TIPS FOR A GREAT AUTHOR VISIT…
A Tale of Two Visits
This is the true story of a pair of author visits I did in the same week. The schools were very similar:
• Rural K-12 shared campus
• Elementary borrowed the high school auditorium for my assemblies.
• Both schools included 6th graders in the program for older elementary students.
My days in these schools should have been very similar, right? Wrong.
At the first school, the kids in the older assembly were… I’ll be honest… a bunch of “wet blankets.” Very low energy and low response rate. The audience included a trio of blonds who were too cool to participate, except for occasional rude questions to entertain their giggling friends. Hey, I get it. That’s what you expect sometimes from middle-schoolers. They’ve left behind the starry-eyed enthusiasm of 2nd graders. So I was prepared for a similar experience with the middle-schoolers at the 2nd school.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. They were engaged and enthusiastic. They asked appropriate questions. They even asked me to sing to them — which I NEVER do with that age group. I didn’t even have my song CD cued up. But no, they insisted. So I began to sing, a capella, to a roaring roomful of kids in an auditorium nearly identical to the space I’d occupied the day before. This energetic group clapped and sang along.
Here’s the best part: It was the day before the high school’s spring concert, so there happened to be a disco ball — a DISCO BALL! — hanging over the stage. Once the song got going, the teenaged tech guy (bless his spontaneous heart!) turned on the disco ball. The kids went nuts.
It was one of the most fun and memorable assemblies I have ever done.
Aside from the timely turn of a disco ball, what was the difference between these two assemblies? Did I change my program from one school to the next? Nope. The difference was…
In the first school, which had agreed to join in on a sharing arrangement with another nearby school, it was clear there had been no preparation. It’s even possible the students had no idea why they were filing into the auditorium. It’s true, once or twice, I really have overheard students whispering, “Why are we here?” as they assemble.
With the second school, I had seen hundreds of hits on my website, for months in advance, from this school district. (Everyone at the school deserves a shout-out for this: Hi awesome students of Clarion-Limestone Elementary in Strattanville, Pa.!!) When I spoke to their librarian, Pete Beskid, he told me he had encouraged students to visit my website, to get to know more about me and — more importantly — about my books. I feel certain that teachers and PTO parents also worked hard to prepare students for the visit. THAT’S why a bunch of 6th graders, “too old” for my “Storytime Boogie,” were happily singing along that day.
The old saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt” is wrong. Familiarity breeds… FAMILIARITY. And friendliness and enthusiasm and a feeling that students really know you.
Honestly, I appreciate any school that takes the time to bring me in to talk to its students. That first school wasn’t all bad. The few staff members I met were kind, and we had some fun that day. But we’d have had a lot more fun, with a greater number of takeaways back to the classroom, if the students had known what to expect.
So if you’re planning on having an author visit your school, please make sure your students know about it, and that they get to know the author and his/her books beforehand. If the author’s website offers advance activities, teacher guides, videos… take advantage of them. Plan art shows based on the book covers. Have a book sale. Hold contests (posters, essays, classroom door artwork) with prizes like “Lunch with the Author.”
A little preparation will make all the difference.
Author visits are a terrific way to energize your school’s reading and writing programs, from staff to students to parents. Here are some tips on how to get the most out of this year’s author visit:
Get everyone involved!
On their websites, many authors have downloadable teacher guides for their books. (You’ll find mine HERE.) Encourage teachers to use the guides in advance of the visit, so students will be familiar with the author’s books (and excited about them!) before the event.
As much as possible, involve the WHOLE staff. My author friends and I are all agreed: events tend to go well in schools where the principal takes the time to stop in and meet us — even if only momentarily. It seems that when the principal is onboard, so is everyone else.
Resource teachers, (reading, art, music, library, etc.), can do amazing things to help build excitement for the visit. In advance, I always send a music CD that features my “Storytime Boogie” (video of the song HERE) a bouncy song about reading at bedtime. I’m often sorry to learn that no one has heard the CD (or even knew about it) and therefore couldn’t share it with the kids. (The song is always a hit, whether the kids know the song or not, but it’s always more fun if they DO.) So do share those little extra goodies with your resource teachers. I understand that sometimes there’s no room in the schedule to play the song for the kids before I come, but if they don’t even know the CD exists, they can’t make that decision.
This evening event (pictured below) at a school in Virginia Beach, Virginia, was very-well attended. I think much of the success was due to the fact that the children were eager to show off books they had made, not only to me, the visiting author, but to their parents. If kids are eager to come for an evening event, to share their creations, the whole family is more likely to show up.
I’ve been greeted by some delightful bulletin boards at schools I have visited. (See below.) That’s just one way to build excitement about the visit. Here are a few others:
Have a school-wide art contest based on the author’s books. Perhaps the winner’s artwork could even be printed on t-shirts worn by staff on the day of the visit. Display all the art throughout the school in advance of the visit. Ideas for uses of the art would be posters, bookmarks, drawings, cutouts and crafts themed around the subject of the author’s books.
Many authors have videos on YouTube and their own websites. If you do a morning TV program (or similar) in your school, show the video. If students have done book reports on the author’s books, they can read them as guest presenters on your morning show.
Choose a theme based on the author’s books. I was at a school recently that was “swimming” in clever crocodile art, celebrating my CROCODADDY. Everywhere, there were clever sayings like, “Sink into reading,” and “Take a bite out a good book.” You could even hold a slogan contest. Perhaps the winner could receive a free book.
Here’s the awesome bulletin board I mentioned, displayed by a school in Blacksburg, VA. Scroll down for more tips on getting parents involved…
Get parents involved!!
If the event will involve an evening parent program, it’s even more important to promote the visit to parents.
• Be sure to put an article about the event in the school newsletter.
• Promote the event on your school’s website.
• As the day draws near, announce the upcoming visit on the school’s outdoor road sign.
• If you have the resources, send home a flier about the event with the students.
I know it’s hard to get the attention of local media these days, but do send a press release about the event to your local newspaper and TV stations. You never know when they’ll decide to send out a reporter who will do an enthusiastic story featuring your wonderful school! (Even daily newspapers print event sections far in advance, so they’ll likely want the press release at least 2 weeks in advance of your event.)
Hold a book sale!
Many authors (including me) have an already-composed book order form you can print up and send home with the students. Allow plenty of lead-time for this. It’s best if book orders are placed with the publisher (or your local bookstore) at least 2 weeks before the event. This means order forms should be sent home 3 to 4 weeks in advance of the visit.
Even if you’re not holding a book sale, it’s great if parents are clued in about the upcoming visit. Send home a flier. I have a downloadable 8.5×11 poster below that could also be used as a take-home flier. I also have printable bookmarks. Many authors do the same.
To mangle a famous phrase from an old movie: “If you feed them, they will come.” Some of the best-attended parent programs have offered food — even whole dinners — to attending families. In today’s rush-rush world, some parents are too tired to even THINK about taking their kids back to school after dinner. With dinner provided, giving tired parents a break, the turnout is phenomenal. I’ve seen food come from a variety of creative resourses: One school enlisted a staff member’s church to provide meals. Another got their local Chic-fil-A to donate the food. Or simply ask folks (perhaps a committee) to bring snacks & drinks to share.
The more you spread the word, the more successful your event will be… so SHOUT IT FROM THE ROOFTOPS!
At this point, I’ve spoken to more than fifty thousand students. (!!!!) I’ve learned a few things along the way. Here are….
13 things I’ve Learned from Author School Visits
by Kim Norman
(This article appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of “The Highlighter,” the newsletter of the Mid-Atlantic Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.)
1. Pre-Ks, Kindergartners and first graders do not really ask questions. They TELL you things. Some things they tell you are very entertaining, but a dozen “I-have-a-dog-too” refrains can eat up precious time. I’ve learned to only invite questions from 2nd grade and up.
2. The best presentation is one that combines education and entertainment. I want them to be entertained: they’ll pay closer attention and will remember everything more clearly. But I want them to walk away with skills and knowledge they can apply to their own reading and writing. This is doubly true in this age of standardized tests.
3. Sometimes kids forget why they have their hands up… and they are not offended if you tell them, “You can put your hands down now.”
4. Even if the child posing a question has long, curly locks and a pink hair bow, I NEVER assume gender. Long-lashed boys with collar-length hair and pixie-haired tomboys in jeans can make gender a real guessing game. When I repeat a child’s question, I no longer say, “He/she asked…” Now, I always say, “The question was…”
5. Every school seems to have a “Mr. Jenkins” who knows how to make the microphones and projectors work. Mr. Jenkins is often at the other end of the building when you need him.
6. It’s rare, but sometimes assemblies are abruptly cut short. And frequently they start a little late because classes were slow to assemble — which means I may now have to do a 50-minute presentation in 40 minutes. For these reasons, I always front-load my presentations with the most important material. If I must draw things to a quick close, I know the students have received the most important information.
7. I can’t rely too much on PowerPoint. It’s better to mix it up: first a little talking off the cuff, then something on PowerPoint, then a song or chant or hand prop to share, then readers’ theater, then MAYBE something else on PowerPoint… but that’s my limit for PowerPoint.
8. Questions keep the audience awake. Even if I AM using PowerPoint, it’s not just reading or talking on my own. I constantly ask questions. “Can anyone give me an example of a verb?” “What does ‘quoth’ mean?” “Anyone want to guess how long it took for this poem to be published?”
9. Treats are not necessary. I used to offer treats (like stickers) for participation, but have found it’s unnecessary. Even “jaded” 5th and 6th graders are eager to participate. Also, the disappointment is too great for those who don’t win the treats.
10. Teachers know their students. For reader’s theater, I try to get teachers to choose my readers. This can alleviate embarrassment should I happen to call on a child who is not a strong reader. If it’s a non-reading activity, I let teachers know this, so they can feel free to call on a bright, eager student who doesn’t happen to be a strong reader.
11. I need to involve the audience. Even though I’m using a few chosen “actors” for my readers’ theater, I always make sure there is something for the audience to do, too. (For instance, some unison phrase they can all chant on cue.)
12. My presentations must be for the STUDENTS. I may toss in a rare, occasional aside that teachers will enjoy, but I keep my interaction focused on the students.
13. School visits are a lot of work, but they are also a lot of FUN!