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.

20 Responses to The Three Biggest Mistakes Authors Make on School Tours

  1. Hi!

    I’ve done hundreds of presentations to small and large groups of all ages. Your points are excellent! I am not doing programs anymore due to age and health issues, so here are a few specific tips I’ve used.

    I used the term “quiet hands” for the kids to answer yes/no questions such as “How many of you will admit you’re a bad speller?” Too much calling out or verbal answers can get carried away.

    Sharing your own faults/foibles does help the kids identify with you. I often told them how dreadful I am at spelling. I usually told older kids that I was the kind of kid who sat in the back or the middle –never up front.

    Asking for a volunteer to help you really engages the kids or even just asking a couple of their names and then using those names in an example or anecdote works well to keep everyone focused. If the kids’ names are hard to pronounce, just point to them when you need the name, and they’ll yell it for you.

    Have handouts! A bookmark, coloring sheet, sketch of a character, etc. all work well with various ages of kids.

    One tip to teachers — act interested in the author yourself. Please don’t correct papers or check e-mail while the author is presenting.

    Good luck, everyone!

    bruce eschler Reply:

    @Sheila Welch, Thank you so much for your contributions. These are excellent additions to the discussion. I’m so glad especially that you brought up the sharing of “faults/foibles.” I think this is so helpful when working with tweens and teens. Especially when these topics related to the students experiences. Each year I explain to my students how I failed 8th grade, English included. You wouldn’t believe how it humanizes me to many of my students, especially those that are also struggling in school. Now this doesn’t mean when presenting to kids you don’t have bear all, but if you can find an age-appropriate struggle or issue that they can also identify with then include it into your presentation.

  2. As an elementary school librarian who has arranged multiple author visits, I second those points . . . especially interacting with the kids and getting them involved in the presentation.

    bruce eschler Reply:

    @Cathe Olson, Thank you for participation in the discussion.

  3. Really great post — and I’ll be sharing it widely! Asking questions of the kids is an awesome idea. I almost always ask kids what they think I should be reading. I tell them a little bit about what I like to read and a couple of titles I think they’ll recognize. I take notes about their suggestions and ask follow up questions (Do you think I should start at the beginning of that series?). If doing a powerpoint, pictures of puppies help … Or, even better, have the ppt images have little to do with what you’re saying Sort of a Stephen Colbert approach to presenting.

    Bruce, what about an author who says she/he doesn’t do assemblies? I am much more comfortable with a class or two at a time, but often it seems schools request a multi class/multi age assembly.

    bruce eschler Reply:

    @Linda Johns, Great question and this is where I would defer to the business/writing-professional side of my personality. As an author I feel it’s essential that you do what is best for you, your comfort level, your career goals, etc. Just like we all write the particular genres and to the particular age-group audiences that we prefer, an author needs to market, interact with their readers, and give back to the community in the ways they feel most comfortable. I liken it unto the discussion of author’s charging or not-charging fees for visits. I understand why many authors charge schools and libraries and I also understand why others don’t and respect an individual’s ability to make the decision that best fittest their personal and professional needs.

  4. Thank you, Bruce. I re-worked my presentation last night employing these tips, and honest to dog, I think I can do a better job getting and keeping kids engaged. I have the advantage of a wildly interesting subject, but that alone is not enough. I can do my part better.

    I look forward to trying it someday.

    bruce eschler Reply:

    @Jen, I’m glad I could be of help. Good luck!

  5. Personally, I think these are good things to keep in mind when speaking in front of adults, too! Great article, Bruce!

    bruce eschler Reply:

    @Elissa Cruz, I totally agree. Adults and kids aren’t really that different from each other in lots of areas, right:)

  6. Thanks for this. I’ve done all of one school visit, and it was…okay. I’d like to do more, but am uncertain in that environment. I used to be an ace at summer camp, but the confined space and sedentary nature of classrooms and auditoriums is something different.

    You talk about changing things up every 10 or 15 minutes. How does that work in an auditorium situation when there are gobs of students present? How does interactivity work with gobs of kids? Small-group visits are hard to come by: Most schools seem to want an author to address the entire student body in the course of a day.

    bruce eschler Reply:

    @Jen, Great questions. Changing things up can come in a variety of ways that don’t have to be strictly activities, which you’re right are easier to manage in smaller groups. When presenting in the dreaded assembly format consider first breaking the content into chunks or subtopics. Many of us, kids in particular, can’t endure hearing about the same concept or idea for a long time. It’s like when my wife tells me to stop droning on, we don’t need forever to get the point. Second, consider all the ways you can deliver information and how you can vary the delivery approaches (lecture, discussion, audience participation, open-ended questions, closed questions, etc.) for each sub topic. In many ways it is analogous to how we pace our novels. We vary the action, the down time or reflective moments, plot reveals, etc. Like your readers, your student audience prefers pacing that is balanced and flows during a presentation.
    In regards to large group interactivity there are a couple options but let me preface with one comment. Some teachers like authors can be afraid of students being too quiet or off task because they see either behaviors as a sign they’re not engaged. This is will probably happen to all authors at one time or another and trust me it happens to all teachers, myself included. The key is to try to move beyond your fear and definitely don’t take it personal and become frustrated with the students. Remember they’re kids and there are going to be those days when you feel you’re going no where. But back to being interactive in a large group. Asking students closed questions that allow them to provide a raised hand or vocal agreement is perfect for large groups. It allows them to stay seated but still participate in a way that connects them not only with the topic but also their peers. Also, if your content enables you to do so, soliciting a volunteer from the audience to come up and perform or role play some part of the presentation works wonders. Many students love hamming it up in front friends.
    I hope these ideas help. Thanks again for the questions.

  7. I co-chair the Creative Arts and Sciences at my elementary school and I book a lot of the author/illustrators. Good points!

    Also:
    1) Request that the kids be familiar with one of your books. Even a few chapters!
    2) Make it interactive! Q and A is good, but do something together!
    3) Multi-media is good; slide show, not so much!

    bruce eschler Reply:

    @PragmaticMom, Excellent points and thanks for participating in the discussion.

  8. Great advice!

    bruce eschler Reply:

    @Michelle Schusterman, Thanks.

  9. I love making middle school visits. Your lesson is helpful, thank you.

    bruce eschler Reply:

    @Deanna Klingel, Middle school students are wonderful. They need authors like yourself who are excited to visit with them. I’m pleased you can use my ideas.

  10. Joanne Johnson

    This is a great and practical post. I love the way you use what the kids care about to motivate them. Thanks for sharing your expertise!

    bruce eschler Reply:

    @Joanne Johnson, Thanks for the comment.