Posts Tagged School visits

Tips for Successful Out-of-Town School Visits

Because one of my books is nominated for the 2017 Sunshine State Youth Reading Award, I traveled to Florida for a week in November to do author visits at schools throughout the state. While I’d done many school visits in my area in the past, I’d never arranged a solid week of back-to-back visits in another state. I was part visiting author, part travel agent. It was a terrific (and exhausting) experience and I wanted to share some tips for successful out-of-town school visits.

1. Plan, plan, plan. Okay, yes, I’m a planner kind of person anyway but this skill was essential when putting together a week of visits that took me from one end of the state to another. I wasn’t super familiar with Florida so I researched everything from hotels close to the schools I was visiting to the best driving routes to tourist attractions I could check out in my downtime.

2. Prepare. I put together a detailed itinerary that included notes on each school I was visiting — a large or small group, the venue, which grade(s), and whether I was having lunch or autographing in addition to my presentation. I noted hotel check-in/checkout times, driving distances, and the name, cell phone, and email of each school contact, as well as the amount that was due for my visit fee. I emailed myself a copy of the itinerary and kept a paper version with me as well. I must’ve checked it a hundred times during the week! Having all the info in one place was key.

3. Confirm. The week before I left, I emailed confirmations to each contact, making sure I had the correct school address and none of the details or timing had changed. I went over everything so we were on the same page and I hopefully wouldn’t have any surprises.

4. Tech check. I carried two flash drives with my Power Point, just in case, and had emailed it to myself as well. Tech fails are always my biggest fear! I asked each school to have a laptop set up and connected to the projector but brought my own laptop as a backup.

5. Engage, share, connect. This goes for any school visit, of course, not just out-of-town ones. I engage the students with lots of questions instead of talking straight for an hour. Sounds like a no-brainer, but I’ve seen authors talk and talk, losing the kids’ attention. I like to share tidbits of my childhood and personal life (kids love seeing pics of your own kids or pet). And, I try to connect with kids on their level, for example by talking about how editing a book is actually sort of similar to revising an essay for Language Arts. I also wove in some observations and questions about Florida.

fl-gainesville-wms-106. Be flexible. Lots can happen! Thankfully, this didn’t happen to me, but I’ve heard of schools forgetting an author was coming, Power Points not working, and microphones failing. I did speak in one auditorium that was set up for the holiday play and I kept having to step around props and parts of the set. And one of the schools I visited flipped around the order of events. Plus, I was prepared for any kind of weather since I was traveling from north to south Florida.

7. Post-its for book signing. I love Post-its for numerous reasons, but they’re lifesavers when it comes to signing books. There must be ten different ways to spell a name like Allie (Ally, Alli, Ali, etc.) so having each kid write their name on a Post-it on top of their book is so helpful when signing lots of copies. I always make sure to bring along my favorite pen and Sharpie, too.

fl-gainesville-wms-78. Have extra books on hand. At schools where I was signing pre-ordered books, I made sure to pack a few extra copies in my tote bag for the one or two kids who’d forgotten to order and were invariably sad to miss out. And it happened!

9. Take pics on your phone. I made sure to have teachers snap a few pics of my presentation on my phone so I could post them on social media that day instead of waiting for them to email me photos they’d taken. I took lots of selfies with the kids too. They loved it and I felt like a celebrity 🙂

10. Follow up. After I returned home, I spent some time emailing the teachers and librarians I’d met, thanking them and following up on any requests I’d received.

I was honored to meet so many enthusiastic readers in Florida and I’d visit again in a heartbeat!

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days and Calli Be Gold (both from Penguin Random House). Her new middle grade novel, Ethan Marcus Stands Up, is coming in August 2017 from Aladdin Books. Find her online at micheleweberhurwitz.com.

 

Face to Face with an Author or Illustrator: Why School Visits are So Important

Not too long ago, I was speaking to a diverse group of 7th graders.  They were diverse in every way – ethnicity, size, and even their desire to be in the room. Some entered smiling at me, obviously anticipating this day, the day when the author of the book they’d all read together would visit their  school.  Other shuffled in silently, eyes down, way too cool to care.

The body language of one girl caught my attention. She entered laughing and swinging her long hair. She had the attention of those around her. She was pretty, wearing more makeup than most of the other girls, and she looked more like a high school freshman than a 7th grader. She seemed more interested in laughing with the boys at her table than listening to a visiting author.

I’ve done enough author visits in the last seven years to know that middle schoolers can be a tough crowd. I knew I could engage the ones who were excited about my visit and, hopefully, win over those who were indifferent.

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About half way through my presentation, the girl pulled out a blank piece of white notebook paper. I hoped she was so inspired by my talk of writing that she was moved to compose a poem or short story right there on the spot. But as moved around the room, I could see she was writing a note to someone. Probably to one of the boys. I sighed and  thought, “I can’t reach them all, I guess.”

When the presentation was over, she came right up to me and, to my surprise, handed me the note. She smiled, and then hurried to catch up with the boys.

Here’s what it said, in part:

Dear Mrs.House, (close enough for me!)

Thank you making me feel confident about my writing. Hopefully you know how much this writer’s workshop meant to me. When I came to the writer’s workshop I thought it was going to be just like the other workshops I went to. I had so many questions that had no answers. I cherished all your words. I really appreciate you coming to our school. You answered my questions.

I bet you get a lot of letters but I want to tell you that you make me want to be a writer or at least get started. You probably won’t remember this letter in 2 days but you showed me skills that I will continue to use.

We’ve all heard the many reasons author visits are important:  They promote interest in reading, they inspire young writers, they provide firsthand explanation of how publishing works, they encourage students to become better editors of their own work, they’re just plain FUN!

These are all great reasons for authors and schools to connect. But, I can tell you that at every school I’ve visited, at least one student has expressed in some way a profound connection with either me or my work.  It’s often a student who stands out socially, is awkward, or very quiet.  Sometimes, it’s the one I least expect.  Those connections makes every hurdle schools must leap to get that author standing before that student in that particular moment worthwhile. Those face to face connections cannot happen anywhere else.

Earlier this week, author Matt de la Peña won the Newbery Medal for Last Stop on Market Street.  A couple of years ago, he spoke to NPR about connecting with a particular student a school visit and about how reading changes young (and old) lives. It’s a piece worth reading. Click here.

Many authors’ websites and blogs tout the benefits of school visits. But, I thought perhaps I’d leave you with some links from others who have seen the magic happen when a student and author connect face to face.

From a librarian: https://youthserviceslibrarianship.wikispaces.com/Author+Visits

From a teacher:   http://wonderteacher.com/authorvisitsinspireyoungwriters/

And, perhaps best of all, from the students: http://reederama.blogspot.com/2014/10/author-visits-are-important-because-you.html

And, to my friend at the school I visited not too long ago, I sent a personal reply via her librarian. I had to tell her she was wrong. I do remember her letter. More than two days, more than two months after my visit. I will always remember her. And, I hope she does become a writer. At least, anyway, she got started.

Michelle Houts is the author of four books for middle-grade readers. She has just completed renovations on a one-room schoolhouse which she’ll soon use as her writing studio. She loves to visit bigger schools, too. She’s happy because she’s just booked her first school visit in sunny Florida, and this is the view from her window today:

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The Three Biggest Mistakes Authors Make on School Tours

As a teacher, I spend 180 days a year with tweens and teens. I’ve observed students in many teaching scenarios, including while other adults (guest authors or newbie teachers) tried instructing or entertaining them. The sessions that tend to bore the kids and stress out the presenter fall prey to three mistakes—all of which come from not understanding the audience.

Teaching or presenting to tweens and teens can be an intimidating task. After all, kids can be honest—i.e., brutal—about whether they like your book, subject matter, or you, and/or are often noticeably uninterested in what adults try to share with them. As a veteran teacher, I mentor new teachers and student teachers who have some of the same fears authors bring along when entering the classroom or auditorium. The advice in the post is the same advice new teachers get. Even when an author may have some background experience working with large groups of kids, it’s important to note that no author’s presentation—just like no curriculum lesson—will ever go off perfectly or exactly the same each time; this is because each group of students is different. So in order to ensure that luck is on your side more often than not, you can prepare each presentation based on the needs of the audience rather than the topic.

There are three things to keep in mind any time you’re teaching or presenting to kids or teens—three big mistakes not to make:

Mistake 1: Thinking It’s About You/Your Book

But wait, didn’t the librarian or that teacher invite you to come to the school because their students love your book or they’re going to love your book? And don’t you have this great activity that will help    students learn the craft of writing or what makes compelling characters? This all may be true, but you need to remember that with tweens and teens, the entire world revolves around them—not you. (Unless you’re J.K. Rowling; but even then only some kids are persistently orbiting the Potter Universe.) There are likely to be students in attendance who are reluctant readers, who haven’t heard of you, or aren’t thrilled about your genre. So you have to do the heavy lifting: you need to figure out a way to make what you’re presenting seem connected to them and their world, to make it relevant for them. For example, when I teach junior high students about the elements of fiction each fall, I start with movies, not novels or short stories. Why? Because I know all of my students watched one if not one hundred movies over the summer. Movies are what the majority of them know and are passionate about when it comes to their experiences with “story.” When discussing fiction genres, we talk about music genres. When discussing conflict, we talk about sports and teams. Help the kids see that what they care about is actually connected to what you’re trying to explore with them, thus making it relevant. Figuring out how the content of your presentation relates to something teens already    care about will get them involved—which does wonders for author anxiety and your success in school tours.

Mistake 2:    Failure to Ask Questions

One of the best ways to get kids and teens involved and to help them make connections with your content is to ask them questions. There might be some trial-and-error on your part as you experiment with the right questions to ask, but teaching and presenting are just like writing: it takes practice to do them well, and that includes learning from previous attempts. Use both closed and opened-ended questions (yes/no answers and opinion-based answers, respectively). For example, recently I went to hear two of my author friends present at a library. In part of the program, they talked about books they were forced to read in school. One of them asked the simple question, “Anyone here ever been force to read a book they didn’t like?” Then he paused as many hands from the audience flew up, tightening the kids’ connection with the presenters. Later, as the duo started discussing heroes, they asked the group of tweens and teens “what makes a hero” and then took three to five minutes and let the audience do the teaching. From my seat in the back, I could see how engaged and attentive the kids were. Most of them had never read either of these authors’ books, but because the authors brought the kids into the presentation, their audience was hooked.

Mistake 3: Forgetting to Mix It Up

Remember that kids have limited attention spans. Each of us can focus on a task or subject for only a limited amount of time before our minds wander and we become distracted. I’ve even heard that companies like 3M and Google dedicate something like 15% of the employee workday to free time—knowing that employee concentration suffers otherwise. For tweens and teens, the magic number is also fifteen—ten to fifteen minutes, that is. Every ten to fifteen minutes you want to switch topics, move to a new activity, or change your instructional approach from lecture to discussion or from discussion to something hands-on, etc. Whatever you’re doing, figure out a way to break up your gig into ten-to-fifteen-minute segments.

Now it’s time to practice what I preach. You’re blog reading attention span is almost up. I hope these ideas help. Let me know what’s worked for you in reaching your audience. As a teacher and writer, I love to teach and I love to learn—everyone can improve their craft.

Bruce Eschler teaches junior high school students most of the year, writes speculative fiction for kids as much he can, and is hoping he’ll soon be done with his pesky doctoral program. He has occasionally been spotted at www.bruceeschler.com.