The personality of every workshop is different. Sometimes our Deep workshops are chock-full of introverts who prefer being invited to give their opinions to jumping right into a discussion. Other times our workshops are overflowing with big-personality extroverts who might struggle to control their energy. This can mean a workshop with a lot of life and chatter, but can also mean that you, the Writing Fellow, are feeling a little frazzled. Let’s talk about some strategies you can use to corral all that energy into a successful workshop!

This is a long list, but different things work for different workshops. You might have to try multiple strategies before hitting on one that’s right for your group. If your workshop is already quiet and self-regulated, these tips may not apply to you.

Grabbing attention from a room full of noise

  • “Clap once if you can hear me! (clap) Clap twice if you can hear me! (clap clap, at this point folks in the room will be clapping along) Clap three times if you can hear me! (clap clap clap)” The room should be silent at this point.

  • Call and response. “When I say ketchup, you say french fries. Ketchup! (room says french fries) Ketchup! (french fries) Ketchup! (french fries)” Mix it up! Try asking your group what they’d like the call and response should be. Maybe they like Savannah! (bananas), or Kanye! (West).

Preemptive measures 

  • Revisit the Target Circle. The Target Circle your group made on your first day is a contract between you and the people in your workshop. It helps to display it every workshop, and take note if there’s anything to add or change. Use it daily as part of reminding folks what the Deep space is about. In the event of an incident, you can point to where you’ve written an important word in the middle. Maybe it’s “respect,” maybe it’s “learning,” or maybe it’s “kindness.” Whatever you’ve chosen, ask your workshop about how this is or isn’t showing up in your workshop. Part of holding space for everyone in your workshop is setting clear boundaries and reinforcing them to keep the group a safe space. You might have to spell out that even though you all agreed to this Target Circle, you’re not feeling very respected, or that you’re not doing much learning, or that they’re not treating each other with kindness. Have a serious conversation. At Deep, we consider ourselves all to be co-learners together. This means you can treat the youth as mature individuals, not as kids who have no control over what they’re doing.
  • Selective folder placement. Do you know that Shermya and Ke’Aziah just can’t sit together without losing all focus? Is there a cluster of kids in the back who prefer chatting to listening? Selectively distribute folders throughout the room before the workshop. Tell your kids to sit where they find their folders, and that there will be a new seating plan every week.

  • Writer bubbles. During writing time, tell your kids to find a place in the classroom that’s as far away from every other person as humanly possible. These are their writer bubbles, where privacy and focus are most important. This is not a punishment–some writers travel to completely new countries so they can focus on their novels!
  • Alternative seating. Try sitting in a circle with your kids on the floor, or letting kids spread out across the room.
  • Calming music. Sometimes subliminal messages do the trick! Try the “Reading Chillout” and “Mellow Beats” instrumental playlists on Spotify.
  • Soothing lighting. If possible, turn off the overhead lighting to create a dim and thoughtful space.
  • Upbeat music. During writing time, sometimes Top 40 fills the space that would otherwise be filled with chatter. If this strategy seems distracting to you, instead try rewarding a focused day with a Top 40 dance break at the end of workshop. 

Who gets to talk?

  • One mic, one voice. Explain to your workshop that in Deep, we only have one microphone. Sometimes a quick reminder of “one mic!” is all it takes. Encourage your kids to help regulate this policy.

  • Pass the baton. Bring in a small toy like a stuffed animal. The person holding the toy gets to speak, and must pass it along for another voice to be heard. Beware that this can sometimes end in the toy being chucked at the heads of other writers, so be sure to normalize how the exchange happens.

  • Allow time for talking in your workshop. Build in time at the beginning and end for chatting, and let your kids know that it’s okay. Try allowing kids to brainstorm with each other in the first five minutes of writing time before settling everyone down. Education specialists say that when kids know there are times where talking is allowed, they’re less likely to chatter when you’re in a designated focus time.

Sneaky tricks

  • Timed writing/writing sprints. Break writing time into five-minute bursts. Set a timer and hype the experience as a race against the clock. Or, keep aside the final five minutes of writing time for “THE FINAL FIVE MINUTE WRITING CHALLENGE” (said in a very intense voice). This is especially useful if writing time has been unproductive or distracted. During THE FINAL FIVE MINUTE WRITING CHALLENGE, don’t think about grammar! Or spelling! Just write as fast as you can! As much as you can! Don’t stop to think! Just write!!!!!! (The more hype you give this, the better it works.)

  • Set individual challenges for individual youth. Challenge Imani to write five more lines in three minutes, and tell her you’ll be coming back to check. Make sure she knows this is a hard challenge, and it will be tricky to succeed. Play to her competitive spirit, and make sure you DO come back in three minutes. (People take note when we don’t keep our promises.) Or, draw a line halfway down the page for a hesitant writer. Challenge this writer to fill the page to that line.

  • Let kids write with colored pens or markers. Sometimes novelty is the key!

  • Random positive reinforcement. Buy a bag of Jolly Ranchers, and randomly hand them off to writers in your workshop who are doing a good job of focusing. You’ll see everyone else settle down in hopes of earning a Jolly Rancher.

  • Focus prizes. At the end of every workshop, announce a focus prize for the writer who did the best job of focusing. Make the prize something tangible: a handful of Jolly Ranchers, a fancy pencil, etc.

  • Sprinkle writing time throughout your workshop. Use a five-minute freewrite at the beginning to bring folks into a writing headspace, another five-minute freewrite in the middle, and a longer, prompted writing period at the end.

More extreme measures

  • Have private conversations with particular young people. Sometimes you have a writer who seems to be completely unable to focus. Have a quiet conversation with that young person. What’s going on? How are they feeling? What can you do to support them? Let them know you want them to be part of the group, but that it’s ultimately their choice. You might say, “When XYZ happens, it seems like you don’t want to be part of Deep. Do you want to be here? Do you want to write?” Being in Deep is a choice. If they choose otherwise, talk to their parents. We don’t want to keep folks in Deep against their will. But being in Deep is also a privilege. Ask that your writer’s behavior reflect the fact that they want to be here.

  • Parallel teaching. In rare cases, trying to lead fourteen hyperactive writers in a large group isn’t possible. In these situations, it helps to split the group in half so each young person gets more 1:1 contact with an adult mentor. You take one half, and your partner takes the other. Be choosy about which writer goes into each group; split up chatty pairs and mortal enemies. Each of you should teach the entire workshop to your half of the group. It’s often easier to manage a group of seven than a group of fourteen.

Other tips

  • Chat with the Ed Fellow. How do they manage their classroom? What are some tips they can offer?

  • Post-workshop reflections. At the end of each workshop, take half an hour to talk with your partner about what happened and why. Identify the places in your workshop where things were going really well, and then DO MORE OF THAT next time! Post-workshop reflections are important for everyone, but even more vital for those workshops struggling to retain focus.

  • Take a deep breath. Remember that it’s not your job to police the bodies of your young people. They’ve just come from a long, long day of being forced to sit still and silent, and they have energy to burn. Ask yourself: is no learning being done? Or is it just that your twelve-year-olds are learning in a dynamic, active way? If learning is happening while chatting is happening, and the space is respectful, that’s perfectly okay.