The end of the school year is as good a time as any to review what I have learned over the past two+ years of author visits (and 30 years of storytelling, library programs and schooltours.)
Here are a few things that have worked for me, followed by a few additional resources for those just getting into it.
Develop an idea of the central intent of presentations.
Mine is ‘To present an overview of the history of storytelling as a way to share information, explore ideas, celebrate culture and create community’.
Yours might be ‘To share the journey of a book from idea to publication.’ ‘To inspire children to think creatively’, or ‘To share how I pursued my dream to be a writer.’
Since I clarified my intent, I have found I can build various presentations for different age groups and interests around it, using common elements each time and then incorporating additional activities that reflect the specific needs of the school.
I seldom make cold calls to teachers and librarians. Most get inundated by emails and faxes from presenters of all kinds wanting to book presentations. A couple of years ago, a school principal showed me the faxes and emails he had received in just one week – a huge stack!
Most of which would not get a reply.
Ihave much better luck (and get a warmer reception and and save lots of time) when I approach contacts I already know - teachers, parents who are on PACs or who volunteer in their kids’ school, librarians I come across personally of professionally, etc.
I rarely get contacted out of the blue – most teachers or librarians who have contacted me have been referred by another school/librarian/parent/colleague or other contact of their own.
About two weeks before the visit, I send a letter confirming all the details of the presentation, as agreed, along with a list of what I need. This usually includes laptop, projector, table for displaying books, a large jug of water and a glass, and teachers present. I include this last point because I have presented at schools where the teachers settled the students, then left the room.
I use a form to track school contacts, arrangements, details of grade level and number, teacher/librarian contact info., etc. and notes of the presentation. On the few occasions that plans have gone awry and I haven’t ended end up presenting for that school at that time, I follow-up three to six months later to see if they want to book another session.
I use the same form to indicate when/whether invoices have been sent, fees paid, thank-you letters sent and other info that helps me keep track of who I have visited and the outcome. I also use the form to record the outcome of the visit, any required follow-up , and to indicate when I have sent a thank you letter.
Contact me if you'd like a copy of the form and cover letter to base your own on.
Preparing for anything
Floods, fire drills, disruptive students, fainting teachers, intrusive PAs... visiting authors have had them all. Ever since one of my early preschool storytimes was interrupted by a vigorous window cleaner, I have learned to sit back, adapt, adjust, and take what comes with as much patience and humour as possible. In the case of a recent repeated PA announcement, it came in the middle of a told story. So I stopped, we waited and listened, then I launched into Chapter Two of the story... soon followed by Chapter Three after the presentation was interrupted yet again. I still wonder if anyone finally returned that missing camera to the school office.
As for that window washer? Once I figured out why the children were so distracted, I stopped the story I was telling and we all watched him, talked about window washing, and came up with some kind of appropriate song. The washer at the window goes slap, slap, slap... until he was done, at which time normal storytime service resumed.
Beating the crowds
I like to be early enough to be set up before the students and their teachers arrive in the library or gym. This allows me to ‘claim the space’, ensure I have what I need is arranged in a way that works best for me, and then greet children and teachers individually as they assemble and get seated.
Just as everyone learns differently, so do kids interact and respond differently to any given presentation. I try to incorporate spoken word (i.e. told stories), appropriate songs, sometimes other languages, Greek chorus refrains, written activities, and discussion and a Q&A period in most presentations.
I have recently started using Power Points as background to many of my presentations. Rather than taking along equipment that may not be compatible with what the school has on hand, I request the use of a laptop and projector and take along a thumb drive containing the presentation.
If it does not work on first try, I report to a stand-up. There’s nothing worse than struggling to make something work when I’m already keyed up. And it can be uncomfortable for children and teachers to witness the presenter fumbling and fuming.
I take along 8x11 blow ups of the PP slides to use as backup if the technology fails.
I always send a thank you letter within a week of the presentation, and try to reflect in some way on the highlight of my visit. I sometimes request a testimonial letter or email that I might use in subsequent grant applications and approaches to other schools.
I usually leave the host teacher/librarian with copies of my general brochure, the current copy of my newsletter and teacher resource handout or activity sheet based on the book/s I have focussed on during my visit. These items can then be passed on to other teachers and librarians if my host chooses to recommend my presentations to others, and might be used in subsequent classroom activities. (See Finding Gigs)
While I may not have enough for every child, I do provide a handful for the teacher/librarian to distribute. Students will often ask for one, and I direct them to the librarian, to avoid a crush around me when teachers are trying ot get kids organized to return to class.
- School Visit Experts - Varied and numerous forms, tips, articles and links.
- Dan Gutman school visits tips
- Writers in the Schools (Writers' Union of Canada support for author visits to Ontario schools)
- CWILL BC - Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators of BC - links to all their members with info about their presentations, along with useful info. for teachers and librarians.
Please add your comments and questions, and I'll use your input when I post Part Two.