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5.3 - Tips for Particular Sized Workshops

Good news: most of the exercises in this guide will work very well whether you’re working with a small group of three or a very large group of 300. I know because I’ve used them with very small groups and large groups of 400+.

Having said that, there are a few differences. Before I share tips for dealing with different-sized groups, however, here’s the best advice I can offer, and it applies no matter the size of your workshop...

Recruit help.

This means reaching out to English teachers, other counselors, recent alumni or other mentors, and asking them to volunteer for your workshop, especially if you’re working over multiple days.

And train them.

This may mean having them read through this very guide, having a planning meeting beforehand, or sending them this video, called Five College Essay Questions Every Counselor Should Be Able to Answer, which essentially provides a crash course in the language and methodology I’ve been describing in this guide.

Also, teach your adult volunteers to be on the alert for adultism, which is the belief that adults always know best.

Ask your adult volunteers to recognize, for example, when they are “clumping” (i.e. only sitting beside or talking to one another in one section of the room or auditorium) and encourage them to spread out among the students.

Ask them to abide by the agreements set at the start of the workshop by participating fully. This may mean sharing something they are grateful for during the “Gratitudes” warm-up, or perhaps even sharing a few of their own deeply held values.

Ask your volunteers to, for the purposes of growth and discovery during the workshop, think of themselves not as the students’ teachers or superiors, but as equals.

These things will help create a powerful environment for growth no matter how many students you’re working with.

Okay, here's some advice for working with different sized groups.

If you’re working with a very small group of (say, 2-10) students…
Consider yourself lucky. Many students will see the small-group environment as a chance to be more open and they’ll feel more safe sharing with you and others. There may also be more opportunities for one-on-one feedback (particularly in a multi-day workshop) from you and the volunteer mentors. A few tips:

  • If you have time, consider doing the warm-up exercises (see Lesson 1.2) together as a group. Each person might share one thing they’re celebrating, for example, or one thing they’re grateful for. You’ll find the effect will be cumulative and students will likely grow comfortable with one another (and the mentors) faster.
  • Participate in the exercises yourself as much as possible, especially if there’s an odd number of students. Say you have seven students… that’s three pairs of students sharing their Feelings and Needs exercise with one another while you work with the seventh student. (Note: You don’t have to share your own Feelings and Needs; you can use the whole time to focus on the student.) Or say you have eleven students and three mentor volunteers--have the three mentors pair with three students and have the remaining eight students pair up while you hang out and check your cell phone (I’M KIDDING DO NOT HANG OUT AND CHECK YOUR CELL PHONE). Having said this, know when it makes sense to let students work together so you can rest, as it might be a long day and you need to conserve your energy to make it through.
  • If you can get a 4:1 student-to-mentor ratio you’re doing really well. Any more mentor volunteers than that and they’ll be sitting around, especially during a multi-day workshop.
  • Decide if you would like to approve student topics before they write a draft. If yes, see the tips in Lesson 3.1 for how to approve students’ topics in an efficient way.
  • At the end of a multi-day workshop, definitely create an opportunity for students to share their stories. I share more on this in Lesson 5.5.

If you’re working with a medium-sized group of (say 20-40) students…

  • Fifteen minute, one-on-one speed sessions work really well. This helps to make sure lots of students get help.
  • Have students sign up for sessions with you and the other volunteer mentors using a whiteboard or a simple Google doc like this one. This can work for speed sessions or longer sessions, but either way I recommend setting a time limit so that lots of students get help. Sign-ups can also help you track which students could be getting more attention.
  • Paired work between peers will be essential, since you and the volunteer mentors likely won’t be able to meet with individual students as much as the students might like. Be sure to have students read the tips in 3.2 for giving feedback and the tips in Lesson 5.2 on how to keep students focused during paired work.
  • Consider creating an opportunity for students to share their stories, especially if doing a multi-day workshop. More on this in Lesson 5.5.

If you’re working with a large group of more than 100 students…

  • Recruit as many volunteer mentor essay coaches as you can, especially if you’re doing a multi-day workshop. I can’t tell you how important this is. It can be especially useful to recruit the mentors and teachers that students are likely to continue working with over successive drafts after the workshop. Raise money, if you need to, to pay these people. They are worth it.

Side note: sometimes a volunteer mentor will make a strong connection with a student or two and may give students their email address and offer further help. If this is cool, great; if this is not cool, let your volunteer mentors know beforehand.  

  • Paired work will be essential. Be sure to have students read the tips in Lesson 3.2 for giving feedback and the tips in Lesson 5.2 on how to keep students focused during paired work.

  • Consider creating an opportunity for students to share their stories, especially if doing a multi-day workshop. See more in Lesson 5.5.

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