Monday, 15 June 2015

10 tips for running a children's writing workshop

Budding authors at Sophie's Writing Workshop

"Dear Philippa, Thank you soooooo much... I learned so much from you. Please have this workshop again next year."-Zoey (9)

Somehow it's over. Last week was the end of Sophie's Writing Workshops at the Toronto Public Library, Palmerston Branch. For four weeks in a row, seventeen young writers between the ages of 8-12 joined my children's writing workshop called Be the Beanstalk: Grow a Story. It was an honour and a lot of fun, thank you TPL for asking me to take part.

Here's a little about Sophie's Writing Workshops
Sophie's Studio was created to support literacy, creativity and writing skills in children from a young age thanks to a bequest from long-time library lover and user Sophia Lucyk.

Quietly working away
At first I had no idea what to do for four sessions, but after 60+ hours of research and preparation I did come up with four separate but linked 1.5 hour workshops. It was a lot of work but very rewarding. I also gained wisdom and insight from writer's who had done the program in the past, thank you to L.M. Falcone, Evan Munday and Andrew Larsen for their help.

For anyone preparing a children's writing workshop, here are 10 ideas that really worked for me:

1. Themed classes. Each week we did a different theme: what is descriptive writing, how to develop a character, books, blurbs and bios, games, games, games. I started each class with a really brief 2-3 minute talk/powerpoint slide presentation about what we were doing that class.

2. Use powerpoint or other media. I had a powerpoint slide show to enhance our work each week, nothing like large colourful images and funny cartoons to keep kids engaged. I had a picture and explanations for whatever we were doing on the screen and a mantra: there are no bad ideas, there is no bad writing, just keep writing ...

3. Hire an assistant. I hired my 20-year-old daughter, an English student, to help me each week. She got excellent experience working with kids and the kids loved her, plus they got more one-on-one time with an adult if they needed extra help (some of the younger kids did need quite a bit of help). If you don't have a young adult on hand, there are plenty of university/college students looking for experience with kids.

4. Share work aloud. I'm a big believer in sharing your writing. After each writing exercise or game, the kids were invited to read aloud. At first there was resistance but by week 4 almost everyone got up to read their work. It was fantastic to see the amount of pride and support kids got from this simple act.

5. Play music. During free writing time, we'd put on some music. Very calming and helped the kids concentrate. I love music when I'm writing.

6. Invite another expert into the class. On the third week I invited my illustrator, Shawna Daigle, to come into the classroom. I provided illustration materials, blank bookmarks and books (handmade by me), and talked about what goes into a good front cover design and the often overlooked work of good back cover design, plus provided worksheets on how to write a marketing blurb and an author biography. Shawna showed the kids how to illustrate a simple image. It was a fantastic session.

7. Write along with the kids and read aloud. My daughter and I did every writing exercise along with the kids, and read our work aloud too (often one of us had to start off the read-aloud portion).

8. Have a lot of short, fun activities and games planned. We did each activity for about 20 minutes tops, so be prepared with at least 4-6 activities per session and use whatever you didn't get to the next week. I provided a lot of worksheets, many of them I adapted from this wonderful free website by Bruce Van Patter (thank you Bruce): Let's Get Creative! With a large group and a large age spread, there could be three or four activities going on at once, so I had a lot of worksheets available on the same theme to keep the faster kids engaged.

9. Play games every session. We started each session with a writing game to get everyone laughing and ready to write. I adapted a few games from Bruce Van Patter (thank you again for sharing your wisdom), and a few I picked up from my own writing group years before, most notably a time-tested 200-year-old writing game called The Exquisite Corpse Loves a Blue Piano (thanks to Nate Simpson for that gem).
Sophie's Writing Workshops 2015

10. Provide a snack/drink. This seems like a no-brainer, but my sessions were held after school and the kids were hungry. No one can concentrate when they're hungry, I know I can't. The library provided a snack trolley and water, I brought the sliced apples and baby carrots. No one was starving, everyone was engaged.

If you're thinking of running writing workshops for young authors, go for it. It's rewarding, fun, and the kids benefit from the time you spend with them and you'll learn a lot too. You forget how much you actually know until you share it. Have fun!

Here's my Canadian Children's Book Centre page, 
with more information about the workshops by week: Philippa Dowding, CCBC


Anonymous said...

Great stuff! Proud of you. I'm so glad it was fun.

Monica K.

Philippa Dowding said...

thank you Monica K., it really was fun, much more fun than work actually (once the initial work was done!) I'd do it again. PD

Susan Hughes said...

These are great tips, Philippa! I'd wish I'd had a chance to read them before preparing for my Sophie's Writing Workshop! :)

Philippa Dowding said...

Thanks Susan, I bet the kids loved you this year! I've never done workshops before, so I thought I'd share what I learned since it's such a steep learning curve. Hope it's helpful!

Jennifer Mook-Sang said...

fantastic ideas, great tips. thanks philippa!

Philippa Dowding said...

Thanks Jennifer. I was surprised at how much fun we all had. If you're planning workshops, have fun!