Monday, March 10, 2008

Advice from the trenches, again

Dear School-That-is-Planning-an-Author-Visit:

So, you've decided to invite an author to your school. Good for you!

Now, I know you want to get the biggest bang for your buck, right? I mean, money is tight. The PTO had a great fundraiser and you want to use it to best advantage.

I've done a lot of school visits.

Some were great. Some were not so great.

At School A, the kids could hardly wait to meet me. They had been preparing for my visit for weeks. They had read some of my books and couldn't get to the library fast enough to read the others. There was an air of excitement throughout the whole school. The kids had decorated the school with signs and banners to welcome me. They came to the presentation armed with questions and treated me respectfully. The teachers knew my work and had been discussing and reading my books in the classroom for days and sometimes weeks prior to my visit. The school had sent home flyers about book sales and the kids were thrilled to have their books signed. Those kids will always remember my visit and I will be eager to return there.

At School B, no one at the school seemed to know who I was or why I was there. There was no one to meet me or help me with my equipment. The kids had no idea who I was and had never seen one of my books. They had me present in the cafeteria, with the children sitting on the sticky linoleum floor and pots and pans clanging in the background. The teachers sat in the back of the room and chatted with one another while I disciplined the children. Those kids had a very ho-hum day. I will not be in a hurry to return.

Trust me, School A got the biggest bang for their buck.

So what did the Great-School-Visits School do that the So-So-School-Visits School didn't?

1. They had a good team of volunteers ready and willing to research and, if possible, preview visiting authors in their area.

2. That team of volunteers communicated with school faculty to learn what was most important about the author visit: appeal to the children; curriculum tie-ins; writing workshops; a body of work; an author who can present to the whole school or to just one or two grades, etc.

In addition, are you looking for an author to simply entertain and be interesting (and there's nothing wrong with that!) - or do you also want an author who can give the students something they can take back to their classrooms (i.e., writing tips; curriculum tie-ins, etc.).

3. Delegate. Delegate. Delegate. Bring enough volunteers on board (if possible) so that one person can handle book sales, one person can liaison with teachers and handle scheduling, one person can take care of technical equipment, one person can be in charge of greeting and escorting the author, one person can bring in a small sack lunch and a bottle of water, etc.

4. They planned ahead. Some authors book a year or more in advance. It also takes time to carry out all the other stages of the author visit, like book-ordering (discussed below).

5. They prepared the students.

Let me repeat that:

5. They prepared the students. This is the single most important ingredient for a successful author visit. Hands down.

What is involved in preparing the students, you ask?

Make sure they are familiar with the author's work.

Let me repeat that.

Make sure they are familiar with the author's work.

They should have the author's books in the classrooms.
They should read the books - or...
They should have the books read to them.
They should see the books displayed in the library.

Nothing generates excitement and enthusiasm for an author's visit more than this. Nothing.

And when the students are excited and enthusiastic, they get 400% more out of the author visit.

6. Give the author's schedule of presentations careful consideration.
  • Have you checked with the author about the timing of her presentation? Don't plan on an hour-long program if the author has a 50-minute program. It doesn't sound like much, but it makes a difference when there are 3 or 4 presentations in a day.
  • Have you allowed for small breaks between sessions?
  • Have you taken into consideration the amount of time it will take the students to arrive and get settled? (For instance, large groups coming into an auditorium require more time than smaller groups sitting on the floor in the library.)
  • Have you avoided large chunks of "down" time for the author? (Most authors would rather keep up their momentum with the programs and then be able to leave, rather than having an hour or more between sessions or an especially long lunch break.)

7. Give the students the opportunity to buy the author's books in advance of the visit. Assign a volunteer to be in charge of this. Most authors have information about ordering on their web site or can give it to you in advance. You should allow six weeks for this! Many publishers can get you books right away, but some need lead time.

8. Sometimes students aren't motivated to buy a book until after he has seen the author. If possible, order extra books to meet demands of late orders. Most publishers allow unsold books to be returned, so you won't be out the money if you order too many.

9. Choose the location of the presentation carefully. Libraries are ideal - they have that "book atmosphere" and usually have nice acoustics and lighting. Cafeterias are deadly - lousy sound, uncomfortable floors for students to sit on, pots and pans clanging, terrible lighting for projector presentations, disruptions and scheduling issues. (Trust me, I understand there aren't always a lot of options.)

10. Be very clear what the equipment needs of the author are. Make sure all the necessary equipment is ready - that means set up and ready to go when the author arrives.

11. Have someone on hand to help the author with technical equipment set-up. It's unfair to expect the author to know how to use unfamiliar projectors or to hustle around looking for extensions cords, outlets, etc.

12. Arrange for someone to greet the author. This is just common courtesy and will be appreciated. Show the author where the restrooms are, where the teachers' lounge is, etc.

13. Make sure the folks working in the front office know the author is coming and who is expected to escort her to her presentation spot.

14. Have the students prepare signs, banners, or other displays for the author. This adds an air of excitement to the school and makes the author feel welcome. This also helps involve the students in the author visit.

15. Assign someone to introduce the author to the students. While the author is certainly capable of doing this, having an "official introducer" sends a signal to the students that this is a special presentation and someone worth listening to - and oh, how lucky they are!

16. Make sure teachers stay with the students throughout the entire presentation. The author should not have to deal with discipline issues.

17. Ask that the teachers not work on computers or talk to one another during the program. This sends a bad signal to the students - a signal that says, "I don't really value this program." A teacher who sits attentively and listens respectfully to the program sends a good signal, a signal that says, "I value this program."

18. Don't change the pre-arranged schedule without letting the author know prior to the day of the visit. The author has planned accordingly and shouldn't have to make adjustments after arrival.

19. Let the author know ahead of time if lunch will be provided. Authors will appreciate choosing something from a take-out menu or a simple lunch prepared by a volunteer. At the very least, let the author know what is available to her in the cafeteria or from a nearby deli (if time allows). Most authors come prepared with something for lunch, but would just as soon not bring it if it's not necessary.

20. Show the author some appropriate places for her to eat, such as the teachers' lounge. Some authors will appreciate some quiet time during lunch. You might ask if she would prefer to eat alone in a quiet corner of the library or some other quiet spot.

21. If you've arranged for the author to have lunch with a group of students, be sure to factor in some time for the author to eat. While it's wonderful for kids to have a chance to chat with the author, such events add "talking time" to the author's day and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to actually eat.

22. For book signing times, have the students write their names on a post-it note so that the author won't have to ask about spelling. This makes things go more smoothly and quickly.

23. Don't allow students to rush up in hoards, thrusting small scraps of paper at the author for her to sign. It's hard for authors to say no to these requests, but signing one usually turns into signing 50. There's just no time for this. (And the author will feel terrible having to say "no.")

One remedy for students who did not buy books but would like an autograph is to prepare simple bookmarks for the author to sign and then copy and/or laminate them for all the students. (Some authors have their own bookmarks or bookmark templates. Ask ahead of time.)

24. Have the author's check ready on the day of the visit.

25. Have one of the volunteers write down each process involved in arranging the visit. Then next year, when those volunteers are gone, you won't be reinventing the wheel. You'll have an "owner's manual" for your future school visits.

26. Have the students write thank-you notes or make drawings to send to the author. That is just one more extension of the program; gives the students a chance to reflect on the visit and what they got out of it; reinforces common manners; and will be enjoyed and appreciated by the author.

27. Pat yourself on the back. You've enriched the curriculum, nudged the students a step farther toward better reading and writing, and made an author feel great about her day.

Thanks to Kerry Madden for suggesting this post!


Kerry Madden said...

Thank you, Barbara! This is great. I'm off to do a school visit right now for teachers. The students have the day off!

Anonymous said...

Amen, sistah!

Jill E

Kris Bordessa said...

Holy Schmoly - that was by far the most valuable blog post I've read in awhile. Thank you for compiling this!

I'm gearing up for school visits in the fall, so this will be immensely helpful. As the author of several non-fiction books I get twisted up over the "prepare your students" bit. My books (hands-on history) are likely to be used in the classroom, but not (probably) read cover to cover by the students like your novels would. Certainly if the kids have been studying the appropriate time period they'll have an insight about the history, but not my books.

Any thoughts on preparing kids for a visit such as this?

Sarah Miller said...

Killer post.

Barbara O'Connor said...

Kris: Sometimes the best you can hope for (and certainly ask for) is that the teacher and or librarian read at least a portion of the book to the kids prior to your visit. Naturally, the BEST scenario would be for them to USE the book and do the activities or whatever from the book. But, alas, curriculums (curricula?) are often tight and can't be deviated from. (Darn those standardized tests....)

You might also prepare a simple handout for the teachers with suggestions for using your book AFTER your visit.

Good luck!

TamraW said...

Thank you Barbara . ..

What an amazing post!