Hello. My name’s Rachel and I’m a school visit-oholic. School visits are one of my favourite parts of being a writer – they contain all the bits of teaching I used to love without the stress, or the marking, or the slightly intense parents.
Since my first book, The Case of the Exploding Loo, came out, I’ve done around a hundred school visits and I have loved every single one. However, during the course of these visits, I’ve noticed a few things schools can do (or avoid doing) to make author visits even more fun-packed and hassle-free.
I was asked to make a note of them recently, for a chat with the schools involved in Education Day at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, and I thought it might be interesting to share some of them here.
Before the day of the visit arrives:
- It’s great if schools let authors know how long each session with be, how many students will be there and what year groups they’ll be from AND it’s ever greater if they stick to this. In the past I’ve:
- turned up for a one-hour session only to be told they wanted me to do two hours instead. That’s a long time for anyone to be stuck with me! I came up with ‘creative writing activities’ for the second hour and we had a great time, but while I may have looked calm and in control on the outside I was having a flap attack inside.
- turned up to a school where I was unaware the students had special needs until I entered the classroom. I’m from a family with a few ‘labels’ so I adapted what I was doing and had one of my favourite visits ever, but it would have been good to know in advance.
- turned up to visit Year 3 only to be told they were out on a trip so I’d be talking to Year 1. This was the one that genuinely terrified me and the memory of it is still a bit of a traumatised blur!
- It’s polite to ask in advance whether it’s okay to photograph or film the author while they’re in school. While I’m happy for people to take as many photos as they like, I hate being videoed. A couple of times I’ve arrived at schools and found cameras and tripods set up, and it makes me feel bad and a bit of a diva to have to say ‘no’ to filming on the day itself.
- It’s a good idea to give directions, especially if there are roadworks around the school. I’ve spent over half an hour driving round and round a school that Google maps insisted was 2 minutes drive down a road that no longer existed
- It helps if there’s one key contact to speak to – ideally a librarian because they’re always lovely and they are the best at bringing people together. It’s great when there’s someone at the school who can help set up cross curriculum activities and/or whole school collaborations. I’ve had older students sitting in on my visits because they’re interested in becoming writers and I’ve liked having them there and enjoyed their questions. Also, I’ve done activities that link drama, art and English departments together.
- It makes a difference when the students know something about the author. You can tell the difference immediately during the Q&A session. If I’m just a random woman who writes books, students tend to ask very similar questions – what’s my favourite book? Who inspired me to write? Do I know JK Rowling? How much money do I earn? But if they’ve read the book or googled me I get some fascinating questions – someone asked if I’d given my villain (Ms Grimm) a nice son to make the reader sympathise with her more. I hadn’t done it for that reason and hadn’t really thought about it before, but what a great question. And it led to a fascinating chat about creating great villains.
- Feel free to make ‘requests’. Some authors prefer to stick with a session or a presentation they’re comfortable with, but I’m sure many are like me and are happy to change things to suit the group. I had great fun at a school where they asked to run the visit like a ‘press conference’, and I’m always happy to tailor things to include elements students are working on at the time.
On the day itself
- Please make sure there’s a parking spot for us. We’re usually carrying props and books and all sorts of other nonsense. I’ve had to walk for over ten minutes to get to a school before and I arrived in a right grump. In contrast, I drove up to one school, feeling my heart sink when I spotted the tiny amount of parking available, and then spotted two ladies waving madly and personally guarding a special spot right beside the gate. I could have hugged them. Actually, I probably did.
- It’s lovely to have a welcoming committee. Obviously the dream visits are the ones where you arrive to find posters everywhere and displays and reviews of your book (ideally positive). If I’m honest, I felt utterly mushy last week when I arrived at a school and found hundreds of kids wearing unicorn horns. I also love the ‘author information’ sheets as I often discover all sorts of things I never knew about myself! But it’s enough to know that the students are aware you’re coming and the receptionist is expecting you. Authors are a bit scatty, so if no one knows we’re meant to be there, we’re likely to assume we’ve got the wrong place or the wrong day and go home again.
- We appreciate early access to the place where we’ll be talking. Laptops, projectors and mics can take a while to set up and it’s hard to do your talk and sort technical problems at the same time. I cannot explain the joy of finding an IT person waiting for you who’s already tested the equipment – a techy student is equally good. It’s also nice to have a bit of quiet in the ten minutes before the session, and while I’ve been interested in all the schools I’ve visited, it’s hard to pay much attention to a tour around the school at this point, so maybe save it for later.
- It’s good for everyone to be clear about where you’re supposed to be. On five separate occasions I’ve been sent to one part of the school and started setting up, only to have someone run up to me five minutes later in a panic because all the students are waiting somewhere else.
For the session itself:
- It’s nice to be introduced. It’s even nicer when the person introducing you knows something about you. I’ve been introduced as ‘Rachel . . . um’ a couple of times, followed by the students yelling ‘Hamilton’ at the teacher, as it’s written on the slide behind me. My favourite introductions have all been done by students. I love those!
- It makes such a difference when teachers join in with the event. Most of my best visits have involved a lot of teacher interaction and laughter. Even if teachers don’t play an active role in the session, it’s nice to know they’ve found it interesting and useful. I’ve had a few emails from staff to say have they’ve built ideas from my visit into their lessons and that’s amazing to hear. On a moany note, what I (and I’m guessing all visitors) hate is staff using author visits as an excuse to play on their phone. Or teachers hissing at the kids to shhhh and then starting to chat amongst themselves. I don’t think that’s fair and I have great fun getting the kids to tell them off.
- On a boring setting-the-room-out note, it’s good to have a gap in the middle of the audience to walk through as it means visitors aren’t stuck at the front the whole time. It’s also better to have short rows that go back further, rather than long rows of forty or more. I like to be able to see everyone while I’m talking and people on the end of long rows disappear from view.
After the session.
- We all love schools who help us sell books – it’s very much appreciated. Ideally book orders are taken in advance. It seems to work best when parents/students are reminded of the visit the week before and then the day before and reminded that books are available if they want them.
Wow, that’s turned into a mammoth list. I’d love to hear your opinion as an author, teacher, librarian or student as to what makes a great author visit.
About the blogger:
Rachel Hamilton is a graduate of both Oxford University and Cambridge University and has put her education to good use by working in an ad agency, a secondary school, a building site and a men’s prison. Her interests are books, films, stand-up comedy and cake, and she loves to make people laugh, especially when it’s intentional rather than accidental.
Her books include the Unicorn in New York series (OUP), The Case of the Exploding Brains, and The Case of the Exploding Loo (Simon & Schuster), which was nominated for the Redbridge Children’s Award, Leeds Book Award, Ossett Riveting Reads Award and won the Worcestershire Awesomest Book Award.
She recently won the Emirates Woman of the Year Award 2015 in the Artist Category