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5.2 Best Practices for Leading a Personal Statement Workshop of Any Size

In my workshops, I want students to feel safe, productive, and I want to leave room for the unexpected. 

I help students feel safe by setting agreements at the start of the workshop. See Lesson 1.2 for more on this.

I help students feel productive by keeping a tight container. Some ways I do this include:

  • Starting and ending on time.
  • Saying “the break will last eight minutes” and actually having it last eight minutes. This may mean resuming the workshop precisely when I said I would, even if everyone isn’t back yet.
  • Requesting silence during solo writing work. When people talk, I try to repeat my request clearly and neutrally (without shaming anyone or getting upset): “I’d like to once again request silence for this exercise. Thank you.”
  • I let them know how much time is left for writing assignments and paired work (“Two minutes more… One more minute… etc.”)

You’ll have your own ways of doing this. And while keeping a tight container can be relatively easy when you (the facilitator) are doing most of the talking, it can be more difficult when asking students to pair and share with one another. To this end, here's...

How to Make Sure Students Are Focused During Paired Assignments
It can be tough keeping teenagers focused on a writing assignment, particularly if it’s late in the day and they’re being asked to work with a partner. In fact, that may sound like a nightmare and totally not do-able.

But it’s totally do-able, if you set it up right. And peer feedback can sometimes lead to the biggest insights so it’s worth trying. Here are some ways to keep students on task:

1. Make sure the task is super duper clear. “Brainstorm with a partner” is not super duper clear. Neither is “Go over the work you’ve done so far.” Why? “Brainstorm” and “Go over the work” can mean a lot of different things. Better instructions:
  1. “In a moment--not right now!--I’ll have you pick a partner.”
  2. “First decide who will be Partner A and who will be Partner B.”
  3. “Partner A will spend two minutes sharing about three different essence objects on their list. Why did you list them? What do they represent to you? Partner B will mostly listen, but can ask questions to invite their partner to go deeper. Open-ended questions like, 'Can you say more about that?' and 'Why else is that important to you?' are great.”
  4. “After two minutes I’ll call ‘Switch partners!’”
  5. “Then Partner B will share and Partner A will have a chance to ask questions and listen.”
  6. “Any questions about how you’re supposed to spend the next four minutes?”
  7. “Okay, pick a partner and begin.”

2. Clarify how much time this exercise will last. As with the 8-minute break in Lesson 2.2, feel free to set weird numbers of minutes for your exercises--not five or ten minutes, for example, but six minutes or eleven. Those tend to stick in students’ minds better.

3. Assign a little less time than you think the exercise will take. Why? Students will be more likely to feel like the clock is ticking--like they need to get started asap.

4. Then extend a few minutes if it appears they’re actively working. How will you know if they are? Roam the room and listen.

5. Ask another teacher/counselor (if one is available) to help be your eyes and ears. But be cool about this--don’t give students dirty looks if they’re talking about other things--just notice it. And, if that’s the case, just take this as feedback. I don’t recommend, in other words, correcting these students by saying “You should be talking about your essays.” Instead, see if other students are on task and ask yourself: Did I make the task clear? If you did, keep roaming and listening.

6. If you notice many students are talking about things other than their essays, this may be your queue to either a) re-clarify the task, or b.) move on. Because, honestly, it could be just that it’s the end of the day and they’re tired.

7. Don’t leave the room during paired work. Obviously this may not always be possible, but see if you can set things up in a way so that you don’t have to leave--so you can remain present, both physically and mentally, for the duration of the workshop. Oh, and, as much as possible...

8. Avoid checking your cellphone during the workshop. When you check your phone it reminds students that they have phones they can check too. To this end, try using something other than your cellphone as a timer.

But perhaps most of all...

9. Stay open to what’s happening in the room and tangents that show productive potential.
While I love to be prepared for a workshop and have a clear sense of where things are headed, sometimes the workshop takes on a life of its own.

Example: I may have it in my mind during a 2-hr workshop to lead the Feelings and Needs Exercise and then move onto the Montage Exercise. But let’s say during break a student wants to share with me her essay idea and I’m inspired by her story and ask if I can coach her live in front of the group, offering a chance to model reflective listening for other students and how to help someone outline an essay. It could be that we don’t get to the Montage Exercise, or we do it another day, or I assign it for homework.

Or let’s say I’m leading a four-day workshop and after lunch on day three students seem tired. I might do a mini Myers-Briggs workshop and give everyone a personality test, then show them how this can help them as they write their personal statements.

Finding balance between structure and chaos: the art of coaching the personal statement
Up until now I’ve been giving you a strict and ordered progression--with minute-by-minute breakdowns even! But don’t let these get in the way of a creative/inspiring/unexpected moment that could “derail” the workshop and allow it to take the workshop in a different, perhaps much more interesting direction. The personal statement process is a dynamic thing and what’s in this guide are only suggestions.   

Let the flow of the workshop and your intuition guide you.

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