Two weeks ago I visited Mount Pleasant Junior School (MPJS) in East Yorkshire and had a really memorable day. As an author who travels all over the UK I have experienced all kinds of visits to schools: good and bad and everything in between. This was one of the very best – so, what made it such a success?
It certainly wasn’t simply that I enjoyed the visit (although I certainly did), it was the impact it made and the excitement generated. Children buzzed about books, reluctant readers were engaged, high quality writing flowed and parents were drawn in to talk about reading and libraries and supporting the school’s drive towards a culture of reading.
So how did this event become such a success? What makes a great school author visit? Firstly, the school needs to know that they are booking a person who is going to inspire the children and engage everybody – staff as well as kids. One of the best ways to ensure this is through recommendation. On this occasion I had visited the school of the deputy head’s own children a couple of years before:
Recommendations can come from local schools or from English Leaders’ Facebook groups (I’ve had several that way) or from Twitter among other sources. The agency Authors Aloud can recommend all kinds of brilliant authors and illustrators.
Secondly, the secret is to find out before the visit how the author likes to work: what do they do best? Sometimes schools want a square peg in a round hole – my view is that the greatest impact comes from allowing authors to work their own special magic in their own way. The best ones visit hundreds of schools and they know what works for them.
Another crucial element in a brilliant author day is the preparation. The schools that get the most from these days do lots of prep well in advance:
- Ensure everyone is on board: a whole school buy-in brings amazing rewards
- Understand the value of inspiration to read for pleasure – it’s not just tips and tricks about writing
- Get hold of copies of the author’s books and share snippets in every class before the visit (age relevance allowing, of course)
MPJS did all this and more, creating a sense of excitement about the visit in the weeks and days beforehand. Children researched the author and formulated good questions to ask and children were encouraged to think about getting a signed book.
All great author visits are coordinated by a single enthusiastic teacher or librarian who will ensure that the timetable works well for everyone involved in the day. She or he will plan a book signing carefully (these can take some time on the day) and think ahead about details like travel, directions, car parking, tech requirements and bookselling arrangements.
On the day itself, a welcome on arrival makes all the difference. Quite often the author has travelled a long way and so a warm smile, a cup of tea and a pointer to the loos is always good! At another school I visited recently I was left sitting in the entrance space for some time and no member of the teaching staff was aware I had arrived – so having the office team on the ball really helps.
My visit to East Yorkshire hit all the right notes from the start and I could see the enthusiasm and excitement of the children as they came into assembly.
Other things that MPJS got right:
- Meeting the headteacher – in this case the admirable Dan Nixon, who I had a great chat with about reading. If the HT sees the value of the visit and gets involved, it’s going to make a real difference.
- Planning follow-up activities: each year group had a special writing challenge which I devised based on one of my books or poems. The children were really motivated to write in the days that followed the visit and produced some great work which was then shared with parents in a special Andy Seed celebration assembly.
- Understanding the idea that children buying/owning a signed book is a very good thing. When they meet an author who inspires, children are highly motivated to read one of his/her books. Schools should strike while the iron is hot! Disengaged readers can have their attitudes transformed at these moments and if they have their own signed copy to take home they will be reading that very evening and then talking about books the next day.
- Usually at book signings I am surrounded by sad-faced children saying, “I wish I’d brought money for a book…” or “I didn’t know we could buy books.” (and then I am swamped with emails and tweets from parents asking me to post signed books in the days that follow). But MPJS reduced the chances of disappointment by encouraging and reminding children not to miss the opportunity in the days beforehand. Book signing reminders on posters, tweets, school FB pages, texts and newsletters get children reading. Reading for pleasure increases academic achievement and has multiple other benefits. The queue for books at MPJS was amazing!
- On the day make sure that no one misses out on the author’s presentations/workshops – how sad when some children are taken out or a member of staff has a meeting. When all teachers and TAs are present in the sessions the follow up is invariably rich. The most enlightened make notes and get involved. No one at MPJS sat at the back marking books while I talked – something that I actually find quite rude and unprofessional (speaking as an ex-teacher who knows how busy and pressured teachers are).
There’s so much more I could say about how excellent this visit was and how much enthusiasm was generated but I have already written rather a lot. Enjoy these photos of the day and the celebration for parents a few days later, and the children’s superb writing. A huge thank you to Abi, Kelly, Dan and everyone at the wonderful Mount Pleasant Junior School.
Do contact me if your school is interested in an exciting author visit.