I’m always amazed by the tiny things that determine the success of the writing workshops I give. They’re governed by all sorts of intangibles: the weather, the quality of the snacks, the size of the group. But by far the most important of these ingredients is the shape of the room. The way the chairs and tables are arranged has a huge effect on the atmosphere of a workshop, on how comfortable people feel and on how quickly they bond.
Here’s a run-through of three arrangements I have used, and each have a markedly different effect on the atmosphere of the workshops.
- Classroom Style
This is the most traditional style, with chairs and tables in rows, facing the teacher. When I arrive at a venue and find tables and chairs arranged in this way, I always ask for them to be changed. People feel that they are back at school and it drives a wedge between tutor and participants. Having said that, in modern classrooms, children sit around big tables, so in a children’s workshop, sitting them around one big table creates the right mood. The structure is familiar to them and feel comfortable.
In theory, the circle is a great arrangement. It’s informal, and a circle is a symbol of unity. But I find it a little too informal. For a circle to really be a circle, you can’t have tables, and people don’t like not having something to lean on when they write, so it’s not actually a comfortable arrangement for them. You still need to strike the right balance between structure and friendliness …
- The U Shape
… and the U shape, in my experience, provides exactly that balance. People are facing each other, just like in a circle, so the bonding happens more quickly. But there’s also a structure for the seating, and people have tables to lean on. It’s true that the tutor is sitting a little apart from the participants, unlike with a circle or big table, but you can position yourself in a place where people feel they have easy access to you, and you can spot what’s going on.
What seating arrangement works for you as a workshop tutor or participant?