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Monday, November 23, 2015

My First School Visit

Well, not really my first. I've done some back in the days when my four campus school had a small budget for a writer's festival each year. There were the paid guests and it was supplemented by the two teacher writers who worked in the school, myself and Chris Wheat. But it was just at a different campus of the same school. I have also done a couple of visits with Ford Street and on one of those occasions I was even paid, though not a full scale payment. Once I did a workshop, the other time I just signed. But it was the first where I acted as a regular guest speaker.

Below is a letter to the enthusiastic young teacher who organised it.

Dear enthusiastic young teacher,

As a teacher, you rock! You care about your students as much as I do about mine. You give them your time for a lot of amazing stuff, such as writing groups and dance clubs and, as part of your teaching of multi media, you arrange an annual film festival. Wow! Top marks for all that.

And - every year, you somehow manage to find kind hearted writers, mostly "emerging" writers who  don't yet have the nerve to ask to be paid but want the practice, and do a writers' festival, just like the rich schools, even if you will never be able to afford John Marsden or whoever. I'm not an emerging writer, having ten books, some articles and short stories under my belt, but I work down the road from you and I want to encourage communication between us and one of our feeder schools. So, fine. I'm happy to do a freebie. Delighted to talk to your kids, all of them. 

But that isn't all you want, is it? You also want a writers' workshop, something you forgot to tell me when you invited me to your event. "Well... Okay," I said, thinking it was going to be a few kids around a table, and planning some round robin stories.

But no. Turns out you wanted us to do a workshop for eighty kids! "But the teachers will be there!" you protested. "They will help you! Honestly, this worked fine last year." Yes, no doubt. And you got it all for free. And I wonder if you told your guests right at the start then? Well, there are ways of doing round robin stories for eighty, as long as you have tables for them to sit at in groups...

Er, no. They were going to sit on the floor...

At that point, about a week before the event, I knew that I could forget stories of any kind. It was going to be poetry. Acrostic poetry. Done in pairs or groups. 

I asked for A3 paper for the kids and a whiteboard and markers for me. The idea was that I'd scribble some brainstorms and write a poem on the board before asking them to do their own, then stick some of their work up on it. Well, the board was there all right. A bit smaller than I'd had in mind - a lot smaller - but I made use of it anyway. I had to rub stuff off, but I got it done. 

The kids were delightful and enthusiastic, the teachers helpful, and when they had written their acrostics, I invited them out to read. There were still several groups wanting to share their masterpieces, but just no time, so I stopped that part of the session and invited questions, with copies of one of my books as prizes for the best. The book was Crime Time: Australians Behaving Badly, so I told them some of the more amusing stories from the book, such as the Valentine's Day robbery in the Dandenongs which ended with the two klutzy robbers fleeing, with one of them wounded in her backside and nothing to show for it but a bag of stale bread rolls. They LOVED that! It ended well. Very well!

The kids had a great time and two members of  Enthusiastic Young Teacher's writing group were delegated to thank me politely for my time. Afterwards, EYT, you took me to the gate, thanking me effusively and saying that if you could ever return the favour...

Now, I don't want to have a go at you for the freebie thing; I've benefited from a few freebies myself over the years. A couple of times we've had a writer who was paid, just not by us. Other times, someone kind has contacted me and offered their time and how could I resist?

However, if you really want to return the favour, pay attention as I make a few suggestions for next year. It's what I do. It works. I'm not having a go at you, just making some suggestions based on what has worked for me. Like you, I don't have a budget for author visits. And I tell my guests honestly, beforehand, that very few of my students will have the money to buy copies of their books, though they're welcome to bring some.

If you're going to ask someone to donate their time to your school, at least ask them what they want to do, okay? How many kids they are happy to talk to? I always do. They're usually happy to talk to entire year levels, but I ask, not tell.
If you must have it your way, if they must do workshops on top of the talk, at the very least let them know immediately, at the time of request, what you want of them. Don't tell them,"Oh, didn't I say? But it was okay last year!" You managed to get two new speakers in the last minute this time, so I'm sure that if someone only has time for one or the other, you'll be able to ensure students don't miss out. 
"Thank you," is nice, but not enough. How about feeding your guest speakers? Lunch would be the least you can do for people who have missed a morning's work for you. All we got this time was a cup of tea from the staff room urn. I always arrange lunch for my guests, whether they're paid or not. As it happens, I would have said no, thanks, as I had plans to meet a friend for lunch, but I would have liked to be asked. It doesn't have to be fancy. I order some fresh rolls from the school canteen and get a few cakes from the bakery down the road. I admit I pay from my own pocket, as it's simpler for me, but surely the school that's getting a free author visit can spare a few dollars for a canteen lunch? 
And I always call  the local papers to tell them about the event. True, they don't always come, but you can try. That is good promo both for your school and the author.
I gave the kids some books from my own stash as prizes this time, which was okay, my decision, but when I have a guest, I buy some from them, as they usually have some copies they bought at author price. True, that probably does have to come from your own pocket, but is it too much to ask? In your case, you probably won't need to do it often; this year, I was the only guest who had any books that would suit the school - one was a journalist, one had written a baby book and one was a student who hadn't had anything published except perhaps at university. But still.
Lastly, how about a small gift handed over by those students who are thanking the guest? A box of supermarket chocolates. A bunch of flowers. Heck, a key ring or water bottle with the school logo! I'm betting you have some of those stashed away in the office.

You might consider offering book launches. That's a good way to get a freebie, and call the press in for that. Sometimes publishers will give you bookmarks, posters, even copies of the book to give the kids or put in the library.

Just some suggestions for next time.


PS How about next time inviting the library technician who runs your library to be involved? You had this one on the day she doesn't work. As a paraprofessional she does know about children and books and reading, even if she isn't a teacher. I'm sure she would be delighted to help. 


A latte beckons said...

All very good points.

I agree that 'thank you' is nice, but not quite enough on its own, when you are donating your time and effort; but I would also add that even when you're being paid, it's nice to get 'thank you' as well! I did a (paid) school visit earlier this year where I was not met at reception, left alone to work out the tech aspects of the hall I'd be using for my talk, not introduced to the students, and not thanked afterwards or farewelled when I was finished! (No cup of tea either :-) I must stress this is not the norm, but it made me realise how valuable those human touches are for these events.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Kate!
Goodness, that sounds bad! Who was organising the event? Mind you, every writer I know has at least one horror story similar to yours(I posted about it some time ago on this blog, in an open letter to librarians). One artist said that when she did a freebie for her local school, they told her that they were going to sell her drawings and use the money to pay their next guest! At least neither of us had that. I rather think I only got the cup of tea because there was recess between our first session and our workshop. I tell a lie: I got in early and after someone had gone off to look for my "host" and couldn't find her, she took me to the staff room. So I had two cups of tea! I think the young woman concerned means well, she just doesn't understand how to do it.If I had thought it was deliberate, I would have named her.