At this point, I’ve spoken to well over FIFTY THOUSAND STUDENTS. (Gulp!) I’ve learned a few things along the way…
(This is an expanded version of an article appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of “The Highlighter,” the newsletter of the Mid-Atlantic Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I’m running a contest this week! By June 1, 2015, pop down and leave a relevant comment – to make sure I don’t confuse you with a spammer – and you’ll be entered to win a copy of Puddle Pug WITH the adorable Scholastic CD audio version of the book. There will be two winners, so your changes are good. Good luck!)
1. Pre-Ks, kindergartners and first graders do not really ask questions. They TELL you things. Some things they tell you are sweet and entertaining, but a dozen “I-have-a-dog-too” refrains can eat up precious time. For this reason, I generally 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 say, “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…” (And I do always repeat the question, since most in the assembly won’t have been able to hear it.)
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, (at least it appears off the cuff, even though my message is pretty firmly set at this point) 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 once the ice has been broken. 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’s 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 if I’m using a few chosen “actors” for 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. I like to move among the students, especially if I’m not tethered by a corded mic, so it helps to ask teachers to form an aisle up the middle when students are seated on the floor.
14. Sometimes kids just wiggle. It doesn’t mean they’re misbehaving. The wiggliest students are often the youngest, who tend to be seated towards the front. If I spot a wiggler who’s distracting his/her neighbors, I’ve learned to sidle up and direct a question to that particular child, (something related to my talk, not meant to discipline or humiliate.) The child will often light up and answer the question. Sometimes this is enough to break the wiggling spell — for a while, at least!
15. School visits are a lot of work, but they are also a lot of FUN!
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