how to facilitate a virtual writer’s workshop for kids

April 16, 2020

Here’s another video for you! In my dreams, families far and wide will start up virtual writer’s workshops during this difficult, cooped-up time. I’m going to show you how–and it’s simple! The video offers an overview; I lay out a plan below.

If you still need convincing, in my last video I talked about how much kids love workshops, and why they’re a great idea right now. Special request to those of you who have facilitated workshops in the past: please share your experience in the comments! Your positive experiences will encourage others.

I want to make this easy so parents jump in and do this, without the need for research and planning. There are some additional links below, but here’s a basic blueprint:

  • Create a group of kids.  Workshops work for all ages! I’ve done them with three and four-year-olds who dictate stories to a parent. The parent reads the piece aloud during the workshop, and then the kids give feedback. (Little kids are the best enthusiastic feedback-givers!) I’ve done workshops with teenagers–who love them–and all ages in between. Mixed ages can work well too. Regarding group size: even two kids could benefit from hearing each other’s writing and sharing feedback. Three to five might be ideal in an online platform. I’ve done groups with up to twelve in person, but a large group is much more to manage. Take on what you think you can handle. You can always invite a few more kids later.
  • Choose a meeting platform. Skype can do conference calls for up to 50 people for free. Zoom has a free version, but it limits calls to 40 minutes. For $14.99 a month, your meeting time is unlimited, which may be worth it if you’ll be doing this for the short term. (If you have experience with other platforms, please share in the comments!)
  • Have kids write something to share, ahead of time. It’s fine–and often preferable–to have kids dictate their work to an adult, who can write it down. More details on this below. Kids should feel free to write about whatever they like–stories, nonfiction about something that interests them, poems, interviews, songs, comics…
  • Get everyone set up on the conference call. Two participants in the same house can be side-by-side on the same device, or on different devices in different rooms. Multiple devices in one room will create feedback. If you’re facilitating, it’s probably best if your child is on another device in a different room–unless your child is young and needs your help. You may want each child to have a parent alongside–at least for the first meeting, or if the participants are young. Phones work for conference calls, but you can’t always see all participants at once like you can on a computer or tablet. Also, consider asking kids not to use the chat feature during the workshop, as it will be distracting.
  • Optional: At your first meeting, consider starting off with a picture book. Read a short book aloud–or an excerpt from something longer–and have kids give feedback, based on the instructions below. There’s less pressure in learning to give feedback when the writer isn’t present. Choose a book that you think the kids will enjoy. I’d offer suggestions, but you’ll have to select from what you have in your home. 🙂
  • Have a child volunteer to read. Show the kids how to mute themselves on screen, so everyone is muted but the reader. Kids who are unable to read on their own can have an adult or sibling read for them. You may want to set a time limit, maybe five or ten minutes per reader, depending on how many kids are in your group. If a piece exceeds the limit, the reader can continue at the next meeting.
  • When the reader finishes, encourage listeners to unmute themselves and applaud. Then they raise hands to offer feedback. Allow the reader to call on listeners, rather than having the adult facilitator do so. This gives kids ownership in their feedback session, and many writers relish this role. (You will need to assess how to manage sound. If you have issues with too many kids talking at once or creating ambient noise, you can keep listeners muted until it’s their turn to offer feedback.)
  • Have listeners start by simply sharing something they remember from the piece. This is an easy way to get going, and listeners tend to remember the most salient parts of the work, which is important feedback for the writer. “I remember _________.”
  • Allow listeners to give further positive feedback on the piece. All feedback should be positive. This is vitally important to convey from the outset. If any feedback veers toward constructive or negative, stop the speaker gently and immediately, and remind that only positive feedback is allowed. You want this to be a productive experience for everyone. Also, positive feedback is likely to be more useful than you might imagine! More on this below.
  • Consider offering feedback prompts to help kids know what to say. In your early workshops you’ll need to help kids learn how to give feedback. Encourage listeners to give specific feedback, to tell why they like something in the piece. You may need to nudge a bit at first. Pose a simple prompt like, “I liked the part where _________ because _________” and have the kids respond. Other prompts to try: “I noticed you used the word _________ because _________.” “Your piece reminded me of _________ because _________.” (Kids often notice, with keen insight, that writing reminds them of published books or films.) If you’re tech-savvy, you can use screen-sharing to post prompts for kids to refer to.
  • The adult facilitator and any other adult participants can also offer feedback, but they should raise their hands along with the kids. Their role in the workshop shouldn’t be elevated; if anything, they should hold back and let the kids’ exchanges take center stage.
  • After listeners have given feedback, give another round of applause before moving to the next reader. You can’t overdo the applause!
  • Continue until all readers have read. Depending on the size and age of your group, you may need to take a “wiggle break” together half-way through, or a short, off-camera break to run around the house. If you have a large group–more than, say, five kids–you may want to have kids sign up to read at alternate meetings. All kids attend and give feedback, even if they aren’t reading. It can be hard to listen to several readers in a single session.
  • Plan your next meeting! I usually host in-person workshops twice a month, but a weekly meeting may work well for virtual workshops. Gathering is easy, and the kids are probably longing for social interaction right now.

Yes, I’ve written a book on facilitating workshops but you don’t need it right now! Keep it in mind if your group enjoys your virtual workshop and you might like to facilitate an in-person workshop in the future. For now, let’s keep things simple so you can get started.

A few links if you want to know a bit more:

You can read the introduction to my book here. It discusses the benefits of a workshop, why workshops work, and includes actual quotes from enthusiastic kids and parents.

Read about the power of positive feedback here. Scroll down for the highlights! I highly recommend sticking with positive feedback only, especially as you begin. Offering constructive feedback to a writer is a much trickier proposition. Even if kids think they want constructive feedback, the workshop can turn negative quickly–I’ve heard horror stories from parents.

Later, if you want to move into what I call “building feedback,” here are two excellent prompts to add to your feedback sessions: “I’d like to know more about _________.” And: “I’m confused about _________.” These two simple prompts give opportunities for a listener to share more, without conveying too much negativity. Even later, if your writers want to go further with writer-led feedback sessions, I have some tips for you here.)

Read about taking dictation, in this series. As your kids prepare their workshop readings, you and your fellow parents might consider taking dictation, even if the kids are older. Dictating removes the mechanical challenges of writing, allowing the child to concentrate on more complex ideas and sentences. The series includes a post on taking dictation from older kids.

Read questions and commentary from folks who have facilitated their own workshops here–and, I hope, in the comments below as well.

I hope that many of you consider facilitating a workshop of your own. Try a single session and see how it goes! If you have questions, please fire away in the comments below and I’ll respond there.

You can do this!

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa April 18, 2020 at 9:50 am

Patricia, I agree with everything you say and appreciate your timely advice. Having read your book several years ago, I embarked upon running an in-person group for young writers for my eldest daughter and her peers. It was such a success, but children eventually moved on to school or other activities. Fast forward many years and I’d been contemplating starting a similar group for my youngest child and his friends. But I dragged my feet and didn’t take any action… until Covid-19. Zoom suddenly felt like the perfect platform for offering a facilitated session. Our group runs every two weeks for about 1-1.5 hours. In between those weeks we do a Poetry Teatime, so the children always have a language-oriented group every Wednesday. The children who come are so excited about bringing their writing, even the ones who have previously resisted writing.

I think it helped to be really clear at the outset about several things: listeners are welcome! Not everyone has to read aloud; parents can read a child’s work if the child is feeling overwhelmed. We have several near-diverse children in our group who enjoy being a part of things but struggle to interact. I still wanted them to be able to access the group without the added pressure. Parents can take dictation! The child doesn’t have to do the actual writing. It doesn’t have to be a story! We’ve had lists, recipes, non-fiction and even comic strips.

Our group is fairly young: ages 6-10. It is a massive help if parents stay close to help with the technology, encourage children to speak clearly toward the microphone and generally offer support. Some children don’t need this, but I’ve found that particularly quiet or shy children really benefit from that added help.

Lastly, the facilitator needs to practise self-care. It can be intense to keep track of everything that’s going on. Use the loo before the call, have a refreshing drink nearby, use a notebook to take notes and establish a running order. And don’t be afraid to just freestyle things. It doesn’t have to be perfect. We’re living in an imperfect world.

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patricia April 20, 2020 at 11:49 am

Lisa! Thank you so much for checking in here! I’m so happy to know that you’ve already begun a virtual workshop and that it’s working for your group! And I love hearing your insights. Especially about how to make things work for kids with different needs, and the suggestion that parents stay close when working with younger kids.

And your advice to just freestyle things: yes! There’s no need for perfection here, especially when, despite challenges,The children who come are so excited about bringing their writing, even the ones who have previously resisted writing. Yes, yes, yes! Exactly. I’m so hoping that others will read your words and be encouraged to try this too.

Thank you so much for sharing your experience! xo.

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patricia April 20, 2020 at 12:00 pm

Readers, I’m going to post a comment conversation that happened on my last post, as I’d love to have it on this page as well, since Jennifer had such good advice based on her current virtual workshop!

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Jennifer April 8, 2020 at 10:06 pm
This is just what we’ve been doing! It’s been easier to set up because the kids I’m working with have been doing writers’ workshop together for a couple of years now. It was my friend’s suggestion that I keep it going over an internet platform. Our first one via zoom lasted two hours because they were all so keen to get back into it!

It works really well because it’s structured. Chatting via zoom/skype/etc can be tricky for kids because they’re naturally so active. WW gives each of the kids a chance to be facilitator, to be in charge of the call, and everybody gets a turn to speak giving feedback.

I was thinking that if I were trying to start a group from scratch (am thinking about offering it to some of the other kids I know), I would print out the feedback prompts in large font and show them to the kids one at a time; and possibly screen share with a view of all the prompts when it came time to give feedback. That way they would know how to give constructive feedback! (When I ran it out of my house, I printed the prompts and stuck them up on the wall.)

Do you know, I’m so grateful for the whole writers’ workshop thing. My daughter loves it, the rest of the kids love it, and it’s such a joy to hear their writing improve as they grow and practice. (And I just looked and although I bought the book in 2016 and have been doing them ever since, I’ve never left you a review! I will try to do that today!)

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patricia April 9, 2020 at 11:32 am
Jennifer! Thank you so much for sharing your experience! While I’ve done virtual workshops with other adult writers for years, I’ve never actually done one with kids, so I appreciate any suggestions you can offer.

I’m glad to hear your thoughts on sharing feedback prompts. I’m planning to simplify the workshop process for parents, so they don’t feel overwhelmed with all the info in my book, and can get a workshop off the ground quickly. I wasn’t planning on mentioning prompts, but you’re helping me remember how helpful they can be for kids, especially when they’re starting out. I love the idea of posting them as a screen share, if parents are up for that. I’m going to think about it.

Do you have any tips for helping them take turns talking? In my stripped-down blueprint for a workshop I am planning to suggest that the writer take charge of the feedback session and call on speakers, as I think that’s so important–as you’ve noticed! Do you use the hand-raising feature in Zoom? Or do the kids just raise their hands so the writer sees it them the video?

Also, do you have any tips for wiggly kids? Does extra noise create problems? It might be worth having kids mute themselves until they’re called on to give feedback, but I don’t know if that would require too much of a learning curve. I was also thinking of suggesting that larger groups take a brief mid-call break, or at least a “wiggle break” where everyone gets up and moves. I think your daughter is about ten? How old are the kids you’re working with, and how many are in your group?

Ha! You probably didn’t expect to leave a comment, only to be assaulted with questions! But the fact that you’ve done in-person and virtual workshops is such valuable experience. I’ll take any other suggestions or experiences you have to offer!

I’m so happy to hear that your group is still going strong–even in these trying times. Some of the most rewarding emails and comments I get are from parents who have given workshops a try. Their experiences are, unfailingly, glowing. Little thrills me more. <3

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Jennifer Boere April 9, 2020 at 12:20 pm
Hi Patricia! I don’t feel like much of an expert — I’ve only done two virtual workshops so far, and the second one was today!

What we’ve done in terms of noise (and some of them have toddler siblings around) is to mute everybody except the person currently reading their writing. Then we unmute everybody for the feedback. (First it was the host managing that, but the kids are so tech-savvy that they can sort themselves out now!) I have had to clamp down hard on the chat feature — one of the girls was distracting herself and everybody else with typed messages!

For feedback, we just raise our hands so that the writer sees them in the video. I don’t know if it would be better for a new group (especially teens) to use the hand-raising feature. I didn’t even know that there is a hand-raising feature! But my group is so used to physically raising hands that I don’t think it’s occurred to any of them to do it differently. And I think for younger kids, the physical hand-raising is simple and familiar.

The kids I’m working with are 7 to 13. (The 7 year old is a new member who has joined her big sister since we moved to virtual workshops, but she knows all the kids in the group already. Otherwise the youngest is 9.) I have no idea how you remembered that my daughter is 10! We’ve got 9 kids now.

We used to meet fortnightly (in person) and everybody read every time; now we’re doing it weekly and half the kids read each time. There hasn’t been much of a problem with wiggliness, but I haven’t fussed much about younger children moving out of camera range — they’re still listening and they come back to give their feedback!

It’s been really lovely, actually, continuing the workshops. I love the kids and I love their writing and they really love getting to see their friends (and getting their feedback!) — so it’s wins all around.

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patricia April 9, 2020 at 5:25 pm
This is so helpful, Jennifer. Thank you! You are two virtual workshops more of an expert than I am, so I appreciate it.

The notion of muting everyone but the reader until feedback time is super helpful. I’ll add that to my post. And I’m glad to know that straightforward raising of hands still works.

I love that you have a range of 7-13 year-olds in your group! I’ve found that mixed ages can work really well. Different-aged kids bring different qualities to the workshop. (And as far as remembering that your daughter is 10–I admit that I can search for past reader comments on the backend of my blog. I like to do that when I respond to people, so I’m remembering the details of devoted commenters like you. )

It’s also good to know that you’re meeting weekly in this new format. That’s exactly the suggestion I made in my post draft. It’s easier to gather virtually, and I think kids will benefit from more regular gatherings right now.

I love that you are so happy to be reconvening with your group. That’s just what I always felt, and it’s what other workshop facilitators have conveyed to me: you become quite attached to the kids in your group! There is something beautiful about being allowed into their creative minds, and it forges a bond that most adults don’t anticipate going in. Wins all around, indeed.

I appreciate the feedback so much–it’s been a big help as I write my post. If you think of anything else, please let me know! xo!

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