Facilitating an SJ Engage Circle

What is an SJ Engage Circle?

A Learning Circle is a small gathering of people who come together to share their ideals, goals, practices and experiences. Learning Circles are conducted in open neutral environments where participants can create dialogue and exchange ideas on any topic or issue. The goal of the Learning Circle is to support deeper learning and may lead to the formulation of action steps and plans that participants can implement in their own communities.

Facilitate a Learning Circle by using the SJ Engage courses. Read through the discussion questions, articles, watch the videos, and then research anything you feel unsure about. The resources listed on the individual issue pages and in the courses are great assets to help prepare for the SJ Engage Circle.

Remember to frame your discussion in ways that are accessible for teens from many different backgrounds, with different kinds of work, school, and life experience.

Before the Circle


  1. Room and chairs
  2. Laptop, speakers, and projector to view course
  3. Nametags and pens
  4. Refreshments

Preparation Needed

  1. (2-3 weeks before) Promote event.
  2. (3-5 days before) Read articles and watch videos in resources and determine how you want to focus the discussion.
  3. (2 hours before) Review curriculum and discussion questions.
  4. (30 minutes before) Set up chairs in a circle, display circle guidelines, and set out refreshments.
  5. (5 minutes before) Pass out pre-evaluations.

Starting the Circle

Explain Your Role

  • My role is to ask questions to help us have a good discussion.
  • To be sure I get what you’re saying, I may ask follow-up questions, or play “devil’s advocate.” I’ll ask follow-up questions such as, “What do you mean by that?” or “Can you say more about that?” or “What makes you think that?” or “How does that make you feel?”
  • To make sure we hear from everyone, I may ask someone who has had a chance to talk a lot to hold off on comments at times. If I do call on you, you can always say, “Pass.” I just want to make sure everyone has the chance to participate.

Guidelines for Each SJ Engage Circle Discussion

  • Listen with respect.
  • Each person gets a chance to talk.
  • One person talks at a time. Don’t cut people off.
  • When sharing, speak about yourself and your personal experiences.
  • It’s OK to disagree with someone else—in fact, it can be helpful—but personal attacks are never appropriate.
  • Help the facilitator keep things on track.
  • After this event is over, it is OK to share the main ideas discussed in the small group but not OK to link specific comments to specific people (“He said … and she answered….”)

Working the Circle


  • First name.
  • What school your attend.

Learning and Discussion

  • Move through the SJ Engage course.
  • Watch the videos, read the articles, or use the additional resources.
  • Reflect on what was watched or read.
  • Use the sample discussion questions in the SJ Engage course further dialogue about the issue.

Closing the Circle


  • What new insights did you gain from the discussion?
  • What themes keep occurring throughout the discussion?
  • What do we still need to talk about—what areas do we want to be sure to cover in our discussions?
  • How will you use these ideas to initiate change in your community?

Tips & Tricks

Here is a list of tips and tricks to include in a handout for the audience members. These tips could also be useful for promoting the program, social media, displays, and other outreach activities.

Take nothing at face value

  • Notice the words and phrases people use.
  • Probe by asking, “What do you mean?" and “What are you getting at?”

Listen for where people get stuck

  • Listen for moments where people need more facts or where a perception prevents them from saying more about a concern.

Engage people early on

  • Make sure everyone says something early on.
  • Ask people what they think about what others are saying.

Ask people to square their contradictions

  • Illuminate what folks are struggling with.
  • Ask, “I know this can be a really tough issue, but how do the two things you said fit together?”

Keep juxtaposing views and concerns

  • Pointing out contrasts will help people articulate what they really believe and give you a deeper understanding of what they think.

Help keep the conversation focused

  • Help people stay focused.
  • Remind participants of what they are discussing.
  • Don't let things get too far afield.

Piece together what people are saying

  • Folks won’t make one all–inclusive statement about what they think.
  • Say, “This is what I’m hearing. Do I have it right?”

Keep in mind the “unspoken” rules

  • Different conversations and spaces have their own sets of “rules.”
  • Check the level of trust people have and what it means for how you should interact.

Watch out for your own preconceived views

  • Everyone has biases that can filter our questions and interpretations.
  • Be alert to them.

If few people dominate the conversation, then...

  • Engage each person from the start.
  • Make sure everyone says something early on.
  • Ask, “Are there any new voices on this issue?” or “Does anyone else want to jump in here?”
  • Be direct and say, “We seem to be hearing from the same people. Let’s give others a chance to talk.”
  • Call on people by name to answer.

If the group gets off on a tangent or a person rambles on and on, then...

  • Ask, “How does what you’re talking about relate to our challenge?” or “What does that lead you to think about (the question at hand)?”
  • Ask them to restate or sum up what they said in a few words.
  • If you can’t get a person to focus, interrupt them when they take a breath and move to another person or question. Then bring them back into the conversation later.

If someone seems to have a personal grudge about an issue and keeps talking about it, then...

  • Remind the person where the group is trying to focus.
  • Ask him/her to respond to the question at hand.
  • Acknowledge the person and move on. Say, “I can understand where you are coming from, but we need to move on.”
  • If the person continues to be disruptive, interrupt them. Say, “We heard you, but we’re just not talking about that right now.”

If people argue, then...

  • Don’t let it bother you too much — it’s okay as long as it is not mean–spirited.
  • Find out what’s behind the argument.
  • Ask why people disagree, get to the bottom of it.
  • Break the tension with a joke or something funny.
  • Stop to review the ground rules.
  • Take a break.

If people never disagree or are “too polite,” then...

  • Play devil’s advocate.
  • Bring up or introduce different or competing ideas and see how people respond.
  • Tell the group you’ve noticed that they don’t disagree much and ask if everyone is really in as much agreement as it seems.


Common Core: ELA Speaking & Listening

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.9-10.1 – Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9-10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. 
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.9-10.1.A – Come to discussions prepared, having read and researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence from texts and other research on the topic or issue to stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.9-10.1.B – Work with peers to set rules for collegial discussions and decision-making (e.g., informal consensus, taking votes on key issues, presentation of alternate views), clear goals and deadlines, and individual roles as needed.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.9-10.1.C – Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that relate the current discussion to broader themes or larger ideas; actively incorporate others into the discussion; and clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.9-10.1.D – Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives, summarize points of agreement and disagreement, and, when warranted, qualify or justify their own views and understanding and make new connections in light of the evidence and reasoning presented.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACTY.SL.9-10.2 – Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACTY.SL.9-10.3 – Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, identifying any fallacious reasoning or exaggerated or distorted evidence.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACTY.SL.9-10.4 – Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACTY.SL.9-10.5 – Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACTY.SL.9-10.6 – Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards: Diversity

  • DI.9-12.6 – I interact comfortably and respectfully with all people, whether they are similar to or different from me.
  • DI.9-12.7 – I have the language and knowledge to accurately and respectfully describe how people (including myself ) are both similar to and different from each other and others in their identity groups.
  • DI.9-12.8 – I respectfully express curiosity about the history and lived experiences of others and exchange ideas and beliefs in an open-minded way.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards: Justice

  • JU.9-12.11 – I relate to all people as individuals rather than representatives of groups and can identify stereotypes when I see or hear them.
  • JU.9-12.12 – I can recognize, describe and distinguish unfairness and injustice at different levels of society.
  • JU.9-12.13 – I can explain the short and long-term impact of biased words and behaviors and unjust practices, laws and institutions that limit the rights and freedoms of people based on their identity groups.
  • JU.9-12.14 – I am aware of the advantages and disadvantages I have in society because of my membership in different identity groups, and I know how this has affected my life.
  • JU.9-12.15 – I can identify identify figures, groups, events and a variety of strategies and philosophies relevant to the history of social justice around the world.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards: Action

  • AC.9-12.16 – I express empathy when people are excluded or mistreated because of their identities and concern when I personally experience bias.
  • AC.9-12.17 – I take responsibility for standing up to exclusion, prejudice, and injustice.
  • AC.9-12.18 – I have the courage to speak up to people when their words, actions or views are biased and hurtful, and I will communicate with respect even when we disagree.


Email teenhq@sjlibrary.org or visit sjpl.org/sjengage for more information.


This project has been made possible in part by a grant from Silicon Valley Community Foundation.