Workshop Structure and Strategies

Key Take-Aways

  • Assess your participants’ skill levels before developing curricula.  Know your audience.
  • Actively plan curricula with collaborators in order to establish credibility and form clear, shared goals.
  • Build flexibility into your curricula.  Understand resource scarcity and time constraints with all involved stakeholders.
  • Provide individualized, one-on-one attention to participants whenever possible.
  • Foster empowerment and agency in your participants through open exploration of technologies, interests and content creation.


The old cliche holds true: communication is key to the success of any collaborative, community journalism project. In the initial planning stages, it is best to work with any project collaborators to build a shared goal for the project and plan a curriculum that will support that shared goal. However, while it is important to negotiate clear shared goals, flexibility in the curriculum is important as well. This flexibility should consider constraints on behalf of all the project’s collaborators. What are your time and resource constraints and how can you plan around them? What are the time and resource constraints that your collaborators face, and how can you combine resources to create the most effective and sustainable project? In planning for these limitations, creativity is an invaluable resource and no one approach will satisfy all situations.

Workshops are generally planned to address groups of participants as a whole, but you may find situations where structured group workshops are impractical, and for these situations lessons can still be delivered to individuals either within the group workshop structure or as separate sessions. Within group workshops, it is a successful strategy to work one-on-one with participants to encourage and develop their skills and strengths whenever possible. That might mean planning lecture-style lessons about the new technology or communication medium and then letting the participants practice freely in an open-lab style situation where you can mentor participants one-on-one to see where they stand as individuals within the project. It might also mean planning workshops that are one-on-one by nature, where participants can come into an open-lab style situation on their own time (remember those time constraints!) and receive individual instruction and discussion about the project’s goals. You probably won’t know in advance how varied the skill levels of the people in attendance are, so flexibility will always be key.

When creating workshops, the ultimate goal is to foster empowerment and agency among participants. People contributing to your community journalism project should be excited and inspired by their interactions with technology, not discouraged or frustrated. Often, this will mean that participants need extra time to explore the technology outside of the project’s goals and gain a deeper understanding not only of how it works, but how it can work for them. Creating community journalism content is important for your project’s shared goals, but it might not be immediately important to your participants. Creating content that is interesting and stimulating to participants themselves will help empower them and could eventually lead to stronger interest in the project’s goals. Community journalism is the long term goal, but basic technology literacy is a critical first step, even if it is only very indirectly related.

Time is a scarce commodity, but to be successful, these projects will take time. It might be necessary in some cases to begin with individualized instruction or informal projects in order to build more structured workshops and formalized instruction. Whether a particular effort begins from an informal approach or something more formal, patience, commitment and consistency will be important for success in building lasting relationships, nurturing skills, and encouraging participation in the long term.

Suggestions for future work

  • Pursue alternative ways to make structures and strategies more flexible.  The tiered curriculum worked well in East St. Louis, but making other parts of the workshop more flexible, through choice of participants, curriculum topics, and type of final project could lend even more flexibility.
  • Consult a professional journalist in your community who has expressed interest in collaboration, and ask them to join in on workshops and use the lab space as a base of operations. This can facilitate one-on-one engagement between the journalist and community members, and allow those members to see what professional journalism work looks like.  Having an embedded professional in the community media space can provide an entry point into community journalism.

Case studies

Overview:  East St. Louis workshop facilitators used a improvisational teaching strategy to cover as many lessons as possible while reaching as many students on an individual level as possible.  In depth planning and research informed this improvisational style.  Combining these two approaches allowed for maximum flexibility while still having a plan for the curriculum and giving a sense of direction to sessions at all times – even in spite of different interests, new students, and unpredictable chaos that effortlessly finds its way into workshops.

When holding events at Dorsey Homes, we had a professional journalist attending the events to collect stories. One of the people she interviewed was involved in the creation of a news story that ended up being published on her website.

Expanded Case Studies

East St. Louis

Establishing credibility
Community leaders invited the University of Illinois to equip youth with community journalism and computer skills at the East St. Louis sites. As evidenced by their invitation, the ESL organizations deemed us a credible source to facilitate programming. However, the youth at the Mary Brown Center seemed more incredulous.

Aside from the fact that youth at the MBC were asked by staff to attend the University’s workshop, the students were not immediately comfortable or understanding as to why they should share their stories and learn these new skills. Five strangers asking the teenage students to share their experiences was a larger request than we expected. It was clear to the youth that we came from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds; how could we understand their stories and why were we interested in hearing them?  It was also clear that we were a different age – how could relate to their lives?  To overcome some of these apparent differences, we needed to find common ground. Our site contacts told us the students frequently used the lab to watch music videos on YouTube. We already decided that we would start with a technology “hook” by having the youth practice with the blog on the first day. We asked the them to reply to a post entitled, “What is your favorite music video and why?” Combining an activity they enjoy with teaching them about blogging turned out to be a successful bridge between the two. This was also a way we could share a piece of ourselves while introducing elements of storytelling. We asked them to take notice on how the videos are produced to develop a narrative, portray emotions, and how they set a tone.

The blogging and video activities were intended to teach the youth how to blog and introduce them to storytelling elements. As we took them through the rest of the week’s activities, we asked the students to think about their own lives and the stories they would like to share. There was a lot to cover in little time and we knew that developing a strict schedule would be futile; students learn at their own pace and we wanted to be flexible enough to accommodate those different abilities and interests. Since we decided to go with a flexible model, we made some preliminary decisions to ensure our lessons run smoothly. For example, we selected a group leader to loosely facilitate each class. This person would assess the mood of the room and make decisions about when to move on to the next activity. Because we each chose specialty topics (e.g. online responsibility, blogging techniques, etc.), we could refer to one another as an “authority” as needed. Having this leader kept cohesion and eliminated the perception of disorganization – further establishing us as credible authority figures. This approach also allowed for us to work with as many students as we could. Our thinking here was to establish trust with the students, they would need to be comfortable with all of us. By giving each of us an opportunity to speak in front of the group as a whole and to engage several individuals, we would be able to reach out to as many students as we could.

By our third day at the MBC, only some of the students had chosen story ideas. As part of our curriculum for storytelling and community journalism, we were bringing in community leaders on that particular day for interviews, and we were hoping the students would ask questions informed by their story topics. To supplement their efforts, we provided them with a question worksheet for these interviews, as well as covered basic interviewing skills and a peer-to-peer practice session the day before.

Those interviewees included two government officials, a local historian, and the university’s community liaison. They shared their experiences growing up in East St. Louis, which fueled questions from the students. After the interviews, we gathered the students together to discuss this activity and we were amazed by how much they learned. Having a post-interview reflection created space for the students to understand what happened earlier that day and what that meant to them. Major take-aways included learning about the greater context of E. St. Louis, seeing the success stories of these community members, and learning that there is a story to tell that no one is telling. Ultimately this activity helped the students connect their lives to the interviewees’ experiences and to understand why stories are important to share.

When we resumed story development, there was a clear shift in the mood of the classroom. The students began to work on their stories in earnest. They were also adding snippets from the interviews to their blog posts to give their narratives more context and depth. These elements coupled with our mini-lectures from the week provided the students with a kit of stills with which they could create robust posts.

This activity illustrated the importance of establishing credibility and relevance of presence with a new group of individuals. By bringing in people of a similar background, we were able to implicitly convey the importance of sharing and documenting stories.

Working with individuals informally vs. formal instructor-led sessions
Our approach toward equipping each participant with the tools for community journalism, had to be very flexible. This flexibility was shaped by each project site’s expectations of their participants. The Mary Brown Center expectations were for the workshop attendees to train the rest of the kids who attend there. As a result, we decided they would respond better to short lessons demonstrating elements of our curriculum. The students attention span was limited for the lessons, so we tried to keep these at a need-to-know basis. We expanded upon the formalized lessons on an individual basis when it came time for them to apply the knowledge. We also used the one-on-one time to assess each student’s skill level, breaking off the more advanced students to teach them more challenging activities such as video editing.

At Jones Park, the coordinators did not have specific activities in mind for us, other than teaching basic computer work. As a result, we were able to construct our own time with them and decided to work with them on photography and a newsletter. Because we were integrating ourselves with the day camp, the age span of the youth (approx. 4-15), and the informal organization of the camp, we found it impossible to reach all the kids. As it turned out, some of the campers self-selected themselves to work with us. From there, we provided individualized attention. A small group of teenagers worked on the newsletter and the younger kids practiced using the cameras.

Assisting the participants individually proved to be an effective teaching mechanism. Individualized attention gave them an opportunity to work at their own pace. The formal lessons were not as well-received, but in the case of the MBC, it was necessary to have these small lessons to fit into the structure of the site’s expectations. Staying together as a group, as opposed to dividing ourselves between the two sites, gave us flexibility to assess the students and work with them on an individual basis. This also allowed us to address the various technical difficulties we experienced at each site.

Detailed planning that enables flexible execution
Pre-trip – Before departing for our week-long workshop, we spent a few sessions putting together a potential curriculum for the week. Based on earlier communication with site coordinators and program leaders, we formed a curriculum based on their specifications.  Our Jones Park curriculum centered around photos, word processing, and the fundamentals of storytelling. The MBC curriculum focused on blogging, storytelling, and audio/video lessons. We made sure our goals in the curriculum aligned with the requests of the staff at the sites.

We also strove to make our curriculum as flexible as possible. The reasoning behind this was that there were many variables we did not yet know during this planning phase. Working with any number of students with varying skill levels we thought that emphasizing individual contact and tailoring lessons to meet specific needs would be the best approach. In light of this we constructed a tiered curriculum system. We had core goals and lessons as the inner most tier, need to know goals and lessons as the next tier out, ans wish list goals and objectives as the outermost tier. In practice the tiered system would allow us to strip away non-essential items to ensure that we address the most imperative lessons with the students. Planning the curriculum this way also means that we could leave behind the lesson plans for the items we were unable to address with the sites so that they could use them as they see fit.

Working within time and resource constraints
Due to restrictions on time, staff, technology, and students our logistics had to adhere to an open and flexible schedule. Inserting ourselves into multiple schedules at multiple organization left us with few options as to how our schedule would be set up for the week. This had a direct impact on how we would design our curriculum and what we would ultimately be able to teach. Given these specifics, it made the most sense for us to have a final presentation where students would be able to share their work at the end of the week. A showcase seemed like a straightforward, not-effort intense (for both students and facilitators) way of accomplishing this. Thanks to Martin’s connections in the community, we were able to think of the showcase as a way to introduce community partners to the work that the students had been creating. This would be an ideal way to make our efforts more sustainable and a way to introduce the students to the bigger picture of their community and journalism.

To prepare for this event we had an interview session where some of these community leaders came in to speak with the students. We scheduled the week like this so that the students could have a taste of what was coming. It was also another way to plug community members into the work we were doing. The underlying logic here is that to achieve true sustainability there has to be a critical mass of interest and practice for these skills to remain significant and useful. If there are more opportunities for students and community members to use and practice these skills on each other then it is more probable that sustainability will be achieved.

While facilitating these events, we took it upon ourselves to be mostly removed from the events as they were happening. If the students were to own these moments and their learning it would have to be up to them to ask the questions, understand the answers, and arrive at their own conclusions. It was not our purpose to preach our understanding of what was going on in their community. Rather it was our job to facilitate a discussion and draw attention to issues and ways of engaging them. Our main objective was to equip the students with skills and create interest and urgency around using these skills.

During the interviews and the showcase it was our chief responsibility to frame the event and let the students drive it. In practice this meant prodding the students with questions or urging students to better explain themselves. This meant contextualizing the week for community partners and relying goals and objectives to both parties. Acting as guides for these events was an effective way of being present but not commanding with our interactions. It was important that we were engaged enough ourselves to be a good resource for all parties involved, but it was integral to be able to step away and let the students take over when they wanted to. Through our event planning style and manner of lecturing we hope we were able to strike that balance between student agency and meaningful support.


Establishing credibility
An established relationship between CU-CitizenAccess and community leaders at both the Joann Dorsey Homes and Salem Baptist Church sites, fostered by regular visits from reporter Pam Dempsey, enabled the project team to quickly establish credibility as capable partners.

At Joann Dorsey Homes, the team met with Ms. Neil twice prior to introducing the project to the community, which enabled the team to further establish its credibility. Adult community members appeared to trust the team primarily because of the credibility community leader Ms. Neil extended to them. Children and teens, on the other hand, seemed wary of the project team at first, but began to show more signs of trust after team members allowed them to use digital cameras on their own a few times. Each time the team met or worked with new children, trust had to be re-established, which was occasionally challenging but often aided by the trust established with adults like Ms. Neil.

Working with individuals informally vs. formal instructor-led sessions
Attempts at Joann Dorsey Homes to organize formal instructor-led sessions proved ineffective due to the basically informal setting of the community resource center. A more formal situation may have been more conducive to more formal classroom-like sessions. For instance, had the sessions been inserted into an existing after-school or summer school program, the sessions could have relied upon the existing structure. However, as use of the community resource center was largely unstructured, formal group sessions soon became informal one-on-one tutorials on storytelling basics, and a primer on camera functions and interviewing tips and techniques. As a result, supervised periods of individual practical application took the place of formal group workshops.

Using the more individualized approach resulted in abandonment of nearly all overarching goals for the workshops because the information and instruction provided a student varied according to factors particular to each student. For example, some students chose to learn by experimentation while others sought more supervision and support from the instructors. The individual attention also meant that there was no way to bring the entire group to a standard point of skill, so some students were more adept at using the cameras and focused on their purpose, while others never advanced beyond exploration and experimentation.

This approach was a shift from the project plan, but it may have allowed the team to make more realistic progress with the youth than if a formal program had been possible. It may be more realistic to simply equip the youth with basic familiarity at such an early stage, while keeping their enthusiasm high, rather than trying to push them through a formalized curriculum from what was essentially a “cold” start (the participants did not seem prepared for formal instruction, nor particularly interested/motivated by it).

Detailed planning that enables flexible execution
The Champaign team approached its efforts at each project site with an anticipation that flexibility would be key. Due to the low level of exposure to participants the team had achieved prior to the start of programming, they had little basis for expectations about the existing skills, interests, or abilities among the potential participants.

Due to this lack of information about the participants, project members chose not to invest too much time in development of highly detailed plans initially. The team favored a more flexible approach that could build up from the basics incrementally in response to participants’ starting skill levels and the speed with which they learned to apply new skills. The team’s initial plans broadly covered the topics of storytelling, interviewing techniques, camera use, newsletter creation and social media basics.

Since the team was working in communities near campus, they reasoned that front-loading their preparation activity would unnecessarily delay their opportunity to visit and engage with participants and might lead to content overload. The team decided instead that they would adapt their plans with each successive visit to the community sites, in iterations that would allow for review of previous material and introduction of new lessons.

As it turned out, given the informal, individualized instruction environment and the relative inexperience of the participants, little more than the basic lessons were needed. In a few instances, such as with the social media course (which had been prepared for both Salem Baptist Church and Joann Dorsey Homes), even the basic lesson turned out to be more than what was necessary or desired at either site.

Working within time and resource constraints
Working within the time constraints established as part of the summer semester studio course, as well as the constraints on the availability of resources (space and/or equipment) and personnel (team members, collaborators and participants), proved especially difficult for the Champaign team. Some of these timing challenges were particular to the course setup and the availability of team members due to work schedules and other coursework, but the other challenges may be more or less common among projects of a similar type or scope.

Because the projects took place within a semester-based course, and because the sites had no formally structured programs or time-tables, initial false-starts dramatically impacted the team’s schedules. In projects not bound by the constraint of a semester timeline may not be as severely impacted by a slow start. Therefore, the following information tends to focus more on the challenges time and resource constraints presented within the community rather than the semester.

One of the key difficulties the teams faced in dealing with community partners was in getting the participants’ time. At Joann Dorsey Homes, as has been mentioned above, the fact that the team was working in an unstructured environment made it difficult to impose a strict timetable for workshops, resulting in a series of informal tutorial sessions rather than group lessons. Additionally, the initial workshop at Dorsey was poorly attended due to the fact that the team was unfamiliar with the community’s natural timing rhythms. Specifically, by planning the workshop for 10 AM, the team failed to capitalize on existing patterns of activity among the Dorsey residents, which favored later time periods.

The team also had a difficult choice to make at Dorsey in determining how much time to allow the participants in completing their photography and video interviews. Because of the team’s slow start resulting from the poor timing of the initial workshop, and due to the vagaries of individualized instruction, the team struggled to find a balance between allowing participants time and freedom to capture photos and videos and losing momentum while participants worked independently without supervision. The unstructured environment also led to a somewhat hectic and chaotic effort to reclaim cameras from participants and gather photos, videos, and narratives (typically audio interviews team members recorded rather than stories participants wrote or videotaped).

At Salem Baptist Church, custom or routine constrained the team to planning lessons for Thursday evenings, in order to capitalize on normal use of the computer lab space. Another time-related constraint, however, was related to the publication of announcements in the weekly church bulletin and the announcements at Sunday services. Because these were essentially one-time weekly events, any delays or missed opportunities directly impacted the team’s ability to recruit participants for the following Thursday’s session.

Where the semester time constraints frustrate this process is in foreshortening the timeline such that the team was unable to attain a strong rhythm following the somewhat clumsy start at each site. The team anticipates that a longer arc would allow the schedules at each site to normalize and become routines of their own, facilitating increasingly improved use of time and building toward more structured and formal lessons. Unfortunately, the team had insufficient time to validate this assertion adequately.

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