School visits

Writing Workshops Are So Much Fun.

One of the best things about being a children’s author is that I get the chance to visit schools and meet lots of young readers. Whether that means reading and entertaining the younger ones with my emu puppet or engaging older readers in writing workshops. Either way, a school visit doesn’t have to be daunting, if well planned it can be exhilarating for the students and the presenter.

Recently, with the launch of my new chapter book, ‘Secrets Hidden Below,’ I have had the opportunity to visit two schools and work with students to encourage them with a few new writing strategies. During Literacy Week in September I had the fantastic opportunity to work with a very talented writing group of year 5 & 6 students from Forrest PS in Canberra, then at the end of October I had the incredible opportunity to work with all year levels from Prep right through to year 8 at the Ela Murray International School in Port Moresby, PNG.


Here are my top 5 take-home points to remember from the experience.

1. Be well prepared. Being asked to present to kids ranging in age from 5 to 14 yrs means varying your workshop to suit their requirements. Even the Preps and year 1-2’s had a slightly different presentation than the other. While the majority of the lesson centred around my picture book, ‘Emma the Eager Emu,’ some fun facts (with pictures) to learn about emus and other Australian birds, I was able to ask higher level questions to the 1’s and 2’s when discussing the themes or lessons learned from the story and able to give them a worksheet that required higher order thinking than their Prep counterparts. It was the same with the writing workshops for the rest of the year levels. With each growing age group I could extend their activities.

2. Be adaptable. No matter how organised you think you are, something will always happen to make you have to change things. In some instances the scheduled time slot for a particular group was longer than I had anticipated, while others had been shortened. Remember, you are a visitor to the school and must fit into their timetable. When my time with the year 3’s and 4’s was extended from 90 min to 2 hours, it meant I could relax, slow the pace, allow more time for students to work on each writing task. It also gave me more time to read exerts from several of my books to use as examples of writing strategies instead of the originally planned one. I initially planned to demonstrate writing devices from ‘Gingerbread Aliens’ only, but given a longer time period I was able to include ‘Secrets Hidden Below’ as well. I loved seeing the students all so engaged and full of questions. On the other hand, because there was a large year 5 - 6 cohort, it was decided to split their original session in two. This meant instead of having 2 hours to work with all of them, I now had an hour each for two groups. To make this work I had to decide which parts of the workshop to skip so that they would get the most benefit out of me being there to help them. Some groups were bigger than I had thought, some were smaller. Again, if you are prepared to adapt, you can make this work. As the year 5-6 groups were so large, the teachers decided to move the lesson into the old library. Not so bad, except in 32 C degree heat with rising humidity and an air con system that seemed to be working overtime, it was a) extremely hot, I could feel the sweat running down my back and my face felt quite flushed no matter how much water I drank, and b) the noise of the air con was so loud I had difficulty hearing some of the students answers. I hope they coped better than I did.


3. Year 7 & 8 aren’t so scary after all. I haven’t taught students of this age in a very long time. In fact, not since I graduated from teachers college over 30 years ago. So the prospect of working with them while exciting, was also a bit daunting. I needn’t have worried, they were a fantastic bunch of kids. I began the session by recognising the fact that my books are not targeted at their age level and presented them as a learning tool for examples of writing devices. The students were all very enthusiastic and eager to participate. We had some great discussions, excellent writing and a whole lot of laughs along the way.

4. Questions and answers can stretch your thinking. Sometimes the responses to questions you ask can be surprising. When demonstrating how to draw a mind map I discovered the enormous vocab students have, no matter their age. Talk about thinking on my feet, I suddenly became very aware of my spelling. To say the year 7 - 8’s tested me, is an understatement. I’m still not sure if I spelt telekinesis correctly. I’m sure they all spotted my mistake. I had some surprising questions asked of me too. Things I had never been asked before that really made me think on my feet. I enjoyed the challenge and hope I answered them all to their satisfaction. I can’t believe I did forget to mention the one thing I do everyday during my spare time, I guess because it has become more of a routine than a spare time activity. That is, walking my dog around the country hills where we live. I walk an average of 5 Km everyday with her. We look for kangaroos, echidnas, wombats, lizards and all sort of birds. You never know what I might find that may spark an idea for a story.

5. Relax and enjoy. It all goes too fast. Relax, breathe and take in every delightful moment. Watching students from all age groups write with such engagement and enthusiasm was awesome. Listening to the excitement in their voices as they shared their work with each other and myself felt wonderful. Observing students madly taking notes from every word I said and slide I presented was surprising yet made me feel quite honoured that they wanted to remember it all. It’s all over all too soon and before you know it, you find yourself alone back in front of your computer screen looking forward to the next school visit. I send my sincerest thank you to everyone at TEMIS, I enjoyed my two days there enormously. A big warm hug to you all.


Now it’s your turn. Have you ever experienced the joy of a writer’s workshop or author visit? Whether from the author’s or student’s point of view, please leave a comment below.

Do you have any questions? I will do my best to answer.

Six Strategies for a Successful School Visit.

Last week was Book Week. I visited four schools and did six readings. It is a busy time yet one of my favourite times of the year as I love being invited into schools to read to so many wonderful little children. The delight and excitement on their faces makes every moment so worthwhile. I am happy to visit school anytime throughout the year, it just so happens that Book Week seems to be a particularly special time. This year the theme was Australian Stories, so Emma the Eager Emu and Frazzled Freya were a perfect fit. Here are my six tips or strategies I would like to share that help make a school visit so successful.

  1. Be Organised Ahead of Time. Never underestimate little people. If you think you can just go in and read your book, think again! Kids expect to be entertained. You need a plan. A well thought out lesson plan. Teachers and parents like a reason for your visit. They anticipate some kind of learning to be taking place during the session and afterwards too if you can organise it. Teachers always appreciate a good follow up activity. Part of my package is to send them an idea of what I plan to be speaking about as well as a couple of possible follow up activities. The complexity or simplicity of these depend on the level of the students. It can be as simple as a colouring in page, a craft activity or a comprehension page. DSCN1277
  2. Send the school a Pre-Order Form. If you hope to gain a few book sales while you are there, then the best marketing strategy is to forward a pre-order form to the school at least two weeks prior to the visit. This way the school has time to send the form home in the newsletter and parents have time to respond. I always add a note about the benefits of reading at home, reading a book from an author the children have met, books make great presents etc. Include your website so that parents can make an informed decision. I also usually give a discount for an author visit as an encouragement to purchase a signed copy of the book on the day.
  3. Have a Poster for the School to Display. You want to advertise your upcoming visit. Don't expect the school to make up a display for you. Schools are very busy places so they will appreciate the effort you make in having a poster ready for them.  It should include a photo of yourself so the students can see who the author is coming. A copy of the cover of any of your books. The date of your visit and your website information. Forward it along with the pre-order form at least two weeks in advance of your visit.
  4. Be Prepared to Mix it up a little. When reading your book vary your pitch, tone and expression. Use puppets where you can. Kids 20160826_130309love puppets! Ask questions, involve the kids, encourage participation. If there is repetition in your story, (as in Emma The Eager Emu) the kids can join in and help you recite certain lines. Have a discussion at the end. What did they learn from the story? Was there a moral? In my case, my books are about unique Australian animals, so that allows for an opportunity to discuss the nature of these amazing creatures, what makes them special and even what their habitat is. I have a video of a frill-neck lizard in the wild that the children find fascinating and a video about an emu that we can all sing along to. 20160826_125305
  5. Be Flexible. Sometimes not all goes to plan and you may have to change things. Kids can get restless. Don't persist if something isn't working, don't stress, move onto something else. This is where another activity can be useful, that video or craft. Sometimes things might be going so well, that they may ask for more! Last week I planned to read and do my lesson around my latest book, Frazzled Freya, each session lasting only half an hour. The children in several groups were listening and responding so well that I was asked to continue. I pulled out my emu puppet and proceeded to read Emma the Eager Emu.
  6.  Finish20160826_131053 on a high. Sometimes I use the video of the emu song to finish. It's a great way to end a session. The kids are laughing and are happy. Now I have Freya to add to the mix, I remind them of the games they can now go outside and play just like Freya does in her story, (Shadows and Hide and Seek) then we all finish with a special frill neck lizard wave.

Do you have any other ideas that help make a school visit successful? Share them in the comments below.