Make Your Training Sizzle: Live Wires, Wet Blankets, and Technology
Copyright 1997 Miguel Guhlin
"Hey Miguel," Blanca said as she strode into the small corner where we work, "I had some live wires in my class today!"
That there's electricity flowing in Blanca's class, whether its MS Works or Advanced Powerpoint, doesn't surprise me. All of us have had them. The classes we teach where everyone connects, a tension in the air that leaves you excited and on the edge of your chair, if you were sitting down. Breathless thoughts leaping into mindful frenzy of activity. For some of us, these classes are few and far between. Luckily, they don't have to be. Those of you, like Blanca, who kindle relationships that result in communities, not only of learners but of real people struggling to understand. . .you can move on.
As for the rest of us, move out of your comfortable chair. Sit at the edge of your seat. Hold your breath for a few seconds, then relax. Here's five simple ways to connect with your audience.
1. Be friendly, shake hands. Physical contact, hand in hand, and a friendly smile can wipe away our own worries and shyness as facilitators. I notice when I walk into a room, that there's a distance between us, an invisible cushion of air and formality that separates us. That just won't do. As a shy person, I'm very aware of this barrier. Breach the barrier, make the personal contact. Walk to the back of the room and shake their hands, one by one, and introduce yourself. Thank them for coming.
2. Gift them with your first name. You may not think your first name as a gift, but it is. We call our friends, our loved ones by our first name. To others, our last name is the way we make contact. As we breach the barrier with a handshake, we seal the bond with an exchange of gifts. "Hi, my name is 'Miguel.' What's your's?" A simple way to learn everyone's name is to have them put their preferred name on a sticky name tag and display it prominently on their computer workstation. A person with poor memory, I usually write down people's first names during class introductions.
3. Stretch the comfort zone. Though you spend the same amount of time together, you have a short time to teach, and your participants have even a shorter time to learn. When I first started training, I'd rush participants into content. Time has taught me to deliberately set aside a time for class introductions.
At the end of the day, most workshop participants are relaxed and ready to learn, not to mention, "chatty." Help them stretch their comfort zone up front, at the beginning of the day, and you can move this time up earlier in the day rather than right before folks turn in their evaluations. Invite each participant to stand up, and "Share 4 things about yourself: 1) Your first name; 2) What do you do for a living?; 3) What do you do when you get away from work, your hobbies?; 4) What specific thing do you want to learn today? Please keep your comments brief and you're limited to 30 seconds."
As participants share personal information, make the connections between what they will be learning and what they want to learn. This becomes useful later when the class breaks up into small groups.
4. Divide and share. Rather than divide and conquer, divide your class into small groups of people that don't know each other. Shortly after beginning exploration of content, have your class focus on solving a problem that they have identified or gathering new information (i.e. Internet Treasure Hunts are great for this). Then, ask members from each group to share with the whole group what they have learned, what problems they discovered, and how they overcame them.
Making personal contact, stretching the comfort zone means that participants will share their frustrations with you. Don't be afraid to face up to those frustrations and deal with them together with your class. The questions that can arise in small groups as students make the information their own shouldn't rattle your cage. Rather, they are opportunities to resolve real issues of relevance to your participants. In an Internet Project Design class, the question came up, "How do I manage 30 kids with only one computer that has Internet access?" Working through that question was important to teachers that hadn't ever used computers with cooperative groups of students. So, we broke the question up into pieces:
a) How do you manage students with other limited resources?
1) Divide into cooperative groups
2) Pool resources from other classrooms

b) How do you keep track of the computer with Internet access?
1) Have students sign acceptable use policies.
2) Arrange your classroom so that the computer screen is visible from
across the room, and you can keep an eye on all groups easily.

c) How do I manage computer time?
1) No one touches the computer until they know exactly what they are
going to do and it's been planned out ahead on paper.
2) Keep a sign-up list on the chalkboard for groups that need access to
the computer. When a group finishes using the computer, they draw a
line through their name on the chalkboard.

As important as the answers your groups develop to the hard questions, is the way you handle people as they return the favor of trying to help YOU stretch YOUR comfort zone.
5. Start an email list. Most of us have email. Your community need not die the minute the evaluations are turned in. It can live on through asynchronous communications, via email or online discussion groups. Even if participants "lurk" on the list without posting, you'll be surprised weeks or months later when they walk up to you and say, "Hey, thanks for that information on upcoming Internet projects. I knew it was somewhere but didn't know where to start looking."
The connections we make in our classes are critical to good evaluations. As designers of instructionally viable communities, we can choose to dance with the live wires or be stiffled by the wet blankets. As for me, I like a little sizzle in the room... don't you?