My favorite part of being an author besides the actual writing of the books is meeting and teaching students at schools. I do about a dozen of them a year, some as short as a few hours and some stretching over a week. Each time I’ve found that the more I did to prepare, the better my visit went. Here are nine things I’ve learned about preparing for a school visit.
1. Remember you are there to serve the students not to sell books.
Because of recent budget cuts to schools and lean times for families, you might consider not asking a school to sell your book as a part of the visit. Sometimes a local bookstore will give the school library credit based on the number of books students buy, which is a win for everyone. But that’s often not possible. Best to keep the focus on what you can do to enrich the curriculum at the school you’re serving.
2. Think about what you have to offer and where your talents are best used.
In an earlier post, I talked about the many different options available for school visits. Pick one that plays to your strengths. If teenagers intimidate you, don’t offer to speak to kids older than 6th grade. If you’ve never structured a lesson and don’t have happy memories of writing in school, teaching a writer’s workshop is probably not for you. On the other hand, if the idea of addressing several hundred students at once gives you hives, don’t offer a large group presentation. Kids get squirrelly when you are uncomfortable and teachers know good teaching—make sure you are confident in what you have to offer.
3. Learn something about the school you are going to attend.
Ask the teacher or librarian what they are hoping to gain from the visit. Do they hope to inspire students to stick with revision? Is there a state writing test coming up? Do they want students to feel confident that they have something in their life worth writing about? Are they looking for specific skills in plotting or characterization?
4. Be clear about what you are willing to do and make an agreement.
Spell out the schedule for the day in advance. Make sure it includes the length of each presentation, number of students at each one, technology available to support you, and the amount the school is going to pay you. Even if you are doing a pro-bono visit, please let the school know what you would ordinarily charge for the service. It helps support all the other authors who must ask for pay to come to a school.
There is a sample author visit contract I use in the educators section of the website. Feel free to use it and adapt is as needed.
5. Come early, with back up to your technology.
Try to arrive a half hour before speaking. If you’re using a power point, bring the slides on a thumb drive but also keep your computer on hand with an extra connector. Sometimes it takes several tries to get the technology piece to work. And ALWAYS have a back up plan in case no technology is available on that particular day.
6. Change your presentation based on the age of your listeners.
Make sure your presentations are right for the age you are addressing. No matter how good you are, kindergarteners will not sit still longer than about 20 minutes or be able to write you a paragraph about their favorite story character. You can ask the teacher at the very start if the group is chatty and likely to have many questions, or if they are a hands-on group that will want a project and not just passive listening. As a rule of thumb: K-2nd graders do well for 20-30 minutes, 3rd -5th are fine with 30-45 minutes, 6th and up can manage 60-75 minute presentations.
7. Remember that you are disrupting the schedule. Be flexible.
School thrives on routine. It’s not that people aren’t delighted to have you, but you are probably changing the normal routine, which is extra work for everyone involved. The more flexible and understanding you can be, the better.
8. Give them something to take home.
Think about the dinner tables your students are going home to that night. What do you want them to say about your presentation? For me, I want kids to know that they don’t have to be the “smart” or “bookish” one to have a great story to tell. If they are taking a writing workshop from me, I want them to have the start of a story they feel proud of.
9. Listen and learn.
The most valuable part of the visit by far is the chance to meet my readers and learn a little about what they love in the books they read. Whenever I talk to kids they carry on enthusiastically about some author who is much more famous than me. And when I swallow my pride and ask them to explain what they love about a particular book, I always learn something valuable that I can use in my work in progress. It’s a humbling thing to work in schools but one of the reasons I stick with it, is the insight I get into the lives of my readers.
Do you have a tip to share with readers? How do you prepare for a school visit?
Rosanne Parry is the author of Second Fiddle, a story about an avid violin player who finds friendship and adventure in some unexpected places as she travels with her friends from Berlin to Paris.