9.11.16

Last week I had the thrilling privilege of visiting Mrs. Lenz's 2/3 grade class at the Coalhurst Elementary School. Here they are...all bright and shiny.



I say it was "thrilling" and I do not exaggerate. For a writer, sitting amidst a group of readers and talking about the importance of writing stories is like skydiving to an adrenaline junkie. It made me terrifically happy. My stomach even did a few flip-flops.

It was a very casual affair and did not require a parachute. The students had written a list of questions for me to answer and asked me to read a few pages of my book. Following my presentation, Mrs. Lenz acted as our stenographer as we wrote the first paragraph of a story together as a group. Then the students had some time to continue the story on their own. 

I was glad we got a chance to do some writing, but the real focus of my classroom visit is to discuss the importance of intellectual diversity - or the fact that storytelling is a way of sharing diverse ideas and viewpoints. Too many adults these days get hung up on our physical differences, but it's really our ideas that shape the world, no matter what we look like or what group we "identify" with. I tell younger students this sweet and silly story that perfectly illustrates how we see the world differently from others. The book I use is called "Bread and Honey" by Frank Asch, only I tell it in my own words, using a chalkboard - you'll understand if you read the book. You can find it here. Trust me, it works like a charm. 

The children laughed. I almost cried. It was a good time.

But while that's all very wholesome and instructive, the key to a truly successful classroom visit is to just chat and laugh with the kids. If all else falls apart, this connection will save you. They need to know that grownups care. They need to know that their ideas matter. And they need to know that there are opportunities out there for creative work, because not all of them will grow up to be contractors and dental hygienists.

And you need to enjoy yourself. Like, really enjoy yourself.

Basically, if you can't sit in a roomful of wiggly eight years olds and feel inspired, you should be writing for someone else. 

Like...for grownups. Ewwww. 



For those of you who have yet to delve into the wonders of classroom visits, here are a few tips, all to be taken very seriously. 


1. Communicate with the teacher beforehand. You don't know what wonderful things he or she has already been discussing with the class and how you can work together to promote the good work that's already in progress. Swapping a few ideas ahead of time will make it easier for you both to make it a positive classroom experience. Remember, you are a visitor and a resource, not a celebrity.

2. Let the children ask their own questions - even though they're likely to repeat a version of "how do you get your ideas?" several times, insert lengthy descriptions of their own story ideas, and never fail to enquire "are you married?" That last one is my favorite.

3. Whatever you plan, keep it short and simple. If the kids are interested in prolonging the discussion, they'll let you know. Don't try to make them sit too long if they're not paying attention. Their teacher will know how best to follow up your presentation with other dialogue and activities. 

4. Know your audience. This group was at the youngest end of the appropriate age range for my books, which means many of them are still reading beginner chapter books less than a hundred pages long. My presentation for this age group focuses on the aforementioned humorous story told in pictures, while for older children I use a drawing/perception game that requires their participation. 

5. If appropriate, take the opportunity to interact with the children as they continue with their classroom activities. In this case, I was invited to hang out for a short while as the students worked on writing their own stories. They were eager to bring me their pages so I could make suggestions and praise their creativity.

6. Don't underestimate the power of visual aides. Bring your books. Bring bookmarks if you can. Nothing gets a fidgety child's attention better than pulling a heretofore hidden object out of a giant handbag, or sketching a bear with rabbit ears before their eyes. 

7. Always ask permission before taking photos. Some children will not be allowed to appear in photos that will be published online. 

8. Follow up! Make sure the teacher knows you are available for further communication or perhaps another visit. Kids in the middle grades are not surfing the web for new books, so teachers and librarians are our main connection to new readers. Your relationship with school staff and administration is key, both to your success, and also to your fulfilment as a writer!

9. Never assume a lack of opportunities in your area. If there are schools, they are guaranteed to be looking for people within their community to act as resources. They want you to come. All it takes is a phone call to the office, a quick conversation or meeting in which you humbly offer your time, and you're a creative writing mentor. Don't wait to be invited. Get involved!

10. Be sincere. Kids don't care how many copies you've sold. A classroom visit is not about the author. It's about the students. Book sales are not your mission here - the children are, and you have a chance to contribute to their future. This is the reason you wrote that book in the first place. Isn't it?

Isn't it?