School Visit Advice

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This post really goes out to all my writing friends, many of whom are debuts, and will focus on some basic strategies for making a school visit successful. To give you a sense of my experience, I was an educator for four years. I taught English and Creative Writing at the high school level. I teach every summer at Duke Young Writers’ Camp. Before that, I was a YoungLife leader in Durham, NC. I’ve basically spent the last eight years speaking in front of and to teenagers.

But only recently have I really done so with the focused identity of a writer. So I’m a work-in-progress, but speaking at some thirty events over the past 6 months has given me some perspective. So I’ll go through some basics below. I hope you find them helpful:

  1. Getting in touch. A lot of people just want to know how to make first contact. Research is required. I have a network in place already (as I was a teacher), but most of the time I’m reaching out to new schools. My usual route is visiting the school website. I find the email address of the English department chair and the emails of the school’s librarians. I’ve got a “form” email that is short, effective. Remember that teachers have very hectic email accounts. You want to avoid the overload, in-your-face email. Mine is about two paragraphs long. I usually share a few things:
    1. Who am I? Why would they want me to talk to their kids?
    2. What can they expect? What is the format of my visit?
    3. Resources and materials for them to choose from.
  2. Make it easy on the teacher. Right now, most of my talks are on the level of individual class sessions. I have prepared six different mini-lessons (Example: Opening Image Exercise). I’ve formatted these so they are easy to copy. Never more than a front and back one-pager. I also have a half-sheet that introduces me. One side has my book summary, contact info, etc. The other side has an excerpt. I make it very clear that the teacher simply needs to provide copies for me. They don’t have to do any other actual work besides choosing which lesson fits their class best.
  3. Find a format that works.  My run time is about an hour and fifteen minutes. In our district, that’s almost a full class period. There’s no one size fits all. You just have to figure out what works best for you. My format is:
    1. Introduction – I describe my book, share funny stories about becoming a writer, and try to make the students laugh a lot.
    2. Question and Answer – Big tip here… Request that the teacher have every student come up with five questions to ask an author. Request that they have those out when you come in. Q and A is super awkward if the three kids ask a question and then you stare at each other.
    3. Mini-Lessons – Remember this is not time for a lecture. That might work at the collegiate level, but you’ve already been talking at the students for about 20 minutes by now. This activity should get them doing some writing, or discussion in groups. Something that breaks the dynamic of you speaking and them listening.
    4. Final Questions/Message/Info- This varies. Sometimes the lesson excites students and they have all kinds of new questions they were too shy to ask before. Sometimes I deliver a message about being the best WHATEVER you want to be. Often, I have only enough time to remind them of where to find my book when it comes out and how to follow me on social medias.
  4. Invite their interests into the process. During my typical mini-lesson, students do some writing. I always invite them to share, but I also ask them to say their name and  what kinds of stories they write. Engagement rises when someone is given ownership in something.
  5. If possible, be funny. I know this isn’t everyone’s bag… but I get silly and stupid up in front of teenagers. Sometimes the jokes don’t work. Sometimes they’re huge hits. I’ve noticed the number one correlation, though, with students remembering me or following up with me on social media is humor. The second is the desire for me to read their work.
  6. Talk to and engage with the teacher. They’re the one who might remind students of your book. They’re the one who you’ll want to follow up with the next time you come in. Do they write? What kind of stuff do they like to read? Are they having a good semester? It helps to build rapport for ongoing relationships. They teach 120 students every semester. Those students might benefit from your books!
  7. Repetition is your friend. I’ve taught a lesson called Gardeners vs. Architects about 30 times now. It’s pretty old to me… but it works and students really respond to it. So I get over my slight boredom because it makes my life easier and it engages students.
  8. Sneak your own work into things. The example writing in most of my mini-lessons are… dun dun dun… from my book or future books. One lesson has them taking the very first paragraph in one of my books and continuing the story. First, it’s a great way to showcase your writing. Second, it’s a great way to praise how they take your ideas and make them your own.
  9. Find ways to engage the whole class. You totally know what kind of personality you have and what kind of writing and all of that. If you know that your style misses a few student groups, consider adjusting some of your examples and stories to reach other folks. I realized early on that my entire talk misses out on engaging athletes. I changed that by adding an example to one of my normal stories that touches on basketball. It’s simple, but it works.
  10. Bring water. I just get thirsty I guess.

So I could keep going. I want this to be an ongoing, open dialogue, because not all of this works for everyone. These are my personal guideposts. Take what works. Leave what doesn’t. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments if you’re unsure of what I meant by any of this. I want my fellow authors to feel as comfortable and equipped in the classroom as they can be. Students need you! There’s so much to be gained from authors engaging with youth. I hope any of this advice can be useful to you. Good luck!

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