Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 24, 2022

How to Engage Kids: The ABC’s of Author Talks at Schools

by Kris Maze

Grade school with kids at desks answering the teacher.

One author perk is the joy of sharing your writing with readers, and it can be extra-special to work with a younger audience in a school. But if you hold an author talk at a school, it’s important to set up expectations in advance to insure a successful event. Speaking to younger readers can be challenging if one isn’t prepared well enough.  In a school setting, there are a few ways authors can make a positive impact, engage on a deeper level with students, and make a lasting impression that gets you invited back year after year.

Guest Speaking at a School

What reasons would you be invited to a school? Authors can get invited to talk to students for many reasons.  Here are just a few.

Job connections for future writers

Students are in the business of figuring out what they want to do when they grow up.  And it is helpful for young people to see adults doing the work they too may want to try.  Sharing what it is like to be an author can inspire young readers to share their own stories some day.

Foster a love for story, reading, and writing for students

Teachers invite guest speakers who are experts in a field to share unique insights with their students.  As an author you have an expertise in writing conventions, story telling, and other parts of running an author business.  Find out what focus your teacher expects you to talk about and prepare a presentation that will help students appreciate stories.

Add depth to curriculum and standards-based learning

Teachers have specific expectations as to what they are to teach and you can add value to your visit by covering topics that relate to the work students are doing (and increase your chances of returning for another speaking opportunity.) Perhaps the students are studying plants and you have a story about a boy who grows a garden.  See if part of that book could help foster interest in a seed growing lesson or other related topic the teacher may be teaching.  The more connections the author can make to the work already happening in the classroom, the more connections to learning they can make.

Author Benefits for Guest Speaking at a School

Want to improve your author talks with young readers?  Read on to find out how you can connect with the school and get the most from your presentations.  

Students will learn from your presentation, but it can enhance your writing career too.  Look over these ways working in a classroom can improve your writing career.

Working with students can inspire YOU, dear writer. 

Their innocence and/or lack of inexperience can help a writer reconnect to that age and stage in life.  It makes you more accessible to what life was like in that time and perhaps add to characters in your own novels.

Creating interest around reading and stories creates future readers. 

This seems logical, and in the digital age students still consume a lot of written word.  They may choose to buy your books, or request them from parents, teachers, and librarians. Students also grow up and may want to read your work later, based on the fact that you were a cool guest speaker that they got to hear once.  It could be that they were always an avid reader, or the kid who never cracked open a book who was just happy to not have to take a math test, but the impact an author can make can last and influence future reading habits.

My Recent Author Talk with a Young Writers Club

In October, I presented to a Young Writers Club in Wisconsin.  The teacher had me speak to his 5th grade class in the past and invited me back to speak to this club.  The students meet on Tuesdays after school and have a range in age from 3rd to 8th grade students. 

Due to being on the West Coast, I had to pre-record a message.  In the video I made for these students, I addressed the questions they asked about me. I was able to have broad answers and made the backdrop for my talk a spooky, Halloween themed décor.  I had fun with it and kept the presentation light.

Another aspect of this talk was my invitation to writers to make handwritten letters.  I offered to hand write a response to each student who sent a letter.  The teacher said he would facilitate this and send their letters to my mail box. 

Here is a link to the video from that presentation.  Consider making one for your next presentation.

Advance Communication with Teacher

Teachers are incredibly busy people and most appreciate good advance planning.  A month before your visit I recommend reaching out to the teacher and finding out details of your visit.  Showing that you are asking in advance demonstrates that you are prepared and interested in the students.  It also shows that your presentation will be valuable to the students and helpful to the teacher.

Questions to ask –

  • What is the topic of some of the stories you are currently reading?
  • What themes the students examining in your classes?
  • What other subjects and topics could you talk about that cover curriculum? 
  • Would the teacher prefer a preset general talk about being an author or about the books they have written?
  • Should the focus be on writing as a profession or writing as a craft?
  • How much time will there be? (always over-plan but expect to have less time than allotted.)
  • Is there technology available if you plan to do a visual presentation such as power point, google slides, or short video clips on YouTube, for example?

Be aware of your kid audience’s needs

Attention spans

Students have varying attention spans at all ages, but there is a rule of thumb to consider. Check into what age group you will primarily speak to and plan to keep a talk to under the limit. Find out the age and multiply it by 2.  This tends to be a good estimate for attention spans.

Engage the 5 senses

Add videos and other activities to break up the time and keep the students engaged throughout.

1. Think of using digital media to break up the activities. 

Video clips of 30 seconds to 2 minutes can enhance a presentation.  These activate different sensory parts of the brain and keep students engaged longer.  Long videos will also lose their attention, so have a variety of things to choose from.  If one activity isn’t working, you may want to shift into another one.

2. Ask about bringing in food.

Student allergies can limit what a presenter could share with a class.  Food and snacks are usually a fun addition to any presentation but ask the teacher about special needs and school policies on food in classes first.

3. Offer manipulatives and other hands-on activities. 

Perhaps your groups get seeds to plant.  Or they work on coloring a bookmark.  Or dress up and act out a scene.  Using props helps engage students.

4. Bring Help. 

One author I know uses a sock puppet named appropriately, Sock Puppet Tim.  He always gets a smile and student attention. Try bringing in a prop that you can use while presenting.  It can also take pressure off you as a speaker if you are shy or new to speaking in public.

Connect to current learning

Ignite imaginations

Bring the wow factor. Bring a variety of things you think will be ‘cool’ and let students explore your fun props. One doesn’t know which thing will resonate, but ultimately they will be impressed by your interesting career. 

Be inclusive

Schools welcome students of all abilities, social strata, backgrounds, and cultures. Check your materials for wording and visuals that show a variety of cultures and peoples in a positive manner. Your presentation will be received well if it attempts to show students of all backgrounds that they are included and accepted. Talk to the teacher if you have more questions regarding how to structure your presentation to best suit your young audience.

Let kids lead and promote their writing skills

Writing prompts

Use writing prompts. Writing prompts are a good way engage students in writing.  Ask the teacher for some or write a few that kids would relate to.  Be sure that they connect to your book or work you are presenting.

Writing workshop

Hold a mini writing workshop. Pick aspects that work with the current or previous lessons and let students show off what they have learned.  Add to their learning with a specific focus, adding adjectives, self-editing, offering feedback, or describing people or animals with details as examples.

Class reading circle

Have students engage in your work while reading.  Here are some suggested methods.

  • Students read segments of your work.
  • If you have speaking characters, take volunteers to read parts and do a theater in the round.
  • Do a silent choral read.  Students hold up a hand when they have an emotional response to a line or segment of what you are reading.  The visual effect of this activity is amazing and worth a try.
  • Say One line. Students read from their own work.  Try having them say one line from their work they used to open a story, paragraph, end a story, most descriptive, character action, etc.

Suggestions for your interactive time:

  • Do a pass-a-prop to ensure one speaker at a time.
  • Establish good listening expectations before starting.
  • Have students think through and round the circle a second time. This time having students mention something another student said that stood out to them.

Connect. Plan to follow up with the school

Ask the teacher the best way to connect with the class after the presentation. Be cautioned that reaching out to students is a delicate issue and schools and parents are protective of their children at any age. 

Important considerations for student safety:

Think about how the connection would appear on a front page of a newspaper or newsfeed before approaching a student without a school staff person.  If it could be interpreted in a negative light, it is not worth contacting the student -always talk to the teacher first if you are in doubt.

Avoid using personal phone numbers or email addresses with minors. 

It is always best to let the teacher coordinate how and how often one should reach out to students.  Also avoid connecting with students on any social media outside of the school parameters.

Use language that is appropriate for the age group...

and keep your writing career above the fray. Use words that will clearly convey what you mean to the age group you are speaking to. If you aren't sure about a wording or topic, it's probably best not to use it.

Use trigger alerts.

If you cover topics that could trigger any kind of adverse reaction, tell the students before proceeding.  Ask the teacher if any student may find the topics too harsh and be willing to adjust accordingly.

Report anything you may be concerned about to the teacher.

Students may open up to a stranger, especially one that seems like an expert.  But you are not going to be able to follow up with a serious situation.  And there may be legal implications for anything you say to the student. Mandatory Reporting is an important consideration for student safety. Talk to the school staff if a child shares anything you are worried about. They are trained to handle sensitive situations and can connect a student with serious problems to services they may need.

After the presentation

Be willing to take questions.

Teachers may ask students to form questions before the presentation to spark interest.  Q & A can go for a long time or result in crickets. Have a back up plan or activity in place.

Get Feedback.

Perhaps have a digital form to take their feedback.  Google forms are free and easy to access.  Schools a mostly used to this format.

Ask for old-fashioned snail mail. 

In a writing club I connected with I gave the teacher my P.O. Box used for reader mail.  The teacher plans to collect letters written at their meeting and send them together to the mailbox.  I said I would respond with personal letters.

What ways have you engaged your audience during an Author Presentation? What worked well? What went horribly wrong that you could share with our readers? Let's grow together and help create a new generation of readers.

* * * * * *

About Kris

Kris Maze is an author, writing coach, and teacher. She has worked in education for many years and writes for various publications including Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish and the award-winning blog Writers in the Storm where she is also a host. You can find her horror stories and young adult writing at her website. Keep up with future projects and events by subscribing to her newsletter.

A recovering grammarian and hopeless wanderer, Kris enjoys reading, playing violin and piano, and spending time outdoors.

And occasionally, she knits.

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12 comments on “How to Engage Kids: The ABC’s of Author Talks at Schools”

  1. Thanks Kris for these fantastic tips for author school visits. Wish I'd had these years ago. What's remarkable is that I can also see using some, if not all, in many different kinds of author appearances.

    1. Hey, Lynette, I'm glad you found these tips useful. I can see these would be good for book clubs and adult groups too. Us grown-ups also enjoy fun, interactive presentations, right?

      Thank you!

  2. I am so surrounded by schools and I would love to help open the doors for more writers or for the inclusion of a NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program near me so this will help! Thanks so much for a terrific post. 🙂

    1. Oooooh! Jenny, I bet your schools would appreciate having a coordinated place for young writers to develop.

      I've grown from my Nanowrimo experiences and would have appreciated that opportunity much earlier in life. Let me know if you do this, I'd love to hear how it goes.

  3. Fantastic post, Kris!

    You have several ideas listed that never occurred to me. I plan to try them.

    I found contacting the school librarians to be very helpful.

    Once I contacted a few teachers via Twitter regarding an author visit. One followed through. The students in her class and I had a wonderful ZOOM session.

    Students love having authors visit and it takes some of the load off the teachers, which I know they appreciate.

    Sock Puppet Tim says HI!

    1. Hee hee hee - Sock Puppet Tim got a shout out! 🙂

      Talking with librarians is a great suggestion. They also work with students and have access to more grade levels. It's possible to have more exposure to students that way. Also, it's never a bad thing to connect with the person who stocks the book shelves.

  4. Excellent information and very thoughtful. When I was invited to be a motivational speaker at a public school assembly for 4th and 5th graders,I sent the first chapter of my book to the language arts teachers and asked they read it aloud to students or hand it out as a reading assignment. Duing the assembly I drew examples and raised questions from that chapter. I also sent a book order form weeks in advance which allowed me to bring autographed copies for students. It was a delightful day and helped with book sales.

    1. Hi Gretchen,
      Great example of how to work with a school. Sending your chapters ahead of time allows students more think time with your work and can make the presentation better as kids will have more insightful questions to ask.

      And congrats on the book sales. That's another way to build a following as an author. Kids love books!

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