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:
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.
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.