15 things I’ve learned about author school visits

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At this point, I’ve spoken to well over FIFTY THOUSAND STUDENTS. (Gulp!) I’ve learned a few things along the way…

PuddlePugGiveaway(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 generallystudents raising hands 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.)

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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.

72Kim_Norman JackCover-day28. 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.

72Kim_Norman WolfRT11. 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!


PlanningYourVisit_coverSmall_byKimNormanHave you signed up for Cool School Visits updates? Subscribe using the form on the upper right side of this page, and you’ll receive a free copy of my guide, PLANNING YOUR AUTHOR SCHOOL VISIT, which includes sample programs and breakdowns to target your sessions to different grade levels. It’s FREE! (If you’re on a smart phone, keep scrolling and you’ll find the form at the very bottom of any blog post, below any comments.)

Comments

  1. says

    Great advice, as usual! Tell me what you’d do if a whole row of sixth grade boys decided to lie down on the floor during your presentation while their teacher watched and ignored! I just had this happen. It was my final (of six) presentations that day and I was so “over it” I just let them go. They were, however, quiet and, surprisingly engaged!

  2. bigbosslady says

    Oi, whaddaya gonna do, right? I’ve seen that, too, although I seldom present to students quite that old. My sprawlers tend to be younger. Generally, I just ignore them, too. Sometimes a teacher will creep up and nudge them to sit up, but often that’s more intrusive than just letting them sprawl. I’m glad yours were so well-engaged. From sitting all day at their desks, the poor lads may have sore bottoms, (mine would be!) so maybe it felt good to distribute the weight on a cool floor. Haha!

  3. Angie Quantrell says

    Again, spoken like one who spends lots of time with children. Great tips. Thanks!

  4. Wanda Vaughn says

    Thank you for sharing with us. So far, my visits have been one or two classrooms at a time — not the big assembly. I’m storing up your wisdom for future visits!

    • bigbosslady says

      I love classroom visits. So much more intimate. And you can often get by with just small props instead of big old PowerPoint slides. Store away! 😉

  5. debra daugherty says

    Kim: I’m following your posts to learn what to do. I’ve never done a school visit, and would like to start. My PB is an e-book. How do school visits work for these type of books? After reading your post today, my first thought was, “Wow! I’d have loved to have had a school visit from you!”

    • bigbosslady says

      Oh that’s so sweet, Debra. Thank you! Even if you couldn’t sell your book at the school, because an ebook might be harder to sell, you definitely have it in digital version that you could show on PowerPoint. Then you could ask each child to receive a bookmark or flier about the book, and perhaps parents would buy and download after the visit. I’ve done many visits where I didn’t actually sell any books during the visit. Sometimes it’s just not practical — say, if the visit is too soon after winter break, so no time to send home fliers. Or other reasons. Some schools don’t even like you selling books, although that’s rare. But I don’t see how they could object to your sending home a bookmark with each child… preferably something they print there at the school (say, 4 or 6 to an 8.5×11 sheet) and then cut and distribute to the kids for you, to save you the expense of giving away hundreds of bookmarks. They’re cheaper than brochures, but they’re not free!

  6. says

    Oh to be a fly on the wall during on of your presentations, er, performances! I so enjoy reading about your experiences. I’m just getting out there and am trying to figure out how to sell why schools would want me to visit. And then, of course, I need to deliver. I asked for feedback from my last visit, left forms, and still waiting. Otherwise how else can I gage a successful visit? Yeah, I had fun and honestly crtiqued what I could have to make it better. But…

    • bigbosslady says

      I know what you mean about wanting and needing honest feedback. I had a huge treat earlier this week when an old friend and fellow author, Ruth Barshaw, but whom I had never met in person, came to the school and caught one of my assemblies. She does lots of school visits, so I really valued her feedback. Maybe instead of leaving the feedback forms, you could mail them and enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope? I’m betting the day of an author visit is so busy, that your hosts just collapse at the end of the day, and then are off to the races, doing other teacher things, the next day, and it just never comes up again. But a letter might land at a time when they can give it a minute. And enclosing a stamped envelope will take away that extra chore of addressing & stamping the envelope, which might put you down too far on the to-do list. Sounds like you’re doing all the right things, Keila!

  7. Suzy Leopold says

    Kim: The fifteen comments you shared are excellent. A group assembly with hundreds of students can be overwhelming for any presenter.

    As an educator, I feel it is important for my students to understand in advance what the expectations are during the author visit and how fortunate the students are to meet the author. There are always consequences for those who do not make the best choices during the assembly and the kids know I will not hestitate to remove them from this privilege, should I find it necessary to do so.

    During an author visit, the presenter can even share expectations and/or housekeeping before beginning the presentation. Use some cute little jingles, “Hocus pocus! I am focused! All set? You bet!”

    Sometimes, the restless listeners may need a brain break. This can be accomplished in 2 or 3 minutes to get the wiggles out. A quick and effective way of changing the physical and mental behaviors of the listeneners, is to play a look & see version of Simon Says. A teacher or a student stands facing the group of students. Everyone must quietly follow and mimic the physical moves of “Simon”. For example, Simon crosses his/her arms; Simon stands on one foot; Simon puts hands on his/her knees, and so forth. All of this is done without speaking and ends with Simon sitting criss cross apple sauce. A timer can be set. The presentation then continues.

    http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/top-teaching/2013/04/brain-breaks-energizing-time-out

  8. bigbosslady says

    Excellent suggestions, Suzy. Thank you! I think you’re right about their just needing to move, especially in an era when they’re being allowed to move less (shorter recess, if at all) in favor of test prep. It’s too bad, because humans, including their brains, actually learn BETTER when they move around. I believe researchers have found that moderate exercise, like walking, often works as well, or better, than pharmaceuticals to improve brain chemistry disorders. If it does that for disordered brain chemistry, it’s just a logical step that brains learn better, too, when the body is allowed to move. Thanks for that link!

    I’ve also found that asking lots of questions, just to break the monotony of my voice, helps to keep kids engaged, even very young ones. Seeing other hands pop up, kids just naturally tune in, even if they had started to tune out. (And, of course, I never actually use a monotonous voice, but questions are just another way of keeping minds from straying.)

  9. says

    I’m loving all these suggestions. And to answer your question from the newsletter, YES! A whole book about author visits. A free webinar. An online course about doing author visits. All of the above!

  10. says

    This is so helpful on MANY levels. I absolutely agree about keeping it child-reader-centric and with wonderful thoughts on keeping it affirming, playing to the strengths and feelings of kids. There’s a number of things here, I hadn’t thought of (I used to give classes in crafts and calligraphy, but have not done any school visits with my books) and now I’m happy to have in the brain pan. I’ve shared this article with a couple of friends who are beginning school visits (they’ve done a few locally) and to my Facebook wall). After reading I’m sharing it to a few or my writing groups (though I hope they don’t comment, lol!) It really is a great resource- thank you Kim!

    • bigbosslady says

      Wow, thanks for sharing it around, Agy! You’re a great friend and one of these days we’ll meet face to face! (With maybe a wrinkly dog face between us.) Sorry, everybody. Inside joke! 😉

  11. says

    I’m enjoying your blog. My book is a middle grade mystery so I don’t speak to the little ones, mine are more third to sixth graders. You asked in your email what I’d like and I’d like a whole book about author visits and/or a free webinar. I’d love to speak to an auditorium full of kids but so far the largest I’ve done is a couple of classes together. I love speaking to the kids so I want to schedule more for this fall. All of your tips are appreciated to make this happen. Based on your experience, who do I call? How do I set things up? I also would like tips on selling books there. I find that in this area they don’t pay the speaker (or at least they don’t as far as I can tell) so I need tips on selling books. Thanks!

    • bigbosslady says

      Hi Shannon, thanks so much for your questions. Really helpful for me to know what you need. I’m planning a post on book sales, so that’s in the cards soon. Thanks for your other questions, too. Too involved for me to cover in a comment, so I’ll add your other requests to my list of blog posts. Really helpful!

  12. Jackie illingsworth says

    We are so fortunate to be on the receiving end of your presentation. CVES loves Kim Norman!!! Can’t wait to have you back.

  13. says

    Thank you so much for sharing hands-on advice about author school visits. I’m glad that you do not rely on PowerPoint for your whole presentation. Little ones need more activity. Your presentations sound perfect. Like Debra’s previous comment, I have PB e-book coming soon.

  14. Diana Erbio says

    My e-book for children (ages 4 to 8) Moon Circles, is what I call a you-picture-it picture book. The pictures in Moon Circles are drawn with words and meant to be read aloud. The idea is to tell children to picture the scenes in their heads as they listen and remember these scenes so they can put them on paper later! It is also a mini-science lesson that could be enacted by kids in a classroom setting. I never considered doing a class visit, but after reading some of your articles on the topic I may give it a try. I guess reading my e-book and having the children draw pictures based on the scenes they recall could work. How do you go about setting up a visit? Do you just call the school or librarian and ask if they are interested?

    • bigbosslady says

      How exciting, Diana. I’ll bet the kids will find your creativity infectious. To get yourself started, why don’t you look up some local schools, poke around their websites until you find the librarian’s or the reading specialists’ emails and shoot them an email offering to come in and do a visit for free? I don’t recommend free visits for too long, but it’s a great way to get your feet wet with no pressure, and sort of start to find the sweet spot of your presentation style. I’ve also found that educators are quite active on Twitter. So you might try seeing if you can find the Twitter names of local librarians (although I confess I’m not sure how you would do that — unless you do a search for the name of schools in your area?) Then, once you have connected on Twitter a bit; shared back and forth, etc., maybe drop them a private message to see if they’d be interested in your coming in for a visit. Although I confess I’m still quite a Twitter neophyte, so that may be a terrible suggestion, but it’s a thought, since I do notice that many librarians do tweet about my visits, telling me they are active on Twitter.

  15. says

    I love your tips and only wish I knew of them sooner. I Feel like you are my very own mentor on school visits. As a trail by error type thing I have learned much of this and thankfully kids are forgiving. 🙂

    • says

      I mean trial by error not trail. lol

      I also would love a book on author visits or an online course and answers to how to get them.

      Some of these comments are really helpful, too. 🙂

      • bigbosslady says

        I agree, Clara. I’m really tickled about the community that’s coming together to share experiences. Children’s authors are such nice folks. That’s why I’ve always been such a big fan of SCBWI. A world-wide organization of generous people.

    • bigbosslady says

      Oh absolutely, they are totally forgiving! In fact, I’m sure most of the time, they see nothing that needs forgiveness.

  16. Melody says

    Assemblies are always iffy… depending on the time of day, the expanse of the moon, alignment of the planets and/or if there was syrup at breakfast can all be huge factors to consider. My kids are still talking about “I Know a Wee Piggy”, the five little crocs song and the “lady who looks like my sister”. You are getting it right KimNorman (that is how the kids refer to you).

    • bigbosslady says

      Ha! You mean your much OLDER sister. LOL! Always enjoy visiting your kiddos!

  17. says

    Great Ideas. Loved #11 about reading theatre. I will try that with a higher grade. I just do miming with little ones. I was at a library recently, reading to Kindergarten children. To get them really listening I said, “I’ll need some good listeners to help act out a part from this book. Are you ready?” We had time for 3 mimes.
    I find it works like a charm. I do it in the classroom too. I also use clapping rhythms if they start getting noisy at all when they come in.
    I enjoy reading your ideas as I was a teacher for 28 years and it has helped me write for students up to Grade 8.

    • bigbosslady says

      Wow, Jane, I’ll bet you could teach us all a thing or two (or ten!) about interacting with students! I love your “good listeners” phrasing. I’m sure they’ll have already heard that before, so they instantly understand what you mean, and yet it’s gentle, friendly and kind. For my book I KNOW A WEE PIGGY, I hand out these sort of bibs (kind of like little sandwich boards) that kids drop over their heads, to help represent each color in the story. Assemblies can vary widely in how noisy the student population is, so when it happens to be a rambunctious assembly, I ask for volunteers by saying, “I”m going to call on the QUIETEST person in the room who has their hand up. Who is a QUIET PERSON who’s wearing… red?” And then I hand the red bib to a child wearing red and ask them to go to the front in a designated spot. If the group starts to get excited, I remind them, “Don’t forget, I’m calling on the QUIETEST people who are raising their hands.” Once, I was flattered when a teacher came up to me after the session and told me, when I did my “quiet person” routine, that she leaned over to her fellow teacher and whispered, “Oh, she’s good!” Haha! But I really was very flattered. I consider it high praise when teachers think of me as a comrade.

      • says

        The “quietest person” routine is the best I’ve heard yet. Next time I have a room full of eager students who want to use my puppets, I’ll tell them I’m going to use the “Q.P.” method for choosing. That will get their attention.

        When I bring my picture book, Book! Book! Book!, to schools and libraries, I choose kids to use my puppets to help me tell the story. I get the other students involved in making animal noises during the barnyard scenes in the story. I soon discovered that it’s difficult to get the “barnyard” to quiet down, so I appoint one child to hold a sun. We practice before I begin the story. When the sun is held up high, the kids cluck, neigh, moo, etc.; and when it sets, they are to be quiet. It works like a charm.

        • bigbosslady says

          That’s so clever, Deborah! Thanks for sharing that!

          I have a spot where I need kids to scream at a certain “scary” point in my slide show. But I learned early on that it’s just TOOOO loud if everyone screams, so I choose a few designated “screamers,” which is pretty fun. Sometimes the boys surprise me and scream better than the girls!

  18. says

    As a career school librarian, I had the good fortune to hire many authors. And I learned from their visits what works (and doesn’t). As an author, I love doing school visits because it’s so much fun to get kids excited about reading and books and writing! Frontloading your presentation is a great tip, not only to allow for time flexibility, but because you have their best attention at the beginning of your talk. And I laughed at the one about Mr. Jenkins, the tech rescue, being at the far end of the building. So true! That’s why I arrive an hour (or more) before the first presentation. If it plugs into the wall, it’s trouble waiting to happen. 🙂

    • bigbosslady says

      Hi Pat. I really appreciate that you’ve got experience on both sides of the… bookshelf. Please feel free to pop in and add your wisdom anytime! And yes, so true about Mr. Jenkins, right? Here’s the funny thing: I had already come up with that generic name (mostly just in my head) when I was invited to a school and introduced to the tech guy whose name was, indeed — you guessed it — Mr. Jenkins! It made my day.

  19. says

    These tips are awesome! I would love to do school visits locally in my town in the near future. I am just such a horrible public speaker. My nerves get the best of me. Ha, ha, ha. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • bigbosslady says

      I think once you get in front of kids a few times, Veronica, your nerves will melt away. Kids are just so enthusiastic and non-judgmental. When we know we’re not being judged, we can all relax and just have fun. I just know you will!

  20. says

    Thank you for sharing such great tips for presenting information about our books at school visits. I especially agree that asking questions during the presentation helps to keep the audience awake and interested in what you are talking about. Questions also can help children think of things in a different way.

    • bigbosslady says

      Hey, that’s a good point, Jacqueline. I hadn’t thought of it in that way. Thank you!

  21. says

    Thank you for being so generous with your knowledge of school visits. Reading through the other comments, I realize I’m more than ready to take on more than I’m doing now. I’ve spent most of my life connecting children with books; wearing many different hats (librarian/bookseller/workshop leader/author.) I love kids and they love me. We have a great time together. However, as an author, the conundrum is booking the gigs. It’s a lot of work to plan an author visit and I wonder how I can motivate librarians/teachers to not only plan the day but be happy to pay the author’s fee. How do you make connections that result in visits?

    • bigbosslady says

      Hi Marilyn,
      One place I’ve met a lot of teachers and librarians is at state reading conferences. It takes some work, because I have to devise a workshop and put in a proposal to do a workshop/presentation, (I confess, sometimes when the proposal deadline is soon, I’ve been known to write the proposal and THEN devise the workshop! Tsk! Tsk!) but you just can’t beat that personal connection of being in a room with someone. Of course, sometimes it takes a year or even TWO for a visit to come about, because I may give someone my brochure at a fall conference when her school has already booked an author for that year, so she may not even be LOOKING for an author until next year. But it is a great place to meet teachers. Also, when I do booksignings at educator conferences, I always tuck my brochure into each book I sign.

  22. says

    Kim, Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience with your recommendations for successful school visits. I will be doing my first ones next month at a summer reading camp with my debut book, Lonely Lola Ladybug, that I wrote and illustrated. There will be two classroom secessions, of about 60 kids each, one for 1 & 2nd grades and one for 3,4,5th. I was thinking of doing a Power Point “reading” with each group followed by a “show & tell” about what goes into making a PB. I would keep it simple for the younger group and add more detail for the older group. I would appreciate any ideas on how I can make this more interactive?

    • bigbosslady says

      Wow, congratulations on your debut, Mary Jo! I think I’d swap the order and do a little talk first about how the book came about. I think it will build curiosity among your listeners to then hear/see the book, which I think would be especially important for the 3rd thru 5th graders for whom the book is likely a bit young, but who will listen to the book with great interest after having heard how it came about. It will also allow you to stop, now and then and point out some part that you perhaps mentioned earlier in your talk. Something like “You remember that page I said was so hard to draw because of etc. etc.? Well, this is that image.” You don’t want to break up the narrative too much with too many outside-of-the-story interruptions, but it’s always good do add a bit to the reading by commenting a few times about things IN the story (or words you chose for a particular purpose) so that kids not only enjoy the story, they begin to understand what went into it.

      You can go more in-depth with the older kids about the publishing process. For the younger ones, you needn’t be too technical, but even at that young age, they can relate to struggling to get something just right, or to doing something over and over again. You might also want to think about a song or chant you can come up with to go with the book. For instance, when I read Crocodaddy to younger students, we follow it up with my teaching them a chant called “Five Little Crocodiles” which is very like “Five Little Monkeys.”

      If there are parts in your book where kids can read along or repeat a refrain with you, that would be great, too. Not every book works that way, but kids do love chiming in.

      Good luck! Pop in later and let us know how it went!

      Oh and ps — the older group may be more shy about interactive elements like repeating a refrain, but that’s where the 3rd graders can really help you out. Give them the “job” of chanting something at a certain spot, and they’ll be excited about that. Older kids may eventually join in.

  23. says

    Great blog article. You asked in a recent newsletter about different ways to offer author visits to schools. I love the webinar idea. Goldmark offers these about once a month. Some of them are repeats but I always find the time to watch them. My mind tends to wander less with these because I feel they are more engaging and talking to me persoanlly. Of course at the end of each one, they educated us on the services they offer. If they have a guest speaker, before and after the webinar they give information about the books/experience the guest speaker has. Just a thought…

    • bigbosslady says

      Thanks, Christy. I’m hooked on webinars. I’ve learned so much from them. I don’t even mind the ones where someone tries to sell you something during the webinar. I feel like it’s a worthwhile trade, my listening to their spiel in exchange for whatever I’m learning. Although I’ve done Skype school visits, I’ve never given a proper webinar to adults. I’m hoping to change that within the year. Just a matter of learning the technology (there seem to be a variety of platforms to choose from) and then assembling my slideshow and talk. (If I write it casually like that, I’m less intimidated. Haha!)