P2PU Gathering 2018: “It was a sort of large scale learning circle for learning circles”

Originally posted on Medium by Marsha Malcolm on June 15, 2018

It was 5:00am at the San Jose airport and a TSA agent was vigorously shaking my tupperware full of last night’s spaghetti. She was trying to convince me that it could be a liquid. While you likely don’t know me I am sure it will come as no surprise that I am neither chipper nor have any patience for asinine claims on states of matter so early in the morning. I tried my best to maintain my cool as I watched my dubious breakfast choice brutalized at the hands of a blue-uniformed bully.

“Pasta has sauce. Sauce is a liquid, you know,” she lectured. Irritation flared, and as I reeled in my snarky side I quietly reminded myself of a few things: You know spaghetti is not a liquid. And more importantly, you are on your way to an event you very much want to be part of.

The reminders worked. While I wasn’t exactly what you’d call zen I was able to free myself from security with a forced smile (and maybe a mumbled expletive) and make my way to the gate. I was officially on my way to Kansas City for the first Learning Circles gathering.


My name is Marsha and I am a librarian for the San Jose Public Library at the Village Square Branch. When I first arrived at our branch a year ago, a fresh library school graduate, one of the projects that was handed to me was ‘Learning Circles’. While I had no idea what a Learning Circle was (the only kind of circles I had heard of before were of the drum varietal), I was eager to dive in and own the first project I was able to take charge of. Whatever a Learning Circle was, I was going to rock it. I was going to make the most ‘learningest circle’ of them all.

Behold the librarian in her natural habitat

After doing some preliminary research on Learning Circles (I am a librarian after all) I could see the Learning Circle model was perfect for the library, and a great way to add more adult programming to our schedule. I related to a lot of the struggles involved in working through online courses alone, and was excited to be part of something that capitalized on the availability of MOOCs. I connected with other librarians working on launching circles in the system, I read the facilitator handbook, I chose a course, opened sign ups, and people registered. I looked forward to the first day. This will be easy, I thought. Oh, how young and naive I was.

My first circle was a total flop.

Two people attended the first session (I counted myself to make me feel better), and thereafter just one person showed (me). No worries, I told myself. This was a pilot. You’re older and wiser now. Let’s try again.

And try again I did. I listened in on the Learning Circle community calls. I asked my neighborhood what they needed, I surveyed and promoted, and I ended up working my way through a course with two other people. While I was pleased with the improvement, Learning Triangle just isn’t as catchy as Learning Circle. I could see the potential of the Learning Circle model so clearly, but wasn’t sure how to best apply my efforts to help them grow. I needed something more than just personal reflection to move forward. I needed to meet my peers, ask questions, and get answers. When the Learning Circles gathering in Kansas City was announced, I knew I wanted to go.

In the days leading up to my departure I was asked a lot of questions by co-workers, friends, and family. “Why are you going to Kansas City?” “What exactly is this? A meeting? A conference?” “What are you going to do there?” While the whys were fairly easy to answer, the whats were harder to address.

Kansas City

I arrived in Kansas City some eight hours after ‘The TSA Spaghetti Sentencing’ (‘not liquid’ was the decision). I was haggard after two plane rides filled with unwanted mid-flight massages (kicking children and turbulence), but no less ready to engage than before. One desperately needed nap later I found myself in a room full of strangers and the smell of Kansas City BBQ. While at the time I considered the dinner to be a well needed refueling, it was also an opportunity to make some connections and it was a great ‘warm-up’ for my time in Kansas City and with the Peer 2 Peer University team.


On the roof of Kansas City Public Library

At some point in the evening I sat down at a full table. After some awkward (mine) and awesome (everyone else) introductions, we all began to chat. It immediately became clear that there were some very common themes in our conversations. 1) We were all passionate about the work we do, and 2) We were all looking for a catalyst. Many of us were in need of a spark. Some of us had done several Learning Circles before, others were hoping to start their first, but we were all looking for guidance on what our next step could be.

I recognized some of the names of people I met from P2PU’s community forum. While internet forums are a great way to unite minds near and far, it’s a challenge to build a community entirely online with people across so many different time zones. From this first dinner together, the community began to transform from virtual to physical. Names were matched to faces and a responsibility to those present began to take shape. As I left that evening in search of dessert with a few of my colleagues, I looked forward to the next day with excitement. I was among peers, and we had come together with a common purpose.

Our sticky note art

After a good night’s sleep our first and only full day together arrived, and it began with drawing a self portrait. Working with a metallic sharpie and a brightly colored sticky note, I produced a fridge-worthy work of art. This simple activity, which I thought to be a fantastic ice breaker, set the tone for the rest of the day. Our renditions of ourselves were far from professional portraiture, some humorous, but all together they showed that we were present, together, and acknowledged there was room for improvement.

After a leisurely breakfast we got to work. There were brief moments throughout the day that resembled a typical class or training- the pros from P2PU were at the front of the room and referring to a PowerPoint. This set-up was not favored, however, as the majority of our time was spent in partners or small groups in discussion.

We discussed our goals, we discussed our experiences, we discussed our successes and our failures. Everyone with something to say eventually had a time to say it, and the P2PU team did not stay at the front of the room for long. Everyone sat down together, we mixed up groups, and the dynamic of expert/novice changed to one of a team all trying to accomplish the same thing- to find that catalyst we were all looking for.


Group Discussion

For me, the most impactful discussions we had were those discussing our goals and our vision for Learning Circles in our own community. Whether it was getting the first Learning Circle off the ground or shooting to make the name ‘Learning Circle’ as recognizable as ‘Book Club’, there was a certain power in announcing personal goals to the room- not a binding power, but more so there was power in the act as it made the goal more achievable. For myself, my goal was to get more librarians involved with Learning Circles in the system. In the midst of the discussions surrounding visions for our own systems it dawned upon me that simply setting a goal was the catalyst I was looking for- once I knew what my ‘destination’ was to be, I could develop a plan on how to get there.

I am certain that this realization was predicted, as our discussions were designed to address roadblocks we might come across as well as to anticipate our future needs on the way to achieving our goals. They were also designed for us to seek guidance from each other, and as the day progressed I felt many people finding their own spark. Perhaps it was a clear definition of what a Learning Circle is, or an idea of what a Learning Circle looked like. Some of us needed more support as we developed presentations, while others needed to talk out the challenge that was stalling them. The experience was designed to ask us what our challenges were, and the activities were adapted to address them.

The final half day was a day of wrapping up, review, and addressing further challenges that simply could not fit into the previous days agenda. When I got up to go I waved to everyone, and felt grateful to have been part of the event. I had connected with my peers, formed a goal, and had the opportunity to absorb passion and wisdom from others. As I was walking back to my hotel to collect my bags the event filled me with a resolve to do more, and to do it better.


Beautiful vista while I reflected

On the flight home my mind raced to reflect on everything I had heard and learned. It was not long into this reflection that I realized I could now answer the ‘whats’ that had been asked of me before. The Learning Circle Gathering in Kansas City was not a conference or a summit, but in itself it was a sort of large scale Learning Circle for Learning Circles. The teacher/student dynamic was not relied upon, we instead focused on peer learning and the P2PU team served as facilitators to guide our conversations without over regulating them. We were developing a facilitator mindset by seeing it in action. A responsibility to one another also came into being as meeting in person is far different than talking online. After announcing my own goals I felt then and feel now a responsibility to work towards it so I can share what I learn with everyone I met, and of course with those that will come after as well.

By participating in the gathering I was able to see the power of peer learning and what a Learning Circle can potentially do for its participants. Learning Circles are energizing, inspiring, and an opportunity for everyone to shine; and I cannot wait to bring home and perpetuate these outcomes in my own community.

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