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What is your Facilitator Survival Kit? - Pick the right workshop materials

I started running workshops and seminars on a European level in late 2016. It was then when I realised that not everyone has the same understanding of workshop materials. It was for the Network Against Far-Right Extremism for Young European Socialists in Belfast, Northern-Ireland. I was meant to hold a 90 minutes workshop on far-right movements in Europe and prepared my session outlines as usual. Of course, that included making a list of material, I would need for running the activities I chose. I send this list of workshop materials to the organisers of the event.

What I did not know at the time, that detailed material list was not as straightforward as I thought. I had asked for meta-plan and flip-chart paper, moderation cards, masking tape, sticky notes and markers. When I arrived on-site, all I found were one block of flip-chart paper without a stand, two pens and a stack of small sticky notes. How was I supposed to run the workshop without all the materials I asked for? I started panicking, but then my practical side kicked into gear. Luckily, we were at a university, and I could buy some stuff in the university shop. Still, somethings could not be gotten in time. Nevertheless, I still had one card up my sleeve – my Facilitation Survival Kit.

Before I share with you what is in my Facilitation Survival Kit, I want to reflect on workshop materials in general.

Why are you using it? – Start from the purpose of workshop materials

The core-function of workshop material included in your session is to increase the potential for collaboration and communication and to aid ideation and learning through visualisation and engagement of different senses. Writing ideas out on sticky notes and moving them around until the perfect order is found, can unblock the group process and simplify consensus building. Also, we feel less precious about things we write on cards than about what is on the final flip-chart or poster. Materials that target different sense like smell or touch or invite movement enable learning on very different levels. Using cards, like Dixit by Jean-Louis Roubira and Marie Cardouat, allow participants to access their creativity easier.

All that said try to stay away from workshop material overkill! Similar to the risk of using a method for the method’s sake, facilitators and trainer need to reflect on the actual purpose for using a material. Are moderation card or sticky notes serving the aim and objective of a method, or do they just make it appear fancier? Is there one material that can be used across multiple activities instead of introducing something new one every step? But also, can a particular material invited a deeper reflection or ease collaboration? Even if you follow a method description reflect first if the prescribed workshop materials actually serve a purpose.

One note regarding a specific facilitation approach: When using processes of Creative Facilitation as popularised by Partners for Youth Empowerment, do not overwhelm your participants by offering to many paints, colours, art supplies and so on. You want them to focus on the task and process and not get stuck on all the shiny materials laid out in front of them. I made this mistake myself during a training for Amplify – Youth Voices. In the debriefing, the participants shared that the amount of choice actually presented a barrier for them to connect with the other participants and hindered the cooperation and shared visioning.

Can everybody use it? – Consider the accessibility of workshop materials

Another important aspect we as facilitators and trainers need to reflect on is the accessibility of our materials. Integrating a diverse range of workshop materials can unlock creative potentials in one group of participants when, at the same time, others are not able to interact with the exact same materials. Participants with vision impairments might not be able to read or use their support tool with handwritten post-its. Others cannot write on notecards on their lap while everybody is sitting in the big circle.

We must think accessibility and inclusion first, and not only respond to it when a participant has to ask for assistance or struggles. As a first step, make yourself familiar with the participants after they register. Did they list any access or support needs? Consider those when planning your session. If you don’t have access to the registration directly, make sure to confirm this information with your client. Please be aware that not every participant feels comfortable registering their needs, so prepare alternatives. That will allow you to pivot on the spot. When you have to do so, make sure you do not point it out explicitly.

I made this mistake myself. In an activity I was running, there was a phase during which participants had to brainstorm on moderation cards. As I knew that one of my participants would not be able to work on their chair or the floor, I prepared a table with chairs, cards and markers. So far so good, but then I said: ‘XXX, you can work on the table if that is easier for you.’ Luckily this participant and I knew each other before the activity, so they approached me after the session. They told me that I othered them by pointing out their access need instead of creating a safe and inclusive environment. They recognised the good intent I had by providing the table option. Still, it would have been better if I would have phrased a general invitation to whoever wanted to work on a table could do so.

I will write more on inclusion and accessibility and even plan on bringing in facilitators and trainers from the disability and chronic illness community themselves. But for the moment I want to recommend to you these two resources:

Should we use it? – Acknowledge the environmental impact of workshop materials

This final one is an aspect, someone else needed to poke my nose into. During the Trans-Atlantic Youth Dialogue hosted by OXFAM Quebec for the Amplify – Youth Voices project, my team and I ran the infamous Marshmallow Challenge by Tom Wujec. For this team-building exercise, you need uncooked spaghetti and marshmallows. Each team aims to build the highest freestanding structure while also utilising masking tape and string. All the participants jumped into the challenge and had a great time coming up with ideas and adaptations. The mind-blowing moment came during the debriefing. One of the themes the youth gathered worked on was Climate Chang, and many of them reflected a lot on how their own ways of life contribute to the crisis. So, it shouldn’t have surprised us when on participant raise her hand and said: ‘How do you justify that we just wasted all that food playing a stupid game, when at the same time climate change resource scarcity all over the globe?’

To be honest, at that moment, we did not know what to answer, and I am still pondering on where I finally stand on this issue. Many of the workshop material I use are not reusable. Once you wrote on a flip-chart paper or moderation card, you cannot really use it a second time. Same goes for sticky notes which’s adhesive will try out relatively quick. As I working a lot with Visual Facilitation techniques, I create piles over piles of illustrated flip-charts. Even though I was aware of, until that day, I had not thought about the consequences.

Like all the other materials, paper waste plays a significant role in the current environmental crisis through not just deforestation and pollution, but should we stop using workshop materials in our sessions entirely? Asking this question today, I would say no. There is much more to the use of workshop materials than the environmental impact. It also has immense social and educational implications, by inviting cooperation, allowing visual learning and supporting accessibility. I think those facts as mentioned above, outweigh the environmental consequence right now. Nevertheless, we should have it in mind when making decisions and look for alternatives or adaptations.

Some tips to improve the environmental impact of your workshop materials:

  • Use recycled & recyclable paper products: Stationary brands like Neuland or Post-its have lines/versions of the products using recycled paper that is recyclable.
  • Go water-based: To keep things recyclable, go water-based whenever possible. That can be the glue stick or the marker ink.
  • Re-use & refill: Even though most things aren’t reusable, but there are a few exceptions. Collect pen and pencil that participants leave behind. Keep moderation cards for notes on the backside or even use them to prepare headers for the next workshop. And, my favourite, use refillable markers with replacement nibs and caps.

Closing I want to acknowledge that the ‘greening’ of personal habits and approaches does not address the climate change crisis’s systemic reasons. Only by changing policies and the economic system, we will be able to mitigate the worst consequences. Further, ‘greening’ is not per se an inclusive practice. Sustainable materials are often more expensive or not even available in economically weaker regions.

Discover my Facilitator Survival Kit!

When thinking about which workshop materials to put in my kit, I started with what participants in my sessions do most. They…The workshop materials I cannot live without

  • come up with ideas.
  • define terms and processes.
  • develop solutions.
  • collaborate and discuss with each other.

So, I picked the basic things they would need to do so.

  • Moderation/note cards: These kinds of cards are essential for my practice. They allow participants to quickly jot down ideas/definitions/… and re-organise them freely. I prefer them over sticky notes as they are usually larger and by its nature aren’t sticky. By bringing in cards in different colours, their potential multiplies. They could be replaced by (scrap) paper, but I prefer the tactility and durability of the card stock.
  • Markers & pens: Those are kind of no-brainers. Still, they are essential. I cannot count the number of times when participants did not bring any pens with them and found themselves unable to take notes. So, I made it a habit to collect left behind pens and branded one given as advertisement and add them to my workshops’ material stack. Additionally, I picked markers for my kit, which could be replaced by just the pens. Still, I think it helps to have a thicker writing utensil which allows people from across the room to read the writing.
  • Masking tape: Masking tape is every facilitator’s love affair. It does not just stick things to a wall without leaving marks. Its potentials are endless. You could make name tags of it or create timelines on the walls. You could mark certain areas on the floor for simulations or spell out large letters for a group photo. You could use it as a binder for zines or sorting materials.

Now that you know my Facilitator Survival Kit, what is in yours? Share it with the community on Social Media using the hashtags #FacilitatorSurvivalKit and #AffectiveFacilitation.

As always, please share this post with your facilitator and trainer friends and let me know what you think in the comments below! Also, you would do me a great favour by signing up for my newsletter. This way you will find everything Affective Facilitation directly in your email inbox once per month!

Love and Appreciation,

Anuschka

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