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?
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 a couple of silly, verging on 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. And maybe it was the demographic. Kids descended from stoic Germanic farmers. 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, because I’m aware of their sensitivity to being treated like babies. 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. WITH MIDDLE SCHOOLERS.
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. This does happen, occasionally. Once or twice at previous visits, I 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. The previous 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.
I take partial blame for the first school’s lack of preparation. Because it was a school that had merely piggybacked onto the already-arranged visit to another school, my contact at the school was someone working in the office. She was pleasant and efficient, but she does NOT spend all day with the kids. I should have asked to be put in touch with the reading specialist or librarian, someone who could prepare the students, reading them my books and perhaps using some of the advance materials I make available as downloads on my website. In my defense, this was a complicated week of visits in different eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania towns, and it was a little overwhelming remembering the details of contact persons and whom I had sent what, even with my “FM4TOC” system (Folder Method 4 the Organizationally Challenged.) The FM4TOC* has improved things over the years, but it’s far from foolproof. (*I’ll post about this sometime soon.)
Aside from requesting the name of a teacher and/or librarian in the school, there are other ways I dropped the disco ball on that visit. I hope, by sharing my mistakes, it will help others avoid similar problems.
Here’s what I should have done:
1. After receiving the name/contact info for that crucial in-touch-with-students person, I should have sent her documents to prepare students for the visit. Yes, they can be downloaded from the site, but that’s asking her to take an extra step. If they’re right there, attached to my email, she may look at them and decide she wants to use them. Those items include:
a. Teacher guides to some of my books. These offer student activities teachers can do before (preferably) or after the visit (2nd best option.)
b. Posters she could edit, inserting the date, and then post around the school
c. Bookmarks that could be distributed to students
2. A link to THIS PAGE on my website entitled “Tips for a great author visit.”
3. I don’t do this for every school, but perhaps this would have been an especially important school for me to record a “howdy” video for the students. I’ve done this occasionally, for schools, just talking directly to my iPad for a minute or so. Something like “Hi Livingston Leopards! (or whatever the school mascot) I’m excited that soon I’ll be visiting YOUR school to talk about my favorite things: books!” etc. etc. Short and sweet, with lots of pep. Maybe you could toss in a little riddle you’re hoping someone can answer once you get there. Most schools have video morning announcements, and it’s possible your coordinator could arrange to have your video played a few times before your visit.
4. And speaking of video, even if I never got around to creating an original hello video for that school, I could have sent a video I usually play as students assemble during my visits. It gives them something to concentrate on, and helps them get to know me better before I start. But there’s no rule saying I couldn’t send that video, in advance, to be played during morning announcements as well. HERE’S A LINK to my assembly video, on YouTube. As you can see, I not only show my book covers, but include some cute/funny dog images to keep it entertaining. It’s already out of date. I need to add two new book covers and one new dog! (And possibly two, if our adoption of Dash pans out. Isn’t he cute?!)
Since that amazing disco ball visit on the 2nd day, I’ve had an epiphany about how differently students behave when they really feel they know you and are looking forward to your coming. Seeing hundreds of hits on my website from that school, in advance of my visit, gave me an idea for another way to prepare students for my visit. I created a “scavenger hunt” of my website, asking 6 or 8 simple questions about things students could find on my website. Questions like, “What is the animal you see on the home page of Kim Norman’s website?” I offered multiple-choice answers for each question. In the year since I devised the hunt, teachers tell me they’ve enjoyed sharing it with their students.
Of course, there is no REAL guarantee that folks at the school will take advantage of these resources. Plus, educators are SUPER busy people, so it’s a balancing act, offering your materials and not being a pest about it. But I’m sure if I had done a FEW of those things before that wet blanket visit, everybody would have had a better experience that day, even the giggly blondes.
But all in all, it’s comforting to know that those of us without gold stickers can compete with the stars as long as we’re entertaining and/or educational and leave behind happy memories of our visits. At last, a job where my drama queen skills may finally pay off!