In the past two weeks, I have visited two elementary schools. In many ways, these visits couldn’t have been more different. Yet, there were some similarities. At one school, I talked to a group of 60 fifth graders in the school assembly room; at the other school, I met with a class of first grader.
The fifth graders had just completed a publishing assignment using classroom computers and were celebrating their achievement. They were interested in hearing about my book writing process from first idea to publication. I spoke from a podium and had a mike (which I ignored). With the first graders, I read one of my stories, The Mysterious Case of the Missing Birthday Cake in their classroom from a comfy chair, a more intimate and congenial atmosphere.
In each instance, the children were attentive and asked good questions or shared interesting comments. Here are a few things I learned from these experiences:
l. Be prepared. Have supplies, examples, etc. available at my fingertips so I’m not fumbling around looking for what I need while talking.
2. Be flexible. I wasn’t aware that I would be talking with the fifth graders in an assembly room with podium and mike. Fortunately, they all were able to see my visuals and hear me.
3. Bring something for the students to take home to remember the visit. I brought bookmarks, with pictures of my Oak Tree Press books and email address to both groups. Hopefully, some of the students or families will order my other books. Teachers like to pass these out themselves later. With the first graders, I left a copy of each of my Oak Tree Press books for the class.
4. Engage the students in conversation. I try not to talk too long without asking them a question. When taking about where I find my story ideas with the fifth graders, I started out by asking how many didn’t like vegetables. There was an overwhelming show of hands. I followed by talking about how my book, Ants on a Log, was a true story about my son who when young hated vegetables. With the first graders, I asked how many would like to fly with butterflies when showing them my book, Butterfly Girls. Again, a show of many hands. I find if the children participate, they feel comfortable in asking questions and making their own comments, and we have more of a conversation rather than a lecture.
5. Don’t talk too long. Children, especially the little ones, have a short attention span and can only sit still for a limited period of time. I watch my audience and gage my presentation to match their abilities. Naturally, the fifth graders can listen and pay attention longer than the first graders.
6. Be friendly. I always smile and engage the children in conversation when I first meet them. With some of the fifth graders, I asked them what kinds of books they liked to read and how many had read Harry Potter. With the first graders, I mentioned briefly that I have four grandchildren, ages three to nine and ask how many were seven years old. This exercise developed a connection between us, and the children seem to feel more comfortable in asking questions and making comments.
7. Keep control of the conversation. Sometimes children like to tell too many of their own stories, and this gets our conversation off track. I try not to call on the same children more than a couple of times and to bring the conversation back to the agenda if we stray. Yet, I always like to hear their questions and comments. This shows me that they are listening, engaged and are learning something.
8. Leave with a smile and a thank you.
Naturally, when speaking with adults, there is less concern about attention span. However, here too, I like to engage my audience more in a conversation than a lecture.