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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