Monday, December 28, 2009
The Three 'Principals' of a Successful Book Talk
In November, with the help of the three fabulous principals in my building, the Gaynor Campus Library hosted its first ever author visit and talk. Thanks to my principals and some fantastic classroom teachers, it came off without any major hitches.
Briefly, here are the elements that worked well:
1. A generous author who was easy to work with.
2. Principals who helped make sure it all came together.
3. ELA teachers who selected student attendees and accompanied them to the talk.
4. Students who have some familiarity with the book and are engaged during the talk.
5. A way to serve food in the least disruptive manner possible.
It all began when the wonderful Ms. D_____ of The Green School told me last Spring that a friend of hers, Peter Kujawinski, along with his co-author Jake Halpern, were embarking on a national tour to promote their book Dormia. Bonus: because they were new authors, they were doing their visits free of charge. Ms. D_____ handed them off to me via e-mail and between the three of us, it was decided that the talk would happen in the Fall 2009 and that Peter would probably be on the East coast at that time and would be the visiting author.
As the 2009-2010 school year began, I was informed that my three principals had decided to rotate their responsibilities and that my administrative contact would be Talana Bradley of The Yound Women's Leadership School of Brooklyn. Last year, Talana had organized a school-wide book talk for her school in the auditorium, so when I told her about the upcoming visit I knew she'd be able to speak from experience. I told Talana that I'd be more comfortable doing something smaller in scale and she agreed that this was probably the best way to go.
In addition, Talana agreed with me that the talk should take place in the library and suggested that 12 students from each school be nominated to attend. At the next Building Council meeting, Talana informed Karali Pitzele of The Green School and Taeko Onishi of Lyons Community School of the talk. Talana and Taeko each decided to purchase 12 copies of Dormia for each student attendee to keep, while The Green School opted to buy about four copies.
Having read the book, I felt it was geared a bit more toward middle school readers than high school students, although Peter assured me that his talks had gone over very well in high schools. Each school settled on its own system for nominating attendees. Lyons ended up with a mix of middle school and high school attendees, while The Green School, with high school grades only, had their ninth grade ELA teacher, Mr. R_____ accompany his whole class of about 12 students to the library. The Young Women's Leadership School, which currently has middle school grades only, selected students through their ELA teachers.
I took care of the catering out of my own pocket. I ran to the closest Subway Sandwich Shop the morning of and bought a tote bag full of footlong sandwiches. At a nearby dollar store, I filled another large tote bag with two-liter soda bottles and salty snacks. Back at school, I stowed everything away in an office fridge, with the soda in the freezer for the approximately two hour wait.
Peter's timing coincided with the second half of my beginner ESL class, so I had told my students that they'd be attending a talk that day, and they seemed up for a change of pace. When Taeko came to the library with the Lyons students, I was able to run to the fridge and grab the food and begin slicing the sandwiches into four pieces each. Peter arrived right on time and we finally met face-to-face. Mr. R_____ and I made the executive decision to serve lunch to the kids as they listened to the talk, rather than have a free-for-all or a long queue while Peter was talking. Mr. R____ and I playing waiter worked out beautifully.
As everyone got settled, we made sure that Peter got his food and when he had finished his plate he began to speak. Peter radiates an air of calm and kindness that the kids really responded to. Although I was busy serving for much of the talk, I know he discussed the inspiration for Dormia and I remember hearing him tell a story of visiting Poland when he was a teenager and meeting one of his uncles and some of his cousins who lived there.
By the time Mr. R_____ and I finally got to sit down, it was almost Q&A time. Students asked some really good questions, such as, "What was it like working with a co-author?" (a pleasure, according Peter) and, "Will there be a sequel?" (yes). Finally, as Peter wrapped up, he autographed a few more books and was on his way.
Some things I might do differently the next time include:
1. Recruit helpers to serve ahead of time.
2. Budget money to have food brought in by a local caterer.
3. Record the talk on video with the author's permission for a more vivid record of the event.
4. Make sure the timing works with all three schools (a small contingent of students ended up missing the event due to a scheduling conflict).
5. Elicit book reviews and on-the-spot written reflections about the author visit.
Overall, it's nice to have the first iteration of something go well. As I mentioned, I have the author, the principals and teachers who participated to thank for that. The students, too, deserve a word of thanks for their time and attention. It was great to see them engage with an adult from outside their circle and do so graciously. I'm looking forward to the next author visit opportunity. If I can organize things just a touch better, I can spend more time capturing and analyzing the ways in which such an event benefits the students.