Secrets for GREAT School Visits, part 2
This vintage Tollbooth post was written by Kelly Bingham. Check out Secrets for Great School Visits part 1 here.
Creating Your Presentation (s)
Where to begin? For starters, look at your age group. Look at the time you have. Most presentations run thirty minutes to just under an hour. Generally, the older the child, the longer the class time, and the longer you will have to stand before them.
Outline. Approach it just as you would an essay. What are you trying to say? Are you going to talk about yourself? Your books? The world of writing? Publishing specifics? Character development or craft issues? Are you going to be factual, funny, silly, or serious? (or a combination?) Will you invite audience participation, and if so, how much time will need to be allotted for that?
So start there. Consider your audience, time, and what you want to say. Then ask yourself a key question:
What do I want my audience to come away with?
As a matter of fact, let’s take a moment to ask our panel this question. Because it really will help you determine the topic of your presentation(s.)
From a host’s point of view:
Buffy Hamilton (media center specialist in Canton, GA): “I hope for a conversation about writing that can open up possibilities for students. I also enjoy a brief interactive activity as well as Q&A time. I have been very fortunate that my author visits have gotten students, especially some of my reluctant learners, excited about reading and writing!”
Tami Brown: “I want my students to be excited about reading and writing—especially excited about writing their own stories. “If Ms. XYZ can write books, so can I!’”
From an author’s point of view:
“I want my readers to understand the way in which stories arise from experience, imagination, and planning; the writing and illustration process; the reasons I write the particular stories that I choose to write, and the ways that a writer can enhance his writing by using detail to show rather than tell. Above all, I want readers to believe that they, too, can achieve their dreams with hard work and commitment.” (Toni Buzzeo)
“I hope that readers will understand that writers are people just like everyone else, that if you are a reader and a person who loves to write, you can become a writer someday. I also hope students will feel a closer connection to literature after seeing a writer in the flesh.” (Sarah Sullivan)
“I hope they’ll love my characters, get excited about books in general, and want to read many more books in the future. I hope they’ll understand that reading makes life more exciting and there’s nothing they can’t learn in a book.” (Stephanie Greene.)
“I hope they come away with my enthusiasm for what I do. I want them to feel excited about what the process of writing is about and how it can impact other’s lives. If they learn something too, that’s a good thing.” (Helen Hemphill.)
“I want my audience to come away charged up to be creative. I want them to feel confident in their abilities to write. I hope that they leave the presentation with a few new writing tools, an idea how to get started, and a fire to express themselves. I also hope they come away interested in reading more books, more often.” (Kelly Bingham)
Get the picture? Everyone wants to interest and inspire their audience. We are there to pass on that spark, not talk about ourselves endlessly. How does one pass on that spark, exactly? The sky is the limit! You will figure out what works best for YOU to pass on your own personal message. It may be through writing exercises, reading out loud, putting on a puppet show, involving the students, or a combination of many techniques and visuals. Experiment as you draft your presentation. Try it out on family members. Get a feel for what goes over well and what drags. Practice and revise, practice and revise. You can do it!
Speaking of Visuals…
Do you need them? What kind? Slides? Book jackets? Merchandise based on your books? A board to write on?
I’ll toss out my opinion. I think visuals are absolutely necessary. Would I want to sit and look at myself talk for thirty minutes? NO. I don’t imagine students feel any differently. And why put that pressure on yourself? Do you want to have a roomful of faces staring at you….and staring and staring? Do you want everyone’s eyes to wander the room?
I have a simple PowerPoint presentation that accompanies my talk. Mostly they are images that emphasize what I am saying. (For example, when I introduce the topic of “conflict,” I show a slide with a huge thunderstorm brewing and the word “conflict” imposed upon it.) Or I may show a slide with information…for example, one of my slides is a copy of a newspaper clipping that helped inspire my book. If I have a writing exercise, I show it on a slide and read it out loud. That way, once I’m done reading it out loud, the students can still sit there and reread the instructions at their own pace, without asking me to repeat myself over and over.
I find that changing slides every minute or so keeps the kids focused. They like to see what’s coming next.
I also include two writing exercises. I find they are a great way to have the students immediately apply the techniques I have just passed onto them, taking things from abstract to concrete. They are simple, quick, and hopefully fun. It’s always great when students want to share their work out loud, too. I am amazed at what they come up with in such a short time. And when they leave the room buzzing about what each other wrote, I feel my mission has been accomplished!
Our panel’s approach:
“I have a fifty minute presentation that works well with class schedules. I change it up a lot so it’s fresh for me. The presentation is PowerPoint, with lots of pictures and my book trailer, then we do a short writing exercise.” (Helen Hemphill.)
“I allow 40-45 minutes for assembly. I always do a PowerPoint program that features one of my books. I discuss why I wrote it, theme, conflict, and resolution. Then I show shots of what inspired me to write that particular book. I also show my own artwork and how it influences my stories. I include photos of the books and poems kids have produced in my writing workshops. I am a big believer in visuals. When I do creative writing workshops, I use handouts, write on the board and bring examples of what they will be working on. Visuals are exciting and help create excitement for the exercise.” (Barbara Santucci)
“I show the children manuscripts with the editor’s marks, and photographs, and other things they may be interested in. We talk about ideas and I ask questions about their lives, comparing them to my own, because I don’t want to stand up in front of the room and talk at them.” (Stephanie Greene.)
“All of my presentations (with the exception of Flannel Board and Puppet Play) make use of photographic slides using PowerPoint. And I always bring a six-foot table full of puppets, props, and books.” (Toni Buzzeo.)
“I don’t think handouts work well with school visits. Papers are distracting. One of the most important aspects of a successful visit is “classroom management”—holding your audience’s attention. An author doing a school visit is one part performer and one part teacher. It’s not just a show—you have to engage and be responsive to your audience. It’s a special skill and not every author is good at it.
Writing exercises are GREAT. This makes automatic interaction. It also gives the students something they can “take with them”—a piece of writing, even if it’s brainstorming.” (Tami Brown)
An important note:
If you have a PowerPoint presentation, ALWAYS have backup. Always. Did you hear me say ‘always?’ Do not arrive at school with only one jump drive. If it’s corrupt, then what? If their computer won’t accept it, then what?
Back up your technology!
We’re back! Today we’ll finish up talking about our presentations, and move on to getting invited for a visit. Or, if you are a host, how to find an author!
Let me start off by saying:
Use the Internet For Help
There is a wealth of information out there about planning author visits, planning bookstore visits, and being an author planning a visit. Many authors have details on what their school visits encompass spelled out on their websites, so surf around for a general idea of people do. If you have an opportunity to GO to an author visit, by all means, go. Listen, observe, and learn.
Here are just a FEW resources that will give you far greater detail than we can cover here:
AuthorsInSchools.com. They offer a checklist for hosts, beginning one month in advance and detailing the things needed to be done right up through the author visit and beyond. Check them out at www.authorsinschools.com
ALA has a helpful article about this topic as well. They recommend building a timeline and detailing preparation for the visit, confirming details in writing, planning at least six months in advance, arranging a book sale, and many other tips. You can see their advice at www.ala.org/ala/authorvisits.cfm
Also see www.authorsforschoolvisits.com for the article, How to Have Great Author Visits at Your School.
Lee Wardlaw has a tremendously helpful checklist on her website as well. (www.leewardlaw.com) Lee covers scheduling, prepping the students, physical arrangements, creature comforts, book sales and signings, and payment. She also has a great list of suggested author visit activities for students and teachers to do together.
Toni Buzzeo also has a great deal of helpful hints and recommendations on her website. (www.tonibuzzeo.com) And best of all, Toni has written a book on the subject! Her book, TERRIFIC CONNECTIONS WITH AUTHORS, ILLUSTRATORS, AND STORYTELLERS, is available through Amazon, or through her website.
ONE CRITICAL PIECE OF ADVICE
Writing exercises are up to you. Visuals are up to you. So much is up to you. You have all the freedom in the world. But one thing you must do?
Be prepared to roll with the punches. You may arrive and find out your thirty minute presentation needs to be stretched to forty-five minutes. You may find out your hour long presentation needs to be cut down to thirty. Schedules in schools do change at the last minute for various reasons. To ensure an anxiety-free visit, be prepared to roll with the punches.
Same goes with your delivery. If you look around and everyone is dozing off, don’t be afraid to stray from your material and find a way to engage your audience more successfully. For example, instead of saying, “And the next thing you need to know about is called conflict,” you might say, “Who can tell me what every story needs?” When they begin tossing out answers, you can guide them ever closer: “What does a story need in order to be a story? Let’s say you have a character. Do we want to follow them around all day and nothing happens? No? Then I guess we need……” and let them fill in the blanks.
If a student raises her hand and begins sharing a spellbounding story about something pertinent to your discussion, let her. Don’t sweat that she’s eating up five minutes of your lecture time, which means your writing exercise will now tank. Let her talk. Be open to serendipity. Be open to possibilities!
If the power goes out, if there is a fire drill, if ‘stuff’ happens, smile and roll with the punches. Have fun, be relaxed, and your students will too.
How do we get invited to a school or bookstore?
1. Make a website.
First thing you must do is make yourself easy to find. If you don’t have an author’s website, consider getting one! You don’t have to be tech savvy or pay a huge fee for someone to build your website, either. You can start simple and small. Most websites offer templates that are easy to choose from, and even someone as computer illiterate as myself can have a decent website up and running in a day.
On your website, leave contact information. Better yet, some websites offer a ‘guest book’ button, which allows your viewer to click it and write their message quickly and easily. They leave their email, and you can contact them in return.
If you want to be more detailed, spell out your presentations and even what they cost.
Check out other author’s websites for a look at how they handle this topic. Some are very detailed and have photos, some are simple blurbs. Shop around and get some ideas.
There is a wonderful website out there called authorvisitsbystate.com
Check it out! You can list yourself with this site for no charge.
3. Your Publisher
Most publishers have a mention somewhere on their website about contacting their authors for visits. They recommend the interested party write to the author care of their publisher. Some have direct email links that will get your request to the author a bit faster.
Take a look at your publisher’s website and see if they have this information listed. Chances are, they do. However, you’ll probably get speedier results if host’s are able to contact you directly, so re-vist idea number one!
4. Word of Mouth
The more you do, the more word will spread. Once I began the author visit circle, many teachers in my state contacted me. They said they’d heard ‘good things’ from the other schools I had visited, and wanted to know if I’d come to theirs?
Be sure and leave a good impression and you will probably yourself hearing from more schools!
Want to know how I got started? I was asked to come give “a talk” to the monthly gathering of North Georgia school librarians. They did not dictate my topic, they simply wanted to meet me and hear a little bit about my book and getting published.
It was a volunteer presentation, they gave me a lovely lunch and I in turn gave them an hour of my time. I had a slide show, and I walked them through the entire process of idea to publication.
Afterwards, I wondered if I had entertained, informed, or simply bored, (even though everyone was very enthusiastic, I am the kind of person that wonders if they are “just being nice.”)
A week later, the requests began to arrive! Every one of them came with the remark, “I heard you speak at our monthly meeting and thought my students would enjoy meeting you and hearing about your book.”
So, volunteering to present to the librarians was a good thing. And so is volunteering in general. Many folks recommend doing your first few visits for FREE to get your “sea legs.” If this sounds like something you are willing to do, grab the phone and call your local school. Or, contact them through email. A postcard with your book cover on the front is not a bad idea, either! After you get a few visits under your belt, word of mouth may catch up to you, and you may find yourself in demand.
Yep, the age old technique. Word of mouth from fellow authors, bookstore owners, and people you have already presented to! Enough said.
When Visits Go Bad
Yep, it happens. Despite our best intentions and noble aspirations, sometimes the visit falls flat.
Most of my school visits have been good, great, or wonderful. But I’ve had one or two visits I would consider…..well, bad.
On one visit, I arrived to an exhausted media center specialist who had not done anything in the way of preparation, short of put extra chairs in the library. The students arrived in groups and I presented the same lecture several times that day. The librarian introduced me without holding up a copy of my book or mentioning that they had a copy in the library available, and after the third group, she left me to introduce myself each time. She herself had not read the book and had little to say. None of the children I saw that day, not one, had heard of or read the book.
With each presentation, I was met with sullen, bored, or indifferent faces. Students slumped in their chairs, talked, whispered, tried to disrupt, or blearily laid their heads on the tables, waiting for it to all end.
When some students began loudly disrupting the program, I looked around for adult help. The librarian was far away at her desk, working. And the teachers who had brought in their students? One was asleep in her chair. Another was deeply engrossed in the newspaper. The rest were at the very back of the library, chatting and ignoring everything else.
I wondered why on Earth I had been invited to this school to begin with.
Later I found out that my visit and lecture fulfilled some kind of state requirement for the school’s curriculum. Apparently the children have to “study a Georgia author,” which of course could include reading an author’s book and doing a report, or…..tuning out for a lecture by someone they are not interested in talking with.
It was quite a disheartening day and continued into the next, as I’d agreed to two days worth. But it was the last one of that nature. What did I learn? I decided to spice things up a bit in my lectures with a few trivia questions and more audience participation, in an attempt to reduce the ‘fall asleep in my chair’ behavior I had seen earlier. I became more attentive to why I was being invited to schools, and whether or not I thought I might be met with students who were prepped and interested. Then, I shrugged it off. I think that’s all you can do in a situation like that.
Okay, why are you telling me this?
Why do I share this negative reflection with you, when we are supposed to be basking in the wonderfulness that author visits can give? Well, two reasons. One: I want the author who has just had their first ‘bad’ visit to know they are not alone. It happens! And you may never have a bad experience again. So do not get disheartened. Understand that the occasional bad visit comes with the territory.
My second reason for sharing is to remind everyone that a bad visit is a learning opportunity. If you have a negative visit, learn from it what you can, as many of our authors mention doing below. And then let it go. Laugh it off if you can!
And ultimately, this topic is leading into tomorrow’s topic: the In’s and Out’s of a successful visit. So be sure and tune back in then.
Here’s a few more stories that I sincerely hope we can all laugh at, because, in fact, they are not the norm.
Lee Wardlaw: “I’ve shown up a school where they forgot I was coming.” (Also) “I’ve shown up at a school where they sent someone with Short Term Memory Disorder to pick me up at my hotel. She forgot how to get to the school seven or eight times along the way and we arrived two hours late.”
Sarah Sullivan: “At one school, they did not have a place for me to present my program. They ended up kicking the gym class out of the cafeteria so I could do the program there. They had no screen on which to project the power point program, so someone ripped a big chunk of butcher paper off the roll they used to cover tables. They stuck the paper on the wall with masking tape. That was my screen. It kept falling off during the presentation. The whole visit was a disaster. So, I learned to always ask where I will be and to tell the person in charge what my equipment needs will be.”
Stephanie Greene: “I was in a town in Michigan, where I was scheduled to talk at three schools a day for five days. Knowing the talks would be exhausting, I came up with a way to lighten it up. And that was to wear a pair of men’s boxer shorts over my head when I walked onto the stage. This is how my book, “Owen Foot, Super Spy,” opens. I thought the kids would laugh to see an adult doing such a silly thing. However, my first school of the week was a tightly run, religiously affiliated school and not a single child laughed. Not a giggle. Not a gasp. Not a hiccup—nothing. That was the one and only school where I tried that.”
Can you relate at all? Maybe you have an experience you’d care to share. If so, leave it on our comment section! And come back tomorrow for some tips on preventing bad visits…and ensuring your visit goes smoothly and wonderfully.
The In’s and Out’s of Planning an Author Visit
The tips below are from all our contributors, as well as websites and books that are available. We have lots of great tips for you, but we simply cannot cover them all here. So when we wrap up, I’m going to point you in the direction of some these great resources for further information.
For the Media Center Specialist, Teacher, Bookstore Owner, or anyone hosting an author:
A Wish List
Before a basic list of do’s and don’ts, let’s start with a simple “wish list” from our authors. I asked our participants: “Let’s say someone granted you a wish list for what you would like done in preparation for your visit. What would it include?”
Stephanie Greene: “All of the children would have read two or three of my books. There is no better way for a school to set the stage for an enthusiastic author visit than that. Otherwise, the author looks like any other adult, talking, talking, talking. If they know my characters when I arrive, we meet as friends.”
Sarah Sullivan: “Designating a school employee who is in charge of planning the visit, so that communications can be coordinated through this person.
Having a clear schedule for the day in advance with indications of how long the presentation is expected to be.
Having the equipment ready and a person who knows how to operate it.
Sharing the schedule for the day with all the teachers and administrators involved, so there are no unpleasant surprises for anyone.
Sharing my books with students before my visit.
Filling out an evaluation after a visit. Feedback helps me improve my presentations and I would love to have more of it.
Selling books is the icing on the cake, but it really, really helps an author with her publisher, so planning a book sale would be on my wish list.”
Kelly Bingham: “Prepare the students for my visit however best you think will arouse enthusiasm…whether it’s writing about it on the school website, having students make banners or displays, or finding ways to encourage the students to read the book before I arrive.
Talk to me openly far in advance about any specific desires you have concerning the visit. It does not do an author a lot of good to hear afterwards, “I was hoping you’d do a writing exercise.” Most authors want to please, and we love to have some indication of any expectations to be met.
Be clear ahead of time how long each presentation slot will be. I have been told “forty-five minutes, tops,” and then discovered in the middle of the day, “actually I forgot to mention you will have two classes for sixty minutes each.” We cannot pull fifteen extra minutes of material from thin air, and everyone loses out when this happens.
Have the day’s class beginning and end times on paper for your author to refer to, so she can check the clock as she’s speaking and know how much time she has left to cover her material.
It’s also helpful to show the author where the restroom is, and give her a place to put her things.
As crass as it sounds, it is worth mentioning: Have the check ready. It’s embarrassing to ask for it or wonder if it’s been overlooked.”
Toni Buzzeo: “I always wish for the same things: Every child would have read each of my books. Every teacher would have found a way to connect one or more of my books to their curriculum and created meaningful activities to extend my books. Art, Music, Physical Education, and Technology specialists would have also created curriculum connections to my books. The entire community of students, staff, and parents would have joined together to create an atmosphere of excitement around the visit.”
Preparation is KEY
Buffy Hamilton: (Media Center Specialist, Canton, GA.) “It’s important to communicate with your author ahead of time so that both of you are clear about each other’s expectations. When (Kelly Bingham) came to our school, I feel our communication helped create a successful visit that our students and teachers still remember. Also, we decorated the library with items and quotes that reflected the theme of (Kelly’s) writing—this “décor” generated interest and buzz and created a nice backdrop for your sessions with the students. I also provided info to the teachers ahead of time and blogged up the visit to create excitement and a little prior knowledge to anchor the visit.”
As you can see, the number one thing author’s want from their visit is preparation. They want the equipment checked and ready, they want the students interested, made aware, and anticipating, they want a room to present in and no last minute surprises.
If you are an author planning a school or bookstore visit, we have a last round of tips, in addition to the advice already given earlier this week. And the above websites, books, and resources apply to you as well, so check them out!
So…you’ve put the time and planning into your visit. You’ve thought this through. You have created a terrific presentation, slide show, the works. Now follow up by listening to a few of these additional tips for the big day:
Tami Brown: “Make your needs and requirements and schedule very clear beforehand. I recommend a contract. Get to the school early. Bring your own bottle of water in case the organizer forgets. Bring everything you need, do not depend on the school to have paper, markers, etc.”
Barbara Santucci: “Be on time. Have a good set of directions and allow extra time to get to the school. Be enthusiastic and gracious. We are a guest of the school. Be flexible. Things happen that one cannot plan for. Smile a lot! Laugh! I always act like we’re going to have a great day, and it always ends up that way!”
Helen Hemphill: “Make sure you plan how you are going to do your presentation, then practice it. Be kind and humble to people, even when they are not thoughtful to you. Librarians and teachers talk to each other. I hear a lot of talk about authors who come in thinking they deserve super star treatment. Don’t be a prima donna.”
Kelly Bingham: “Bring the school’s phone number with you, along with directions. More than once I have gotten lost in traffic detours, and was able to call the school for different directions, which saved the day. You also have their number in case you need to notify them you are running late. (But leave early so you’ll be on time!) Wear a watch so you can time yourself as you speak, this lets you know how much time you have to work with. Bring your own bottle of water. Bring cash in case you find you are on your own for lunch. Turn off your cell before entering the school. Be friendly and flexible and easy to get along with. Remember your host’s names. Thank them. Do not complain about anything. Wear comfortable shoes. Eat a decent breakfast. Bring a back-up to your slide show or power point. Smile at the kids. Remember the day is about them. Listen to what they want to share. Thank them for coming to the presentation, even if they had no choice. Bring a camera in case there is a banner or something that they’ve made just for you. Project confidence. Never say, “I’m just gonna wing this ‘cuz I’ve never done this before and I’m sooo nervous…” The school is paying you, and they want to believe you are prepared and ready to deliver.
And always bring a copy of your book to show, in case the library does not have one.”
Lee Wardlaw sends out an author packet before each visit. It includes, among other things, a contract, photo, sample book covers for display, author bio, lists of awards, fun facts, suggested activities for the kids, (relating to her books,) and an author visit evaluation form to be completed afterwards.
Had enough? Get the picture? Allow me one more quick summary of what we’ve covered here in Planning A Visit:
ONE LAST LIST…..
For the author:
*Make sure you plan how you are going to do your presentation, then practice it!
* Create a presentation that entertains and educates AND is as interactive as possible.
*Provide the types of programs you are comfortable with. If you prefer small groups of 30-40 kids to auditoriums of 300 people, say so.
*Charge what your time is worth. Make sure that payment amount is agreed upon beforehand and everyone is clear about it.
*Make sure you and the host are in clear communication about the expectations for the presentation and the day.
*Bring back up to your visuals and handouts.
*Make your equipment needs known ahead of time.
*Ask for directions, and bring the school’s phone number.
*Sign books for the students if they ask.
*Find the restroom when you arrive, and get a drink of water.
*Bring cash in case you find yourself on your own for lunch. Bring a snack, too.
*Wear comfortable shoes!
*leave home without the school’s phone number.
*Allow the school to change the schedule without talking to you first.
*Complain about anyone or anything or say anything negative.
*bring your cell phone into the room (At least, turn it off!)
*be afraid to ask for the check at the end of the day if it is not offered.
*be offended if some of the kids are unruly. They’re kids. Not everyone will be spellbound. If someone is disruptive, standing next to their chair while you speak usually helps them quiet down. Or you can ask an adult for some assistance.
*Expect the host to entertain you between presentations. They usually have work to do. Bring a book to keep yourself busy if there are lulls.
For the Host
*Be very clear with your author ahead of time what their presentation entails, how long it runs, and what their technological needs are.
*Prepare the students far in advance through posters, word of mouth, making banners, etc. (See the above internet resources for many more ideas.) Stir up enthusiasm!
*Consider calling the local paper to cover the author’s visit. It drums up community interest in the school or store, and makes things more exciting for the students.
*arrange a book sale, if possible. Consider involving parents and volunteers, as book sales and autograph parties generally need a few hands. The students, too. The more people involved, the more they will feel excited.
*Read the author’s books before they arrive!
*Introduce your author! Don’t leave them to do it themselves.
*Have water or coffee available.
*Give them a place to sit down between presentations.
*Have a place they can put their coat and purse.
*If your author is staying all day, plan lunch for them. Bring in take out, a pizza, etc. Have someone who can go get the food so you are not disrupted from your day.
As for don’ts? We don’t need to say them. You all get the picture, and I know that anyone reading this article will do all they can to prepared for a successful visit!
Kelly’s wonderful series on School Visits originally appeared in the Tollbooth the week of March 30, 2009.