the leaders invited should only be the CEOs of top regional companies and organizations. Smaller companies may play just as significant roles as larger ones in engaging their employees and resources with schools, especially where the leadership of those companies is passionate about it. The “right person” at a school district or university is not necessarily only the superintendent. And, engaging school principals who are open to exploring PBL in the Conversation at this stage can be a very productive and helpful idea. Not only can principals provide an important perspective to the discussion, but they are also often the most important gatekeepers to the classrooms on their campuses.
Suggested text for an invitation to a Community Conversation is posted on your resource website, along with other related resources.
WHERE TO HOLD A COMMUNITY CONVERSATION?
The setting for the Conversation can have a big impact on its outcomes. This extends to the location and the setup – both of which will send signals about and impose limits on the participation, the ease, and the productivity of a Conversation.
While there are many venues in most regions that would work, here are some criteria to consider:
Location in the region. Is the venue in a central area? Consider this factor in relation to the group of invitees – will most invitees have to travel a long way to participate?
Ease of access. Holding a Conversation in a Downtown office building may not be the best option if it means that a number of people will need to fight rush hour traffic and search for limited parking. Keep in mind the importance of access for people with disabilities as well.
A neutral space. Holding a Community Conversation in a space controlled by the school district, for example, runs the risk of encouraging school officials to dominate the conversation on their “home turf.”
Natural light. People feel more energized and comfortable in a space with abundant natural light. Be careful of how this light comes into the room, however, because another important factor is…
Privacy. It will be extremely difficult to have a productive and frank conversation if the group is disturbed regularly by interruption, outside noise, etc. Street-level windows around the meeting room will also prove to be a distraction unless they have good curtains.
Enough space. Make sure that the expected number of participants will not be cramped, that they will all be able to see each other around the table, and that there is remaining space to walk around as needed.
Comfort. It might be surprising how much comfortable chairs (as opposed to the stackable banquet type), easy access to snacks and drinks, and space to walk around will make an enormous difference in the success of a Community Conversation. Like the privacy concern, creating a comfortable space will help to keep participants engaged and promote trust and risk-taking.
In addition to hotel and conference spaces, consider:
Local philanthropic foundations sometimes have meeting spaces available;
Asking fellow project management professionals if they have an appropriate venue;
Corporate and law offices often also have larger conference rooms;
The city or county government might offer an appropriate space.
Food and drink
Healthy, appealing snacks and drinks (think yogurt, fresh and dried fruits, chocolate, fruit juice, etc.) will help the group to keep up its energy and focus throughout the Conversation. These should be out and easily accessible upon arrival and at the break. Put bowls on the tables as well so that participants can access them during other times. And don’t forget the coffee!
Setting up the room
When anticipating a large number of participants, consider setting up multiple round tables with an easel next to each one. This will make it easy to break up the larger Conversation with small-group sessions around each table and to record and report out those smaller discussions.
If it works in the venue and for the number of participants, using “partial rounds” – seating people around half of a round table, arranged so that everyone is facing toward the facilitator in the front or middle of the room – is a good backup alternative. That way, most participants can see each other and the facilitator.
If the only good option is to use long tables in a rectangle or U-shape, never place chairs along the inside of the shape.
The facilitator(s) should be placed at one end of the group or in the center, wherever she is able to observe all participants. The facilitator will also need a) space to stand up and walk around, and b) easy access to the flipcharts.
Place a registration/arrival table with nametags and any handouts near the entrance.
Make sure that there is clear signage to find the Conversation as people enter the building, get on and off the elevator, et. al. Participants may not have written down the room name or number when they put the location address into their calendars, so existing signage with the room name alone may not be enough.
Set up flipcharts if they are part of the format or note-taking plan. Make sure that multiple colors of markers are in easy reach of the flipcharts (and be sure that the venue or facilitator has the right kind of markers!).
Learn the location of the nearest restrooms and be prepared to give directions to others.
SETTING THE STAGE
Getting the group’s agreement on a set of ground rules for Community Conversations is a crucial step toward building trust – both between participants and in the facilitator – and in creating a space for open conversation and risk-taking. The set of suggested ground rules below has been developed from multiple sources and personal experiences:
Be present physically (stay for the full planned time period; return from break promptly) and cognitively – please NO e-mail or phone use except during the break.
Have a “kitchen table” conversation – Everyone participates; no one dominates. Share the oxygen with others.
There are no “right answers”. Draw on your own experiences, views and beliefs – you do not need to be an expert.
Keep an open mind. Listen carefully and try hard to understand the views of those who disagree with you.
Help keep the discussion on track. Stick to the questions: try not to ramble.
It is okay to disagree, but don’t be disagreeable.
Respond to others how you want to be responded to.
Take care of yourself. Stand up and stretch as needed.
Conversation organizers can adapt the suggested rules above as necessary. Print the final version on a poster-sized piece of paper to display on the wall of the venue. Having the ground rules visible to everyone helps to set the Community Conversation space as one where participants can trust that they will be able to share their perspectives and can take risks within those rules.
Once the Conversation begins, take a couple of brief minutes to go over each of the ground rules on the poster and ask if any of them need explanation or clarification. Explain that they are intended to create a framework for a frank and open conversation, not to promote any specific agenda. Then, give the participants an opportunity to suggest any changes or additions – these rules are theirs, after all. Lastly, ask the group explicitly if they can accept the ground rules. The facilitator(s) will refer back to them as the Conversation progresses,
especially if the discussion seems to deviate from what everyone agreed.
What to bring
Name tents and nametags
Extra pens and notepads
Markers in multiple, dark colors
Flipcharts – preferred over whiteboards since they can be repositioned them and taken out afterwards. “Smart” whiteboards can also capture information written on them, but they are rare to find.
Poster with the Ground Rules
Copies of the agenda (see below)
Business cards with relevant contact information for potential questions or clarifications later
Hard copies of any materials sent to participants by e-mail in advance of the Conversation
Copies of the evaluation (see below)
Framing the agenda
The agenda for a Community Conversation shouldn’t be too detailed, but just can provide an opportunity to share the process and expectations for this meeting. Do include the break on the agenda. However, do NOT include times on the printed agenda, as the conversation should be allowed to flow and stretch as needed. (However, it might be useful for the facilitator to work out a rough timeline for the agenda – especially for the timing of the break.)
Following is a suggested agenda for a Conversation on PBL and 21st Century Skills – to be carefully adjusted for a particular community:
I. Welcome and Introductions
II. Expectations for today
A. Informational presentation (see below)
III. Discussion about key industry sectors and education needs in our region
IV. Discussion about existing initiatives and resources in our schools
V. Common Core and relation to college and career readiness skills
VI. How Project-Based Learning can support our educational goals
A. The importance of 21st Century Skills
B. Why Project-Based Learning? Definitions and benefits
C. Bringing PBL into our schools
VII. Next steps
A. Other organizations and people who should be engaged
B. Upcoming teacher Conversations and trainings
C. Follow-up steps
VIII. Evaluation and Closing
It can also be helpful to include a printed agenda in the materials given to participants. The facilitator may also want to have it printed at poster size (or just written on a flipchart page) to post on the wall.
STARTING ON THE RIGHT FOOT – SUGGESTED TOPICS AND QUESTIONS
The facilitator(s) should start out by introducing himself and pointing out any project team members present.
Ask each participant to introduce themselves briefly with his or her name and organization, and then another piece of information that is a bit unusual as an icebreaker. These can also reveal interesting aspects of the people in the room. Some suggestions: “What is one thing that no one at work knows about you?” “Tell us one thing that you have learned this week.” Ask everyone to keep it SHORT, and facilitators and other organizers should answer it too.
Asking the question “Why did you come here today?” will often lead to lengthy answers that have limited relevance, and which often will emerge during the conversation anyway. Instead, the facilitator might ask what each participant expects to get out of participating in the Community Conversation.
Tell the group the expected amount of time that the Community Conversation will take (and hold to those starting and ending times).
Explain the goals of the Community Conversation, its role in the larger project, and what organizers hope that participants will take away from it.
Give a brief explanation of the role of the facilitator(s).
Remind the group that notes are being taken (and point out who is taking them), but that the notes won’t include names.
Go over the suggested ground rules and ask for any changes.
Presenting information to frame Community Conversations
In order to set the stage for the upcoming discussion, organizers will likely want to set aside some time to present important information to the group (this is in addition to the setting expectations / ground rules explanation above). Keep this time minimal and at the very beginning of the Conversation; taking a large chunk of time for one leader or participant to talk at the group can kill momentum and undermine the exploration that is key to a successful participatory conversation. The facilitator(s) should also think about what information could instead be sprinkled naturally into later parts of the conversation (without interrupting the flow).
However, explaining new concepts and providing needed facts to the group can also be essential to making sure that all participants are on the same page. If organizers decide to add an informational presentation to the agenda, that role should be assigned to a colleague who is NOT facilitating this Conversation. Taking on the “expert” role shifts the presenter into a very different position relative to the rest of the group, rather than as a facilitator and peer.
Some topics that organizing teams may want to include in an initial informational presentation:
A brief background about project management and Project-Based Learning.
Reinforcement about The Framework for 21st Century Learning and the knowledge, skills, and expertise that will be needed to succeed in work and life.
The goals and strategy of the larger effort to “reimagine schools” in the region.
Common Core State Standards
One big consideration here is whether to use PowerPoint, Prezi, or other types of projected images for this informational sharing. Organizers will need to use their judgment here about whether a) these tools are necessary, b) summarizing data or other information into charts or images would convey it much more quickly than a verbal explanation, c) the room setup allows for a projector and screen that can be easily seen by all participants, and d) handouts would accomplish the same task with less interruption (especially if they can be provided in advance).
Suggested questions to frame and open the discussion
What brought you here today? (This is more appropriate to come after the initial introductions.)
Why is preparing students with 21st Century skills important?
Which skills and attributes are most important to you as employers? To you as educators?
Which skills and attributes are most often lacking in entry-level employees?
Why do you think project-based learning in the classroom is important?
How is this different from the norm right now?
The main responsibility of a note taker is to capture key insights, themes, turning points, and quotes from the Community Conversation.
The organizing team will need to assign someone to capture the ideas, agreements, and follow-up steps that are discussed during a Community Conversation. This should be a separate role from the facilitator(s), although the note-taker can also participate in all discussions. (The facilitator should still write on the flipcharts, as that is a visible summary of discussion that itself plays a role in shaping the conversation).
Tips for note-takers:
DON’T try to write down everything said verbatim. Summaries and shorthand are needed much more than exact wording. (That said, DO listen for statements that might be useful quotes for later and write those down as best as possible.)
DON’T record the Conversation. People talk differently and are willing to open themselves less when they are being recorded. The idea is for note-taking to be as invisible and unobtrusive as possible.
DON’T type at a noisy keyboard. It can distract from the conversation at hand. If the note-taker wants to use a quiet keyboard, test it out first in the Conversation venue with someone else listening and talking.
DO listen for why participants are saying what they say. Think about what is going on beneath the surface. Body language can give important clues.
DO watch for areas of tension and strong emotion, and note those as well.
DO listen for when the facilitator(s) (who will be practicing the techniques of active listening) takes a moment to summarize the recent conversation and/or check in about what she had heard. If the participants agree that the facilitator has gotten it right, she just provided a handy, accurate summary of conversation points.
DO look for turning points in the conversation, where participants were able to break through disagreements, find compromises, and/or reach a new level.
DO listen for issues that seem to be linked together in participants’ minds. Will the community need to solve one before tackling the other?
DO compare what participants say at the beginning of the conversation with where they have arrived at the end.
DO talk to the facilitator immediately following the Conversation to compare what was recorded with what she understood was happening. Ask what points (and quotes!) might have been missed.
DO organize the notes as soon as possible after the Conversation.
DO determine what the 2-3 most important issues were from the Conversation and highlight them in the final notes.
DO summarize the top concerns and likely obstacles raised by the group.
DO point out the themes that naturally arose during the Conversation. These may or may not align with the agenda.
The role of a facilitator must be an active one, keeping the conversation focused on the topics at hand, ensuring that all perspectives are heard, and supporting the group as it works through difficult divides of opinion and perspective.
The following definitions (from The Harwood Institute) of the responsibility and roles of a “Conversation Leader” provide a good summary of the mindset to take into the room as a facilitator:
The main responsibility of a Conversation Leader is to create a discussion that enables you to learn about the community and people’s aspirations. [The facilitator is] not there as an expert but as a curious listener who can help others share what
An effective Conversation Leader:
Explores ideas with people — displays a genuine sense of curiosity.
Listens to people and builds trust.
Pushes people to consider different perspectives — helping folks to understand why others think in different ways.
Helps people reconcile conflicting remarks make in a non-confrontational manner.
Stays focused on the goal of the conversation – remember this is about learning, not promotion.
Prepares for each conversation, reading the guide, going over notes from previous conversations.
These techniques are drawn from a variety of sources, including The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision- Making, The Harwood Institute, and personal experiences.
- Notice the words and phrases that people use, and ask for explanation if they are unclear.
- Mirroring – repeating the exact words that have been said – can be useful to establish trust in the facilitator. Use this early in the conversation to show that each speaker is being heard. But remember to always maintain an open, warm tone, even if the original speaker did not.
- Paraphrasing is an extremely useful tool to use as the conversation develops.
This is one of the most important and fundamental skills that a facilitator can bring into the room. Paraphrasing and repeating ideas can reassure participants that they are being heard and understood, can calm unneeded frustrations and disruptions (as opposed to the necessary ones that come from working through differing perspectives), and can encourage “thinking out loud.”
- Restate the ideas that were said using descriptive language.
- Summarize if the speaker used a lot of sentences to describe his or her idea.
- Start with a framing comment like “If I understand you correctly…” or “It sounds like what you’re saying is…” or “This is what I’m hearing you say…”.
- Use this technique especially when a speaker’s statements have been convoluted or confusing.
- Always ask for and get acknowledgment from the speaker that the paraphrasing was correct. This can be a verbal check-in (“Does that sound like what you were saying?”) or a nonverbal look.
- If an “Okay” was not received, ask for clarification until the facilitator can understand and repeat the idea correctly. One way to do this is to “draw out” the speaker by prompting him or her with open-ended questions for examples and/or further reasoning. “Can you give me an example of…” “Please say more about that…” “I want to make sure I understand…”
- When paraphrasing and/or summarizing multiple ideas that were raised, check back to make sure that no contributions were missed. “Did I capture all of the themes?” “Were those all of the ideas on the table at this point?”
Keep the conversation focused – without stifling the group
- When several people want to speak, ask if all of them want to address the specific subject currently at hand. For those who want to talk about other topics, ask them to wait until after the current discussion is completed. Write their names on a flipchart sheet to assure them that their chance won’t be forgotten.
- If a participant interrupts, firmly and respectfully ask the interruptor to allow the original speaker to complete his or her thought. Promise to address the new idea soon.
- Sometimes the discussion will branch into multiple areas simultaneously, or even multiple approaches to the same idea. When this happens, acknowledge it (“It sounds like we have two or three directions at the same time right now, and I don’t want to lose any of them.”) and ask for a moment as the facilitator to step back. Use paraphrasing techniques to check in with the group and make sure that the situational assessment is correct.
- If participants seem to want to pursue multiple branches, tell them that the group will take a few minutes apiece responding to each in sequence. (When transitioning, it might help to ask the original speaker to re-introduce his or her idea.) After this is completed, summarize the group’s progress and determine the best course to move forward.
- When needed and appropriate, remind the group about where this part of the conversation began or what their shared goal was. “We started this discussion talking about…” “At the beginning of this meeting, we said that we needed to ____. What have we not discussed that will be important to accomplish our goal?”
- When one (or a few) participant dominates the conversation, instead of trying to “control” that person, encourage everyone else to participate more (see below for tips on how to engage them).
Engage everyone in the room
- Make sure that everyone gets a chance to share their views, especially early in the conversation and again at the end.
- Make room for quiet members of the group. “You look like you might be about to say something…”
- Check back with people who have been quiet for a while.
- Ask people to respond to what other participants are saying.
- Be aware if one group or another is dominating the conversation (e.g. men, school district officials) and ask for comments from others so that all views are heard.
- Use the clock – in both directions. “We only have a couple of minutes left on this topic, and I’d like to make sure that we hear from someone who hasn’t spoken yet.” “Since there is a lot of time left, can we hear from someone who hasn’t spoken in a while?” Both can be helpful.
Encourage participants to take risks
- Seek out views that might be in the room but unexpressed. “Does everyone agree with that statement?” “Now that we’ve heard from Participant X, does anyone have a different perspective?” “Is there a third way of looking at this?”
Remember that arguing can be OK
In fact, if participants don’t disagree at all, the group may not be having the discussion that the community needs in order to change the status quo.
- Accept that both disagreements and misunderstandings are inevitable, and allow them to be worked through to resolution.
- Make sure that the discussion remains respectful, and break in if it is not.
- If participants seem to understand the information at hand but are not addressing their clashing perspectives on that information, raise some different ideas that have been said or that are reasonable to expect that people may hold.
- Point out the natural outcomes of the direction that the group is headed and ask if they are prepared to accept them.
What to do when the conversation gets “stuck”
- Evaluate why it is stuck. Do participants need more facts? Is a bias or perception keeping them from understanding or accepting others’ assertions? Is there a low level of trust between participants? Are workplace or political pressures preventing them from moving forward?
- If a participant or subgroup continually repeats similar points, try to paraphrase them to help summarize and move forward. (“This is what I’m hearing….”)
- Point out where the difficulties seem to be. This is where the facilitator’s position as a neutral third party can be most useful. Try to define the differences that have been stated without making judgements about whether one side is more right than another.
- Just as differences between perspectives in the group should be lifted up, listen actively for areas of common ground and point those out as well, checking in to make sure that they are captured accurately and that the group understands that they may agree on more than they had believed.
- When the conversation is “stuck” because of an unending back-and-forth between two people, bring others into the conversation by asking their opinion on the issue at hand or if there are other issues being missed.
- Most of all, exercise patience. The group and its participants sometimes need to struggle through accommodating differing perspectives. They need the facilitator(s) to model patience and faith that the process will work and will result in outcomes that will benefit everyone.
Write the group’s ideas on a flipchart Summarizing the progress of the group can both provide a record of the topics that have been discussed and show participants that their ideas are valued. Separately from note-taking (see below), it is an extremely valuable tool for structuring and balancing the conversation. “ChartWriting provides participants with a group memory” (Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making).
- Position the flipchart on an easel where it can be easily seen by as many participants as possible and is easily accessible to the facilitator (e.g., the head of the table). Make sure that it is high enough!
- Write in clear, print letters that are large enough to be seen at the back of the room.
- Be sure to leave space between lines.
- Have multiple dark-colored markers available – different colors for different purposes (not just black). Yellows and other lighter colors may not be visible from further away, so use them only for underlining and circling.
- Title every page and number pages where they continue from prior ones.
- Write in full but simple sentences where possible – it will be much easier to understand their meaning later in the discussion (or weeks after it is concluded) than single words or phrases.
- Use a lot of bullets to help different items stand apart.
- Star items that are especially important to capture or areas that will need later follow-up.
- Circling items can help to highlight them and connect them to other ideas.
- Diagrams and illustrations (depending on the facilitator’s drawing talent) can also be helpful, but keep them simple and quick!
- Stand up and move around the room, or at least part of it, even if the rest of the participants are seated. That not only helps to maintain the facilitator’s position, but also allows the facilitator(s) to make eye contact with all participants, observe body language, and encourage the participants at the back of the room to speak.
- Allow others to stand up and move around too as needed, as long as they aren’t disruptive. Most people have a limit on the amount of time that they can remain seated at a table and actively engaged in a conversation. There isn’t any reason why they cannot stand up and stretch while they consider what someone else has said.
- DON’T be afraid of silence. Sometimes, participants need time to process what they have heard or consider what they want to say. Don’t let discomfort with silence cut off the time that they need for those tasks. The facilitator(s) will also sometimes need to signal others to remain quiet to allow one speaker to think through his or her next comment.
- However, silence is not golden if it comes because no one is participating in the conversation. Remember the engagement techniques from above.
- Remember that breaks should come when the group needs them, even if that doesn’t match the agenda. When participants are losing focus, starting a lot of side conversations, or checking their phones, that is probably a signal that they need a break to come back fresh.
Asking the participants to complete a brief written evaluation at the end of a Community Conversation can provide organizers with important feedback about the connection between the participants and the topic, their enthusiasm about following up, and the effectiveness of the facilitator(s). The keys to getting good responses are to keep it short (one page!) and to ask open-ended questions that prompt participants to respond with their real feelings.
Sending out the notes and follow-up messages
To maintain momentum, it will be important to connect back to all participants at the Community Conversation within about a week. This initial follow-up message should include the summary notes from the Conversation, highlighting any follow-up steps. Also include dates of upcoming events and other relevant information, and tell the group how often they will be receiving messages like this from organizers (if at all). If the Conversation participants will continue to communicate using an e-mail list or other method, this is a good time also to introduce that to them.
One other possible idea: If some important thoughts came through the evaluations about the importance of Project-Based Learning in schools or ideas for how to follow up, it might be helpful to quote those as well, anonymously. (Omit the ones about the performance of the facilitator.)
Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. Sam Kaner with Lenny Lind, Catherine Toldi, Sarah Fisk, and Duane Berger. New Society Publishers 1996.
“The National Center for Media Engagement: Community Conversation Guide”. The Harwood Institute. www.theharwoodinstitute.org