Unbound: Authors in the Classroom

School’s back in session, and I’ve been talking with friends about the relationship between authors and education (Especially in light of banned books week.). I haven’t done a tools-of-the-trade post in a while, and I thought we could look at the positive side of school visits – what works and why.

I’ve been on all three sides of school author visits – as a teacher, as a writer-in-the-schools, and as a student. Meeting authors and hearing them talk about what inspired them, and then having them ask what inspired us? Those were some amazing class sessions that challenged me to be a more involved reader and writer. I hope I do the same whenever I walk into a classroom.

So I asked Charlotte, who teaches high school English up at 9,000ft in Colorado; Christie, who is a reading specialist in Philadelphia, PA; and Stacey, an administrator and English teacher in Philadelphia; and authors Alethea Kontis, E.C. Myers, Gregory Frost, Stephanie Kuehn, and Jonathan Maberry to help me out.

When a writer comes to visit, it’s more than a break from normal classwork. It’s a peek behind the scenes of a book. It’s also an opportunity for students to stretch their wings creatively, and talk about their own dreams and goals as writers.

Whether you’re a student, a teacher, or a visiting writer, here are some of what makes for awesome classroom visits. Weigh in down at the comments!

Alethea Kontis courtesy of Lumos Studio 2012.

Alethea Kontis, author of the Woodcutter series (Harcourt) and The Wonderland Alphabet:

I love school visits. I love connecting with the kids. I’ve done everything from read to Kindergartners while dressed as The Cat in The Hat, to Career Day at the local High School. (I even made one appearance in the aftermath of some pretty horrible food poisoning, because disappointing children is just not in me.)
There are two things I stress the most. 1.) Always bring something with you to give the kids. Don’t count on them falling in love with you and remembering your name (much less how to spell it) after that bell rings. 2.) Have fun. If you’re not having fun, the kids can tell. If you’re burnt out on appearances, just take a break and add them to your schedule again when you feel refreshed. It’s 100% okay to say “no.”

Photo by Monika Webb

E.C. Myers, Andre Norton Prizewinning author of Fair Coin and Quantum Coin (Pyr):

I actually have only done a few school visits and one real classroom visit, so I don’t consider myself an expert or anything … Some things I think authors should remember when talking to kids, which probably isn’t a problem for most YA authors, is that these teens are probably a lot smarter than you; never confuse a lack of experience for a lack of intelligence. They are excited about books — hopefully your books! — and writing, and they will ask you challenging and thoughtful questions that you might not have expected. And as thrilling as it is for you to be meeting them, they may not get to meet authors often. You could even be the first author they’ve met, so try to leave a good impression!

Charlotte, High School English teacher, Colorado.

The best author visits are interactive in any way. Kids love “stuff”: bookmarks, stickers, posters, copies of the book. They also love the opportunity for small group settings where they can work with an author, and when the author can “teach” a lesson that shows each student how he/she has a writer inside, those are magical moments. Of course creative writing classes benefit from hearing about process, and they appreciate seeing the inner workings, but I have found some of the greatest experiences from students who claim they “can’t write” and have “nothing to say” and after 45 minutes with an author with a well-crafted exercise they realize that they ARE writers! Incredibly powerful and transformative. …I like the author who gears herself to the non-readers and writers and pulls them in.
The better author visits we have had also have an anticipatory set of some sort: a package of stuff or goodies that comes first to drum up interest and gives the kids an insight about the person so there is a connection before she even gets there. Then there’s more anticipation and excitement about meeting the person; a star-connection if you will! The interaction is much more meaningful and personal if they get to “know” the author ahead of time. You know how busy teachers are, so it is really appreciated when SMALL lessons can be integrated into the day to ready students in advance. Those huge packets that give days’ worth of stuff? I don’t know who writes them, but they have either never been a real life classroom teacher or they have been out of the classroom too long to remember how much needs to get done in a year… We can’t just drop curriculum for a week like so many of these packages suggest! Hello?! Small bites, much better!
Finally, any small follow through after the visit is cool. We have had a few email communications and letter responses from former visits and the kids feel special when they write and actually get a response. It makes me like authors more too and more likely to continue to promote the author because we can tell when someone genuinely cares and makes the time/effort. We don’t want to feel like a stop on the book tour for marketing; we want to feel like a friend.

Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

Gregory Frost, author of the Shadowbridge series, Swarthmore College Writing Center Director:

I can say that the best writers I’ve had come to Swarthmore–Holly Black, Wesley Stace, and others–were less about promoting their work at all and more about talking about some aspect(s) of writing and then opening up to questions, discussions. The assumption there was not so much that the students had read them, or gave a shit about reading them, but that the students were interested in writing, because they too want to write and be published.
Junot Diaz, when he came to Swarthmore, only read from his work for about 10 minutes. The rest of the time he talked in a very free-form way about anything and everything. The students were all mad for him.
Christy, K-4 reading specialist in Philadelphia, PA:
Two of the best visiting authors we’ve had have been interactive…creating an actual piece with students in a smaller group setting. I think part of the problem arises when an author is stuck in an auditorium with a large group. That said, we had an author who showed us their work as it progressed and the kids were super interested.
Visiting a classroom and working with young writers is both humbling and deeply inspiring for me. My background is in mental health, and I have experience using art, drama, and music as therapeutic modalities with children. In a classroom setting, I’m not there to provide therapy services, but I do find that my natural tendency is to focus on process with young writers, more than specific craft techniques or a particular outcome. I am definitely playing to my own strengths, but I think it’s imperative not to lose sight of the “so what?” factor of any work or creative pursuit. Why are they writing what they’re writing? How is it personally relevant? I believe that a writer’s capacity to deconstruct and understand the meaning behind his/her storytelling choices helps to enhance intrinsic motivation and build a lasting passion for writing. I also think the same is true for those of us who are working with writers. When planning classroom visits, finding areas of personally meaningful connection with both the creative process and with children, is crucial to crafting a successful and authentic presentation.
Stacey, Administrator and English teacher, Philadelphia
I’ve found that the best author visits are the ones where the author is clearly interested in the students–their questions, their lives, their writing. Whether that means asking the students to share some of their work, or just engaging with them around their questions, students are inspired by adults who ask them questions and seem interested in the answers.
I do two or three Skype visits a week to classes. Generally I talk about how I got to be a writer, what I do as a writer, how I came up with the idea for my book(s), and something about the world of that book. It’s not complicated. The kids want to understand about the writing life and about taking ideas and developing them into stories. I also talk about the teen books I read and the authors who have influenced me.
So now I want to hear from you – what’s your best author-moment at school?

9 comments

  1. On one occasion when I was doing a school visit I was talking about the slimey underbelly of publishing: the YA packaged series, and how Victor Appleton is a house name (he’s been writing novels since 1911 and hasn’t slowed down; I’ve been Victor Appleton twice now), and Franklin W. “The Hardy Boys” Dixon was a house name for any number of writers. And this young female voice comes, with her tones filled with woe, “Not Carolyn Keene!”

    I felt awful. Like I’d just told her about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

  2. Working with the Maryland Arts Council’s Poetry in the Schools Program back in the late 70′s (when there was government money for such frivolities) was one of the most rewarding experiences in my life – walking into the classroom to a bunch of kids cheering, “The poet is here!” I know I got as much out of it as they did.

  3. As a college freshman, I read The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones by Jesse Hill Ford. Our extensive discussion in class focused on the ways in which L.B. Jones had been liberated. Then Ford visited the class, and naturally our first question was, “How was Lord Byron Jones liberated?” His reply: “That wasn’t my title.”

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