EAT, PRAY…SCHOOL VISITS!

When my book first came out in June 2015 I knew I wanted to do school visits.  The only problem was, I had no idea how.  To be honest, I was a little scared of the idea.  On paper, it sounded great.  In real time, it sounded like a panic attack–me in an auditorium with 300 elementary school students?  The prospect sounded daunting.

Soon I received my first invite from a friend who taught 6th grade to come and do presentations for his students (four classes in total, around 120 kids).  Now I had a deadline and I had to deliver.  I needed to create content, craft a presentation, and make sure that I could speak in front of a crowd. I immediately scoured the internet to see what information could be found on school visits.  I don’t know if you know this, but there is very little on the internet regarding school visits for children’s authors.  I was surprised, and then worried, because I needed help, and fast.

Here are a few things I learned in my “Year of School Visits”.

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Jen and Bookseller, Alexandra Uhl—The Whale of a Tale Bookshoppe

Ask for Advice from a Seasoned School Presenter: After my internet search fail, I reached out to talented author, presenter, and friend, Julie Berry.  (Hi, Julie!)  She is amazing.  For the price of a delicious bowl of ramen she walked me through her awesome presentation, told me how to talk to schools about author and administration expectations, and opportunities for book sales.  Julie was a gem and helped me see in a very real fashion the logistics of creating a great school visit that would be beneficial to me, the students, and to the school.  From her example I was able to tailor a presentation fit to my needs.  At the end of our chat, she also gave me a great bit of advice: Do as many school visits as possible in my first year to gain experience.  So that is what I did.  I presented to whole schools, small classrooms, book fairs, book expos, book clubs, writing groups, elementary schools, middle schools, and to teachers.  It has been one of the best things I’ve ever done.

(Best advice, Julie!  Thank you again.)

Julie Berry

Jen and Julie Berry

Look-Act-Be Professional: Of course as authors, we want to look the part and like we know what we’re talking about.  So shower, wear clean clothes, perform basic hygiene, and don’t forget to smile.  Looking professional seems pretty straightforward. But something I hadn’t really thought of was if my presentation looked professional.  In my case, I created a PowerPoint presentation, with various pictures and videos, along with written content. Think of yourself as a logo or trademark.  What do you want to convey?  What kinds of books do you write?  What images or ideas do you gravitate towards?  Whatever it is, make it visual and place it throughout your PowerPoint so it looks cohesive.  In my opinion, a well-placed theme makes you, as the author, more professional.  Another important point is to create a document that outlines what you present and for how long, so the school can get an idea of what to expect.  You want to inspire the students, but that won’t happen until you get past the gate keepers (teachers and school administrators) and show the school how valuable you can be as an inspiration and a teaching tool.

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Lone Peak Elementary

Think Like a Kid: As authors for children and young adults, this probably isn’t very hard. But it goes without saying, that whatever your younger self would find interesting, would now interest your younger audience.  In my case, I wanted to show videos of various animals in their natural habitats and talk with my listeners about how to survive. (After all, my book is SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE.)  The videos were a huge hit and a favorite of both teachers and students.  I loved talking with the students about survival strategies, Darwin, how humans have their own survival skills.  I also talked about the writing process, creativity, reading, my book, and my journey as an author.  Which brings me to my next thought….  think like a kid

 

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Jen with her sisters when she was young. Grand Canyon.

Get Personal…But Not Too Much: Of course you want to tell the audience about yourself.  They are interested in you as an author— what you were like as a kid, what books you liked then, what you like now, and maybe an embarrassing author photo or two, but don’t make the mistake of top loading your presentation with ME, ME, ME.   The students want to relate to you, but they also want to learn something about reading, writing, and your book.  If you’re too busy telling stories about yourself, you can’t convey the rest…which is really important, too.

 

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Indian Hills Middle School

Expect the Unexpected: In my “Year of School Visits” I learned that what can go wrong, probably will.  Sometimes you plan, prepare, check and double check, and things still go wrong.  All you can do in these circumstances is smile and work through it.   To help with any technology glitches, makes sure you carry whatever you need on an extra thumb drive.  Also, I always brought my own computer and ran my presentation through it.  This was helpful because the software I needed to run my presentation was already there.  One time the presentation on my computer wasn’t translating well into the school’s media and speakers, so I did the presentation without sound, but we rolled with it.  Be prepared for your media not to work.  What will you do then?  Do you need handouts?  An activity where the kids can get up and help you?  A game?  A writing prompt? Are you going to read from your book(s)?  I always suggest doing a short reading, it makes everyone in the room your instant fan.

 

Over Prepare: Sometimes you think you have your presentation planned out perfectly and then you end twenty minutes early.  Now what?  I always over prepare.  Before your visit ask the teachers to read a chapter of your book to the kids, or have your books on hand in the classroom and the library.  Kids and teachers who have read your work, are generally more excited to have you there.  Place your first chapter on your website so everyone has an opportunity to sample your work.  Also, plan extra content.  In my PowerPoint presentation I have extra quotes, writing activities, a game, and sections of my presentation that mostly go unused, unless, SURPRISE, I have more time than needed.  After presenting at a middle school and an elementary school, I now have two PowerPoint presentations:  one for elementary, and one for 7th, 8th, and 9th  You can tailor the same content for different ages.  You must have a bag of tricks to pull out when things don’t go as expected.  Consider it your SURVIVAL BAG.Felix

 

If You’re Not Having Fun, You’re Doing It Wrong: Have fun! If you don’t look like you’re having fun, the audience will feel it. Act like you’re speaking to some of your closest friends—they like you, you like them, and it is fun to be together.  A school visit should be the same kind of experience.  If you hate getting up in front of an audience, but love to talk about writing, maybe a smaller group is your best choice.  Figure out what works for you and then do that.

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Rancho Canada Elementary

 

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Vista Verde Elementary

I have to say, after I got over my initial nervousness, and built a great presentation with fab content, doing school visits is one of my most favorite things.  The kids are awesome!  How often can you interact with kids who have read your book, or who want to read your book, or who are just plain happy to see you?  I have made great friends– especially lovely librarians and booksellers who have, and still continue, to give me their best help and advice.  So get out there, people!  Share your genius.  School visits are a very good thing.

A Common Core Conversation

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I’d like to use comments about my last post as a springboard for today’s. In a reply to the way I’m trying to use the Common Core with my picture book, a writer worried that my CCSS-inspired questions could make my book “less interesting by being turned into a series of didactic, less interesting questions to be answered, and I worry even young children will see it.”

This comment brought me back to the first time I took my then two-year-old to storytime at my local library. It’s a great library, but I was appalled that the children had to sit facing front (albeit on the floor) and pay attention to an authoritative (if fun and friendly) speaker standing before them. I also have to admit that I send that same daughter, now eight, to a Montessori school.

On the other hand, since I’ve begun to pay my own school, book store, and library visits, I’m pretty sure questions can, at least in person, generate interest in and even love for books.

I think I wasn’t clear in my last post. I developed Common Core–inspired questions as part of a larger plan.

1) I wanted to understand the Common Core.
2) I wanted stories, not just non-fiction, to be understood by schools, libraries, and book stores as worthy of Common Core attention. I care about this because I’ve seen little signs placed near shelves with non-fiction at Barnes & Noble, for example, and never near stories. Does the fact that our kids are poor in non-fiction realms, such as STEM subjects, mean that story has to be pushed aside?
3) I want to pay book visits. I like them. But planning for them is surprisingly demanding. By the time I drafted my CCSS-inspired questions, I’d already read + asked questions of my own to several groups, and to kids from two to eight. I decided it would make sense to use my experience with visits and my new understanding of the Common Core to structure future visits. I don’t think my visits will be less fun or interesting because I’ve taken the time to think carefully about how they’ll unfold. Future visits will be very much like what I’ve already done but with less winging it.
4) Hence, I just (today!) published a revised website for “One Bright Ring” (onebrightring.com), which I’ve been working on for a couple of months. Clicking the Visits button takes people to the section where I describe storytime visits and school visits, and the differences I offer for different ages. For kindergarten through third grade, I offer CCSS-inspired questions for the teachers to see, not the students. I don’t read the questions to the kids, and in my experience so far, kids participate eagerly in oral Q&As.

On my site, I offer PDFs for teachers (and home-schoolers) of first through third grade. These PDFs contain my CCSS-inspired questions, my answers to the questions (and I say up front that many questions don’t have a single answer), and the Common Core standards I use for that grade. Teachers, librarians – whomever! – can use these PDFs, or not, however they wish. I wouldn’t have spent as much time on them as I did if I didn’t hope they would be helpful.

Let me conclude by circling back to my commenter’s fear of incipient didacticism and my own horror of my daughter having to face front and pay attention at the library. These seem like well-founded fears to me even now, despite the body of this post. BUT I also remember very well the day I realized that my college English classes were like church to me, and there couldn’t be a more teacherly, if not didactic, setting.

My Common Core Education

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I am in the midst of revising the website I built for my picture book “One Bright Ring.” The new version will include information on how the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) can be used with my book.

A quick digression: What do I think about CCSS? I’m leery of standardized tests in general and am sure that No Child Left Behind has left most American students behind at least to some extent, because it has made it difficult for all public school teachers to teach. That said, the Common Core Standards are this moment’s reality, so I decided to learn about them.

That has meant studying the CCSS site (http://www.corestandards.org/). I didn’t intend to have to do that, but I quickly found that CCSS doesn’t reward glancing attention. In the end, I believe the site’s careful organization is positive (and not as tedious as I first thought).

Can CCSS help teaching? I think the answer is, perhaps, yes.

For this post, I want to show you excerpts from how I intend to use the Core on my website.

One page on my site will be dedicated to which Core Standards relate to “One Bright Ring.” For example, I tell visitors that these are the standards pertinent to first graders who read my book:

English Language Arts: Reading: Literature: Grade 1:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.1.1: Ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.1.2: Retell stories, including key details, and demonstrate understanding of their central message or lesson.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.1.3: Describe characters, settings, and major events in a story, using key details.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.1.4: Identify words and phrases in stories or poems that suggest feelings or appeal to the senses.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.1.7: Use illustrations and details in a story to describe its characters, setting, or events.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.1.9: Compare and contrast the adventures and experiences of characters in stories.

In a different section of my site, I’ll explain what I offer in the way of school visits. I describe visits for preschool up to grade 3. For each grade level, I articulate for teachers the kinds of questions I will ask after reading “One Bright Ring.” I say up front that many of my questions do not have one right answer but that I hope most will inspire thinking and discussion. Also, although I’m including answers for readers of this post (see below), on my website I will provide them only in a PDF for teachers. I intend to offer this PDF in case a teacher is interested in teaching my book without me present or would like to understand why I pose a question.

I would not answer my own questions during a school visit. That’s for the kids to do! Here are some examples of the questions I might ask first graders:

Q: Why does the girl in my story try to catch the ring? (Literature Common Core Standard RL.1.2 and RL.1.3)


A: I think she catches it because it comes to her. Do you agree? Does she hope to return it after that? Would you try as hard as the girl in the story to return the ring? 


Q: Why does the girl put the ring in her purse? (Literature Common Core Standard RL.1.2 and RL.K.7)




A: I think she wants to keep the ring safe. Do you agree? Would you have done something like that? Where would you have put the ring?

Q: What are some differences between the man’s experiences in the story and the girl’s? (Literature Common Core Standard RL.1.9)


A: There are many answers to this question. The big answers for me are that the man begins the story feeling happy and hopeful. He has a ring in his pocket (he thinks), buys flowers, and walks to the park. The girl begins the story worried. She watches the man’s ring fall, catches it, then does everything she can to return it. They switch moods in the park. The man realizes he lost the ring, and the girl realizes she can return it. At the end, both are happy.


For kindergarteners, I can ask math questions prompted by CCSS (because “One Bright Ring” is a counting book).

On the other hand, I can ask second graders a question about numbers like this:

Q: You’re older than counting-book age, but do you think the numbers in the story supply a useful beat? (Literature Common Core Standard RL.2.4: Describe how words and phrases (e.g., regular beats, alliteration, rhymes, repeated lines) supply rhythm and meaning in a story, poem, or song.)




A: Counting books create a feeling of expectation. You read “three” on one page and expect “four” on the next. Because it’s satisfying to encounter each number in a series, numbers end up being read with a special emphasis or beat. 


My favorite part of trying to use the Common Core Standards for “One Bright Ring” has been to learn that they can be used for texts not explicitly educational. I don’t pretend that my picture book is literature, but the Common Core Standards suggest ways teachers can use story, as opposed to non-fiction, for teaching. I like that.