Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Workshop musings

What makes a successful workshop?

I've led workshops since about 1990. I teach workshops on storytelling, puppetry, story stretches and songs, story games, and writing. My goals are to give the participants specific tools they can take home and put into use immediately, and for us all to have fun.

In the past couple of years, I've been an old dog learning new tricks. I'm learning a new way to teach, one I chafed against at the beginning (thanks, Anthea, for pushing me!). In the past, my method was to give workshop participants tons of information, exercises, games. Throw everything at them and see what sticks.

It isn't that this didn't succeed. My evaluations were usually positive. Here's a comment from a librarian in Colorado:
I came from Grand Junction which is 250 miles from Denver. But I am so glad I did. I would drive it again in a heartbeat to attend one of your workshops!! It was a WONDERFUL learning experience for me and I really appreciated all of your creative ideas.
And another from Kansas:
I believe this is the most overwhelmingly positive response we've had for Summer Reading Workshop in the thirteen years I've been here! In addition to what they wrote on their evaluation forms, many of the workshop participants commented to me how much they enjoyed it and how useful they found it.
Now, though, I keep wondering how much better those workshops might have been if I'd known what I now know.

Last week I gave what may have been my best workshop ever, Hands on, hands in: learning about lifecycles through storytelling and puppetry as part of the USD 497/Lied Center of Kansas Teachers' Summer Workshops. I used the techniques I learned from the Lied.Art.Teach Kennedy Center workshops for artists and what I learned from The Music Teaching Artist's Bible.

I began planning months ago. Instead of choosing a million activities and pieces of information, I narrowed it down to a few specific points.
  • introduce the teachers to the method and information I used with the 2nd graders last fall,
  • connect to the topic of lifecycles,
  • teach puppet and storytelling techniques,
  • include a segment on the Wakarusa Wetlands given by Sandy Sanders and Alison Reber, who organized the Wetlands Learners Project.
I created a detailed outline, which I then fleshed out. For once, in the workshop I stuck with the outline. This is huge--my default has always been to give myself a very general plan and then fly by the seat of my pants.

I began with a brief introduction. Then I split the group into four groups for a short brainstorming session. I asked the teachers to write anything they could think of about lifecycles on big sheets of paper, which we then read aloud and hung around the room.

After this, I demonstrated the residency presentation. This led naturally to the section with Sandy and Alison. Then it was time for a break.

After the break, I taught basic puppet techniques. We played with practice puppets. Then I revealed a huge pile of puppets, up until then hidden under a cloth, and invited the teachers to choose one. This was a hands-on (and hands-in) exercise in how to create a character. More games, more laughter, and everybody was ready for a short break.

After the break, we went back to the lists the teachers had made in the beginning. I suggested that they choose another puppet and in small groups, create a story with the puppets.

The teachers blew me away with their brilliance! Keep in mind that by the time we got to this point, it was late afternoon on a beautiful summer day. Each group created a cohesive story about a lifecycle that was both interesting and fun. I'll never think of the word "metamorphosis" without hearing it as a rap!

One of the things I've learned is allow sufficient time for reflections and questions. The teachers had a lot to offer, so building time in for that was key. They taught each other (and me) well.

So what made this successful? Here are my guesses:
  • Being specific about what I was teaching,
  • Creating a strong outline (and following it),
  • Choosing only a few points and activities,
  • Keeping the lecture aspect to a minimum and audience participation to a maximum,
  • Allowing the teachers to offer what they know already and to ask questions
  • Remembering what Eric Booth says: 80% of what you teach is who you are.
What else do you think makes a good workshop?

P.S. The photos are from a workshop I gave in Sao Paulo last October at St. Francis School, not from last week's workshop.


Tim Sheppard said...

Chocolate biscuits. Without those, how can it be a good workshop? At least, that's what the feedback forms show.

Also, the right level of challenge - not too safe, not too risky, increasing gradually. And playful attitude and activities, for maximum engagement.

megan hicks said...

Narrowing the subject way down is perhaps an example of god in the details and infinity in a grain of sand.

Last month I taught an origami workshop to a room full of very bright middle school kids. The sort of kids I usually try to teach half a dozen models to. On this day, I taught them three things only, and they happily folded those three things over and over and over and over again in different sizes and colors. I watched them wonder "what'll happen if I fold it out of this?" and find out for themselves. They were proud of what they had learned, and I am confident that they can replicate the models on their own, because they spent so much time exploring and internalizing.

As always, I learn so much every time I teach a workshop.

Anonymous said...

That sounded like a brilliant workshop!

Deb said...

What an excellent post. Thanks for making it into a workshop on teaching!

Angela said...

A wonderful tool I use is the Workshop Chart. In addition to relevant information for your workshop, I’ve formulated a “Workshop Chart”. It allows you to look at everything you have planned for the workshop—the exercises, the information, the materials, the handouts, what you need on site, how to set up the workshop space to be conducive to retaining process—and provides a good outline and systematic way of determining the workshop flow, and if there are any holes in the planning of the workshop.

It gives an overall picture of how your workshop is shaping up. At a glance, you can determine if you need to set up additional activities or if you've planned too many activities. Preparing with another person is a snap because you see where best to place activities, lectures, etc.
One final note, it’s a good idea to let a mentor look over your plans. A seasoned presenter can provide helpful insights into flow and structure!

Workshop Charts are easy to formulate. I have a sample workshop chart available if you're interested.

PriscillaHowe said...

Excellent comments, everybody! We didn't have chocolate biscuits, but we did have some sweet rolls and fruit, as well as good levels of risk and safety.

Megan, how cool to watch the kids expand what you taught them. I also always learn when I teach.

I forgot to say that a big part of the planning process was working closely with the sponsors, listening well to what was needed.

Angela, I'd love to see your Workshop Chart. Sounds like a useful tool.