How do you do a writing workshop with people who find writing difficult? That was the dilemma I was faced with when I received an offer to do a writing workshop for people with intellectual disabilities in early January. I was delighted to receive the offer, but apprehensive too. What if I talked down to them? Or my words flew above their heads?
The workshop was to be at the School of Nursing in Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland, which offers people with intellectual disabilities the chance to receive a recognised qualification, a FETAC Level Three Certificate in Independent Living. I had given a storytelling workshop during an adult learning festival the previous year and the programme manager wanted me to deliver something similar to her students.
I had done some volunteer work with people with intellectual disabilities as a member of Toastmasters, a public speaking association, and I remembered their enthusiasm and willingness to talk. And I realised that the students didn’t need to be able to write to tell their stories. They could use their voices.
Preparing the Workshop
I decided to use the same exercises for this workshop as for all my other workshops, but instead of writing pieces, we would talk through the exercises. For one-off workshops, I do a story template based on a quest (hero goes to strange land and battles a monster to get treasure).
As the students did have some literacy skills, I created a story spine, where the structure is in place and the students add the flesh. I drew up a worksheet with a series of sentences such as:
Once there was a ___. He travelled to _____
The students did have some literacy skills, so I felt this format would give them a chance to display those skills without overwhelming them.
Delivering the Workshop
On the day of the workshop, I sat with the programme manager in the light-filled atrium of the nursing building and ran over my plans to make sure they’d sit well with the students. Then it was into the breach, dear friends, as we made our way to the room where the students waited for us.
I had brought my magic storytelling hat and it worked its usual wonders as the students tried it on and told me their names. For the next hour, we discovered the stories within the picture, sampled the delights of oranges and went on a round the world tour of holiday destinations. The idea was to stimulate the senses and trigger memories, though I was careful not to stray too much into deeper emotional territory.
In the second hour, we discussed the components of the story they were to write, the character, the place and the treasure. Then they wrote the story and a few of the students shared their efforts with the class.
After the Workshop
Sometimes when you’re giving a workshop, it can feel as if your words disappear into a black hole. You cannot really gauge what impact they’re having on the students – you just have to trust that you’re getting through. With this group, that didn’t happen. The students were generous with their experiences and their opinion. Even the most non-verbal were not afraid to let me know exactly what they thought.
I floated out of the building, high on ideas, on words, and on the enthusiasm, humour and responsiveness of the students. Thanks to them, this was one of the best workshop experiences I have ever had.