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Planning to Present a Workshop? Hereís How!
By Hal Portner
January 1, 2008
It is the nature of educators to want to help others learn. Teachers express this desire by instructing and guiding students; administrators by leading and enabling teachers. Some teachers and administrators express their desire to help others grow by mentoring and peer-coaching colleagues.

Most of us know veteran teachers and administrators - some retired, others still in full-time positions - who lead workshops, offer sessions at conferences, or otherwise share their expertise in formal presentations. We also know of others who have never presented a workshop for colleagues and would like to do so. I have had several conversations with colleagues and read Internet postings by educators who will be presenting workshops or conference sessions for the first time. Quite a few of these veteran teachers and administrators look on the opportunity with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. Many of us recall how, as first-year teachers, we suffered the excitement and uncertainties associated with taking on the first-time responsibilities of teaching. It comes as no surprise, then, that experienced teachers and administrators who for the first time assume the role of presenter undergo comparable feelings.

Usually, new presenters - and many veteran ones as well - are clear about the content they will present, and they generally assume they can trust their teaching experience to guide the process and keep their interactions with adult participants on the right track. However, Iíve found that quite a few presenters donít know what they donít know. That is to say, they donít realize the extent to which they will have to plan and prepare.

Teachers know the importance of developing carefully thought out and structured lesson plans for teaching students. Lesson plans help teachers organize content, materials, and methods. A well-designed plan not only assures student involvement and enhances student learning, but also helps the teacher feel more prepared and less stressed.

Adapting Madeline Hunterís Model

Madeline Hunterís Mastery Teaching Model for students provides a "big-picture" framework for integrating the characteristics of adult learning into planning a workshop for your peers. For over a decade, Madeline Hunter and her colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, studied teaching decisions and their implementation. They came to the conclusion that regardless of who or what is being taught, all teaching decisions fall into three categories:

  1. what contents to teach next,
  2. what the student will do to learn and to demonstrate learning has occurred, and
  3. what the teacher will do to facilitate the acquisition of that learning.

Hunter also found that if those decisions "also reflect the teacherís sensitivity to the student and to the situation, learning will be increased." So that teachers can consciously and deliberately identify the decisions needed to be made in each category, Hunter formulated a set of lesson design elements based on research validated knowledge.

Although they were formulated more than two decades ago, the following elements of Hunterís lesson design are still valid today and, in my opinion and experience, apply to teaching, or presenting to adults as well as children.

  1. Purpose and objective
  2. Anticipatory set
  3. Input
  4. Modeling
  5. Checking for understanding
  6. Closure

Here is how to build a workshop with Madeline Hunterís elements in mind.

1. Purpose And Objective

"Should you wish either the objective or its . . . purpose to be discovered or a surprise, that is fine. Just be sure that when you donít tell [participants] what they will learn, that is what you intended, rather than having the omission result from your [not being clear about it yourself]." M. Hunter

Participants need to know up front what they can expect to get out of a workshop and why it will be worth their time to participate. We know that adults are goal oriented. They appreciate a program that is organized and has clearly defined elements. Adults are also relevancy oriented. They need to feel that the workshop will be applicable to their work and that they will be better teachers, and their students better learners, as a result of their participation. The presenterís first step in planning a workshop, then, is to be crystal clear about what participants will learn and why they need to learn it.

For example, if the topic of a workshop is "Improving Instruction Through Cooperative Learning," its purpose might be: "to acquire strategies for having students work in small instructional groups in ways that can make instructional time in the classroom more productive and rewarding." The objectives of such a workshop might specify that participants will learn and be able to apply strategies to

  1. assign students to groups
  2. clarify group activities
  3. actively involve all group members
  4. hold students accountable both for what they learn as individuals and for the success of other members of the group, and
  5. monitor and assess group effectiveness.

I was not being arbitrary, by the way, when I chose to use cooperative learning in the classroom as an example here. Small group activity is an effective methodology for workshop presentations as well. Working in small groups allows for increased interaction among participants, an important and appreciated dynamic for engaging adults in learning.

You may find it helpful to reflect on the purpose and objective(s) of your presentation before tackling a more formal design. What is the purpose of your workshop? In what way(s) will attending help participants to improve teaching and learning? What are the objectives of your workshop? What skills, behaviors, and/or understandings will participants learn and be able to apply?

2. Anticipatory Set

"First impressions are important, and the beginning of your [presentation] is no exception. You have experienced how important first impressions of people or places can be. Research in learning validates that effect." M. Hunter

Make it a point to welcome each person as they enter the room. Make sure that the room is set up with enough tables and chairs to accommodate the number of participants. There are several configurations of room set-ups. The one to use depends on the purpose and format of the presentation. If you decide, for example, to include small group activities, have the room set up with separate tables - round tables, if available. Each table will seat four to six, the optimal number for effective group work. A packet of materials including handouts (if not distributed as participants enter the room) and a pad and pencil will be on the tables at each place. An assortment of colored markers, a bowl of fruit or candy, and a few novelty hand toys (for those tactile learners who like to fiddle with objects) will occupy the center of each table.

A rule of thumb observed by many professional speakers goes something like this: Tell them what you are going to say; say it; then tell them what you said. You can satisfy the first part of this maxim by going over the workshopís agenda with participants. Doing so will also give you the opportunity to clarify your own expectations and to elicit those of the participants.

You can effectively address the element of anticipatory set by beginning with an exercise that connects seamlessly with the purpose and objectives of the workshop. A word or two of caution is in order here. First, beginning with an activity - even if it is appropriate to the spirit of the session, may not be wise if doing so impinges on the participantsí expectations or the time available to present content. Second, unless you can justify the decision, avoid using an opening activity purely as an "icebreaker."

There are exceptions, of course, but I believe icebreakers for their own sake are best avoided. What is valid, however, are exercises that herald the work ahead provide the participants with robust cues about what is in store for them. Such exercises will stimulate and inspire, provide a sense of anticipation that will be rewarded and present a challenge that will be fulfilled.

3. Input

". . . We must determine which information is basic or essential to [participantsí] understanding of the content or process, then separate that information from information which may be desirable but is supplementary and can be acquired later." M. Hunter

You will need to decide the main ideas, processes, and information to include in your presentation. Use specific examples to illustrate general points. For instance, in addition to explaining why the activity illustrates how a teacher might use mathematics to explore social issues, you should also provide an example, such as developing a demographic chart that participants actually work through. It is also a good idea to use activities that you have used in classrooms so that you are talking from experience. Teachers will quickly pick up whether you is talking about something that youíve never tried yourself.

After such an activity, ask participants questions such as: Has anyone tried a task like this one before? Will you tell us about it? How would you adapt this activity for your own classroom? Does this activity prompt anyone to think of a related activity that you could try? These kinds of questions validate participantsí expertise and encourage them to reflect on their own teaching. The idea is to use activities to draw out principles, rather than providing principles and hoping teachers will figure out implications on their own.

Another way to present information is through the use of visual materials. Visual materials not only present and reinforce information but also add variety to a presentation and resonate with various learning styles. Prepare these in large, legible text and use as few words as possible to get the point across.

4. Modeling

"Give me an example" is a common request when we are not sure we understand what is meant. A model is one kind of example, one which a [participant] can perceive directly . . . rather than having to rely on memory of some previous learning or experience." M. Hunter

Letís eavesdrop on two participants who are just coming out of a presentation. "Can you believe it!" says one to the other. "The workshop was about cooperative learning and how to involve students in discussions, yet all we have done for the past two hours is sit there in rows while the presenter lectured to us from his notes."

Modeling the kind of classroom environment that you are encouraging teachers to develop is a powerful strategy and certainly increases the chances that teachers will try the new approaches in their classrooms. Staying with our example of presenting a workshop about cooperative learning for the moment, it goes without saying that the concept of modeling calls for workshop participants to work in small groups. The model becomes even stronger as participants recognize that group activity becomes more effective when during the workshop they:

  • receive clear directions,
  • know the purpose of the group, and
  • have specific ways to contribute to the group activity.

Diagrams, photographs, and case studies or vignettes are also examples of models. An effective model should elicit from a participant comments like, "Oh, I see!" or "OK. Now I get it!"

5. Checking For Understanding

"In attempting to check understanding while teaching, teachers may commit three common errors. The most common is a teacherís ubiquitous, ĎO.K.?í with assumption that student silence means it is O.K. and they understand . . . What student is going to be brave (or brash) enough to say, ĎNo, itís not O.K., youíre going too fast!í" M. Hunter

There are several ways to take occasional "snapshots" during the course of a workshop to check for understanding along the way. One method is to encourage participants to use a subtle signal (e.g., tugging an ear or tapping the side of a nose) if something is not understood. Other methods include asking participants how they might apply what has just been discussed or having them apply the new learning during the session itself. You will find that such devices will let you know whether to move on or to revisit the point, perhaps using a different approach.

Ultimately, of course, the difference between understanding how something should be done and being able to do it is the quantum leap in learning. The springboard for that leap is developed by guided practice accompanied by feedback that gives the learner information about what is correct, what needs to be improved and how to improve performance.

6. Closure

Toward the end of the workshop session, address any unmet expectations to the extent time permits, and possibly arrange some sort of follow-up to address any others. Thank everyone for their participation and make yourself available to talk with anyone afterward.

The workshop will end as scheduled, but the learning can go on if you set up the conditions for it to happen. Here are three ways to structure opportunities for post workshop learning.

1. Foster ongoing collaboration among participants by getting commitments to continue to share information and expertise.

2. Encourage participants to make use of chatrooms or chatboards like those provided by Teachers.Net.

3. Follow up with visits to participantsí classrooms. A workshop takes place isolated from the participantsí classrooms and is concerned with helping participants develop new understandings and learn new skills. Follow-up activities, on the other hand, take place in the "here and now" - in the classroom - and they are concerned with honing the ability of the teacher to productively apply what was learned during the workshop.

A presenter can provide follow-up assistance by observing in the classroom, offering feedback, posing questions to prompt reflection, and modeling teaching techniques. Such follow-up coaching, however, is a highly specialized skill that requires extensive training and practice.

Now youíre ready to make a presentation or conduct a workshop that will engage and inspire participants.

Much of the material for this article is from Hal Portnerís book, Workshops That Really Work, published by Corwin Press.

Ľ More Gazette articles...

About Hal Portner...

Hal Portner is a former K-12 teacher and administrator. He was assistant director of the Summer Math Program for High School Women and Their Teachers at Mount Holyoke College, and for 24 years he was a teacher and then administrator in two Connecticut public school districts. From 1985 to 1995, he was a member of the Connecticut State Department of Educationís Bureau of Certification and Professional Development, where, among other responsibilities, he served as coordinator of the Connecticut Institute for Teaching and Learning and worked closely with school districts to develop and carry out professional development and teacher evaluation plans and programs.

Portner writes, develops materials, trains mentors, facilitates the development of new teacher and peer-mentoring programs, and consults for school districts and other educational organizations and institutions. In addition to Mentoring New Teachers, he is the author of Training Mentors Is Not Enough: Everything Else Schools and Districts Need to Do (2001), Being Mentored: A Guide for Protťgťs (2002), Workshops that Really Work: The ABCs of Designing and Delivering Sensational Presentations (2005), and editor of Teacher Mentoring and Induction: The State of the Art and Beyond (2005) Ė all published by Corwin Press. He holds an MEd from the University of Michigan and a 6th-year Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study (CAGS) in education admin¨istration from the University of Connecticut. For three years, he was with the University of Massachusetts EdD Educational Leadership Program. .

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