A school visit has the power to engage, enlighten, entertain and inspire young students. But how do you craft an author program that inspires readers, makes wonderful curriculum connections and leaves lasting memories? In presenting to school kids for over twenty years, I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. But I’d love to share with you some of the things that have worked and helped garner some rave reviews for my school visits from librarians. Below you will find a few cardinal rules that may guide you in designing a great school visit.
But, first things, first. If you’re super nervous about standing in front of 150 third-graders, just know that every visiting author has been there. Here’s how I handled the school visit jitters. I started small. I visited my daughter’s elementary school classroom. After a couple of visits, when I realized second graders were not going to eat me alive, I moved on to church socials and Rotary Club gatherings. Practice, practice, practice until you get comfortable in a room full of kids and adults.
Long before the BIG DAY arrives, make sure you and the school visit coordinator (librarian, teacher or PTO) are on the same page. Do you have a signed contract with school telephone number and the cell phone of the coordinator, in case of an emergency? Know how the day will roll out: number of presentations, length, location, book signing times. Will you or the librarian handle book sales? If you are providing books, do you have a book order form with prices? The best way teachers can prepare for an author visit is for the students to read the author’s books. Thoughtful questions and good conversations can result.
There are some things you can’t control on school visit day – weather, traffic, etc. But you can control how prepared you are. Double-check your equipment. Do you have appropriate dongles to connect your MacBookPro to the library Smartboard? Do you have fresh batteries in your remote? Did you bring extra ones? Have you checked and double-checked your Keynote or PowerPoint program? You want your full attention on the kids, not worrying about the technology.
Once, years ago, I had a school visit in New Jersey. I remember that my first session began at 9 a.m. But at 9 a.m., I’m in my car, stopped dead in traffic, in the center of the George Washington Bridge. Lesson learned: plan ahead. I like to arrive 30 – 45 minutes before the first presentation begins. If you’ve ever arrived as parents are dropping off their kids in the front of school, you know that’s a hectic scene. Arrive early, get comfortable, check sound, check lights, check that your program is loading. Make friends with the custodian. Locate the bathroom.
Roll with the flow of the day. Every author loves to present in the heart of the school – the library. But if the library is too small for all the 4th and 5th graders, you may have to present in the cafeteria or gym. You are there for the kids. Bring your big boy/big girl pants and make it work. Remember, they’re paying you a lot of money on a tight school budget. No complaining allowed.
Students don’t meet authors every day. You’re special. They want to know who you are and what makes you tick? Introduce your self. I always begin my presentations with a slide pinpointing where I live compared to where the school is located. It sets up the geography. I show one or two photos of my family, my house and most of all, my dogs. (kids are dying to know if you have a pet). I then show them photos of the river I live beside and talk about how the river inspires me. And that point we are off and running and moving into the meat of my program.
Be sure to adapt.
Librarians love when an author adapts their presentations to various age levels. With the youngest kids, Pre-K to 1st graders, you can be more playful and animated. With older students, engage and inspire them with substance, intrigue and story.
Kids love to laugh. Sneak in a joke. Tell a funny story. If you win over your audience with humor, they will be with you when you engage them with writing tips and curriculum connections. You don’t have to play ukulele or illustrate (but if you do, go for it!) Do you yodel? Can you hoot like an owl? Share a bit of yourself, your hobby, your interests – that way you become real to your audience. You will inspire them.
In every school visit, I emphasize things like, “Strong Verbs, Cool Details and Hooking the Reader” can make your writing sparkle and come alive; “Get your first draft down, then fix it up”; “Good readers make Good writers.” Teachers REALLY appreciate that their students hear this kind of powerful writing and reading advice from a “REAL, LIVE AUTHOR.”
Be a storyteller.
Tell the story of how you became an author, illustrator or photographer. Did you read as a kid? What books? I was a reluctant reader growing up, and I tell kids that. Make connections. Kids love hearing how authors get their ideas. Share research anecdotes. In researching my upcoming book on giraffes, I visited a giraffe center in Africa where if you stuck a small biscuit between your lips, a giraffe would come along and slurp it out with their long 19-inch tongue. I then show a photo of that scene. Kids love behind the scenes research stories.
Be someone who follows up.
For a hundred bucks or so, I get a bunch of Thank You Postcards from my local printer. After every school visit, I mail the librarian a postcard. It’s a nice follow up. And, as often happens, a week or two after your school visit, a package of “Letters to the Author” might show up in mail. You don’t have time to send a thank you note to every kid, but a note or postcard to the teacher does wonders.
When I was a kid growing up in Queens, New York, I never remembered authors and illustrators visiting our public school auditoriums or classrooms. I thought authors who wrote books were a mystery; artists lived somewhere far away from our Queens neighborhood. I’m very grateful we have moved on from that unenlightened era. We know now that when an author visits a school, readers are inspired. An author visit can foster active and curious minds. Minds hungry for exploration and growth.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve Swinburne has worked as a national park ranger and is the author of more than 30 children’s books. His extensive travels to faraway lands such as Africa, Borneo, Bangladesh and Dubai along with treks through Yellowstone and researching giraffes, have all influenced his book projects, including Sea Turtle Scientist, Run, Sea Turtle, Run and his upcoming title, Giraffe Math. Steve visits over 50 schools a year across the United States as well as many international schools. He lives in Vermont with his wife, Heather, two dogs named Scout and Jem, and a cat named Skittles. Learn more at www.SteveSwinburne.com.
ABOUT THE PRIZE
Steve will provide a 30-minute Skype visit with the winner or with a classroom of their choice.