Have you ever thought of going back to school? To elementary, middle or high school that is? Many authors and/or illustrators supplement their income by doing school visits. But money definitely should not be your only reason to go back to school.
Why else do school visits?
• You like to share with young people
• A desire to learn and grow
• To be encouraged - there really are kids out there who read!
• Connection with your audience
• To gain speaking experience
• For inspiration and ideas
How do you get connected with a school?
• If you have students (your own children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews) in school, volunteer to talk to their class about your art and/or writing.
• If you live near a school, talk to the librarian, a teacher or a PTA member, about the school and ask if they have any special programs to encourage creativity. They may have, or participate in, the following and be looking for help:
- - - Young author programs
- - - PTA/PTSA Reflections
- - - Art programs
- - - Reading tutors
- - - Career days
• If you're visiting or live in your hometown, call or write to the schools you attended and ask if they'd like to have a "homegrown" guest speaker.
• Talk to librarians and bookstore owners; they may know of schools looking for authors and illustrators.
• Check with local writing organizations; many have speaker lists they provide to the community as a service.
• Ask friends, business associates, and acquaintances for information about their children's schools. Tell them why you're interested.
• Look on the internet for information about local schools.
How do you plan a program?
• Start by asking yourself questions, such as:
- - - "What is one thing that excites me about creating?"
- - - "How did I get started down the creative path?"
- - - "What was hardest for me to learn, but when I got it, it was like the proverbial light bulb coming on?"
- - - "Where do I get my ideas?"
- - - "Is there something I do that is unusual or few others are doing?"
• Plan and prepare for your talk...
- - - Pick an area or two from your starter questions--something you feel strongly about--and outline what you could tell a class.
- - - Consider whether you need to expand your knowledge with research or narrow your topic more.
- - - Think of examples and personal anecdotes to illustrate what you are talking about.
- - - Adjust outline accordingly.
• Think about activities you can do with the students that would relate to your subject:
- - - question and answers
- - - brainstorming
- - - writing or illustrating exercises
- - - sharing illustrating or writing exercises
- - - reading a section of a story
- - - having students act out a story
• Think about visuals - what can you show during a talk?
- - - Resources/tools you use when working
- - - Pictures
..........Content: personal pictures (you as a child or your studio/office now); stages of book production or illustration; information you researched doing your book
..........Format: slides; overheads; videos (often classrooms have televisions);PowerPoint presentations (you may need to provide your own computer and hookup to a television)
- - - Artifacts
..........Objects that inspire you
..........Objects used in a story
Practice. Planning done, you'll obviously want to practice (outloud!) what you'll say, how you'll say it and how you'll use your visuals to best effect.
Don't over commit. Agree to speak to one class and see how it goes. You may decide you need to make changes in your program before trying it out again. Learn from each time you speak. Feel free to ask teachers for feedback and recommendations on what you can improve.
How to keep control in a classroom
• Require a teacher to stay
• Be prepared for smart remarks, students talking while you are talking, items being dropped, and other interruptions. Here are a few ways that work for me:
- - - Saying an obvious joke myself, rather than leaving it to the class "show-off" to spout off, seems to keep the student's attention.
- - - Stop talking and wait for the room to quiet.
- - - Ask someone talking out of turn to answer a question.
- - - Move close to students talking.
In elementary classrooms, student's names are often on their desks, making it easy for you to call on students by name.
Be prepared with answers for questions students often ask. Typical questions include:
- - - How much money do you make?
- - - How long did it take you to write or draw the pictures for your book?
- - - How old are you? (It's not rude--adults ask them this question all the time!)
- - - Why do you illustrate or write for kids?
How much should you charge?
• Until you have a bit of experience, you may want to charge nothing, or consider an exchange such as "may I observe your students for an hour if I speak to them for an hour?"
• Speaking fees vary based on a number of factors:
- - - How well known you or your books are
- - - Your speaking experience and how well audiences receive you
- - - What schools in your area typically pay
- - - Length of presentation (Is it an hour presentation or will you be presenting all day? If presenting all day, how many times will you speak?)
- - - What other authors/illustrators charge in your area
- - - Travel requirements
- - - Audience (one classroom or the whole school in an assembly)
• Don't forget prep time when thinking of fees. A day spent in a school can require a day or more of preparation.
• If possible, have schools pay for supplies used in classrooms (i.e. photocopies of a handout, drawing paper) or include the expense of these items in your fees.
• If you need to travel for a visit, you may want to get reimbursed for mileage, have airfare, hotel and food costs covered, or charge more.
• Be sure to specify how many presentations you'll do per day and how long each presentation will be when discussing your fee.
Should you have a contract or written agreement with the school?
• YES! This will cut down on painful misunderstandings.
- - - Even if you are volunteering, a letter confirming your agreement which includes what you'll be doing, length of program(s), date(s), time(s), etc. is a necessity for a successful visit.
- - - If you are getting paid, some schools provide a written contract that each signs. Others won't, so be prepared to provide a contract that spells out ALL details. You can get sample contracts online, from books or from other experienced speakers.
What if you feel you've failed?
Consider these thoughts.
• Was your audience the right age group for what you wanted to teach/share? An older or younger group may be a match when this one wasn't.
• Does your talk need more pep? Or do you need more audience participation? Take what worked well and try it again. Change what didn't work.
• Perhaps you merely need more practice. Try it out on someone you trust. Volunteer again.
• Consider providing a feedback form to the teacher so you'll know what someone else thought of "what you did."
• Remember, kids are sometimes "too cool" to show they're enjoying themselves. One author reported speaking to a class of seventh graders who were slumped in their seats throughout her talk. She thought they were bored stiff. Fortunately, when the class was dismissed, she overheard one student say to another, "That was really interesting."
Going back to school as a guest speaker is challenging and is not for everyone. But many who have given it a try have found joy in communicating what they know with the next generation. Plus it is a way to augment your writing income.
School Visits Experts is a great resource by author Alexis O'Neill. She also writes articles for the SCBWI Bulletin on the topic.