On Wednesday, I did my last school visit of the 2013-14 school year at Stonewall Middle School in Manassas, Virginia. They’re author visit gurus over there, rolling out the red carpet with so much attention to detail that I didn’t really want to come home. (Sorry, Javier.)
On the drive back to Richmond, I got to thinking about the many great times I’ve had meeting teachers, kids and librarians this year – and how much I’ve learned about how they build collections, how they connect with their staff, and how they have to navigate budget cut threats all the time. I feel really lucky to have met so many inventive, non-shushing, hilarious Bookish Ones this year.
What I especially loved about Wednesday at Stonewall, though, is that it was a “best practices” event for me. All the best parts of school visits were rolled into one. They pulled together an author visit so that it wasn’t just a giant assembly. Instead, they created a book experience for the kids and teachers that stretched beyond the single day that I was there.
So, in honor of the amazing job Stonewall did yesterday, here’s a little cheat sheet on School Visit Greatness, with a special thanks to Linda Mitchell, Hope Dublin,Laurie Corcoran, and Diane Hilland who hosted me so expertly.
Good planning: I despise paperwork, but I have to admit that it helps keep things straight. Linda Mitchell contacted me early (an October email about a visit in June.) We were clear on what books I’d be talking about and what grades. She stayed on top of all the contracts, W-9s, and travel and lodging arrangements. We each had everything in writing. I’m told she also stalked me on Facebook to keep up with book news as it came up, which was especially fun.
Welcome your author and give her time to know your school: Since I’d be speaking early in the morning, and DC traffic is the abomination that it is, I got to Northern Virginia the night before. Nothing makes a hotel feel friendlier than a little bucket waiting for you at the hotel desk. Mine had the essentials, not the least of which were cookies. It also had driving directions to the school from the hotel and my schedule for the next day. (It was labeled PLOT TWIST because the lineup had been tweaked a tiny bit. Librarian humor, people.)
Ms. Mitchell also arranged for reading specialists and fellow librarians from her district to join us for dinner at a quiet restaurant downtown. This was a time to kick back and ask them about their school and students, to find out the books they were reading, and to share ideas for new titles for their shelves. They also showered birthday love on me with chocolate and other treats, at which point I knew we’d be friends for life.
The next morning, they had coffee, fruit, and coffee cake waiting at school. The principal and several teachers dropped by to say hello. I should add that all of this was happening on a day of SOL testing, which ranks up there with Wisdom Teeth Removal Day. You would never have guessed it from the calm feeling in the building.
Think perks: As we all know, parking lot real estate is a hot commodity on a campus. You have to rate to get one of those spiffy up-near-the-door spots. Ha! When I got there, they’d staked out a spot and labeled it “For Award Winning Authors Only.” It was funny – and I really appreciated not having to lug books and a computer a long way in heels.
Prepare your students: To be honest, I’ve been to schools where no one has read my book. This really changes the impact of the visit. It’s still fun, but not nearly as meaningful. Stonewall students, on the other hand, read several of my books and did activities around the literature ahead of time, including readers theatre of Milagros and The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind. They even used my picture book, Tia Isa Wants a Car for a writing and brainstorming activity – very cool for a middle school.
Plan something unusual and meaningful for your particular student population. Mrs. Mitchell asked me to read Tia Isa Quiere Un Carro in Spanish, since so many students at Stonewall are Latino, a significant number recently arrived. For the non Latino students, the English text and pictures were scanned and projected on the large screen.
Have the tech worked out: They had the screen, monitor, microphones, etc. all worked out for me. All I had to do was hand off the junk drive.
Be organized about books sales/signings: Books were pre-ordered by teachers and students, and each had a sticky with the person’s name. I was able to sign them all in my down time.
Author care 101: My podium was fully stocked with little bottled water, mints, cough drops, and copy of all the books I would be talking about. At lunch time, they whisked me away to lunch and we had a good hour or so to sit down and regroup before heading back for the afternoon sessions.
From the author’s perspective, this experience was heaven. Linda Mitchell and her team tell me they’re considering putting together a teaching session on how to plan visits, including the nuts and bolts of funding and scheduling – traditionally the big stumbling blocks. I hope they do it. Keep your eyes peeled.
Looking forward to meeting more of you in 2014-15! Until then, happy summer and happy reading!