After my first author visit to an elementary school, I asked the teachers who had invited me for some honest feedback. They had some pointers. If you ask a question, for example, don’t feel like you have to call on every single student who raises their hand. And bring visuals.
But then they surprised me.
“We could tell right away that you’re a teacher,” one of them said. “You looked like you knew what you were doing.”
Now that couldn’t be right. I hadn’t felt like I knew what I was doing. I had felt anxious and sweaty.
Sure, I’m a teacher. I’ve been in the classroom for almost twenty years. But most of that time I’ve been working at universities. Give me a room full of mildly interested adults and I can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the medieval French epic or relative pronouns. Your choice. Trust me. It’s fascinating. No. Really.
Whatever they said, that kind of teaching has got nothing to do with talking to 60 third and fourth graders about your debut novel.
If I did look relatively proficient, then it’s my current job—teaching part-time at a public high school–that prepared me for the shorter attention spans and higher energy of younger minds.
I don’t actually call it teaching. I call it whack-a-mole with a difference. In the carnival game, the point is simply to smack down one rodent after another. The difference in the classroom is that in between the blows of the hammer you somehow have to teach the moles how to speak French.
The first year almost broke me. Every day, I barely made it to my car before I started crying.
It turns out, there is no environment less suited to learning than a classroom. There are too many bodies with too many different needs crammed into a space that is too small, too bright, too hot, too cold, too stinky, too noisy. The phone rings, the attendance TA waltzes in, the intercom crackles, and the minute you look away to take roll or sign a permission slip for a field trip or scribble a pass to the nurse or write a single word on the board, all hell breaks loose—kids fall out of their desks every damn day (how? why?), water bottles end up balanced on the hanging lights (how? when?), the clock just drops off the wall and shatters, someone yells a bad word, someone farts, a wad of paper flies, someone’s about to barf or really really has to pee.
And in the middle of that, guess what? You got it. I’m ‘teaching French’.
One day about three weeks into this trial by indifference the principal came in. At my last university gig, my student evaluations were nearly perfect—5 out of 5 stars, yes I would recommend this professor to anyone. So naturally, I was expecting a glowing evaluation focusing on my high-energy, creative, and engaging teaching style.
Instead he leaned across the desk, his fingertips triangled under his chin. “You can’t shush them.”
Disbelief, rage, and then—hours later–acceptance.
He was right.
Shushing is not a good look.
I know in my heart that I wasn’t really meant to be a high school teacher. I don’t groove off telling people what to do and I hate the idea of one person controlling another person’s body. Do I really have to make the call—eighty freaking times a day—over whether or not someone really has to pee? Just go, for the love of God. Just go. Sure, take your phone with you.
Really, I just want to be left alone with my books and an electric blanket. Someone could bring me tea every once in a while. I would like that. I would be suitably grateful.
Over time, I’ve figured out how to better negotiate the gap between my nature and my new profession. It’s still a bad fit some days. I’ll be honest.
Anyway, this is a long preamble just to say that I’ve learned some tricks that helped me survive. I have never had to hiss “SHHHH!” again. And if I can do it, then you can, too!
One thing I’ve learned to do is focus on relationships. As I walk up the stairs to my room in the morning, I repeat the Hippocratic Oath.
First, do no harm.
Stay calm. Stay patient. Take a breath. Don’t say nasty words that will cause someone to shrink up inside thirty years later when they still remember them. Be direct. Be kind. Let them know over and over that you like them (especially if you don’t really). Say that to them. I love teenagers! I actually say those words with a big, warm smile. I love this job! You guys are so much fun. Practice saying it without a trace of sarcasm. It might make you cringe a little. It might make you think, Really? And they’ll buy that?
Yeah, they buy it. And the more you say it, you will too.
Even teenagers—especially teenagers—want to feel liked.
That way, at the very least, they are on your side. So when you bump into the stool or back up suddenly into the white board or whack your hip on a desk or spill a cup of coffee down the front of your white shirt or god forbid, pull a book out of your bag and send a tampon flying across the room, they laugh along with you.
And yeah, I’ve tested every one of those scenarios out for you.
One way to get them on your side quickly, for a classroom visit, is do what I do every day. Put on an outfit that doesn’t fit quite right and wear it like it does.
Here’s the list. Sure, you can take a picture of it. Whatever.
1. Smile more than you think is ethically responsible on this blighted planet.
2. Make eye contact.
3. …to that end, if the kids are seated on the floor, then You. Must. Crouch. Down. Yeah, your knees will crack like a muffler popping off at midnight, but I’m telling you, get your eyes down to where their eyes are.
4. Dress nicely, but make sure you can bend forward without revealing what a French friend once called her équipement. Keep in mind that tank tops are not on the dress code at most schools and neither are jeans with rips above the knee.
5. Start before you start. Your impulse will be to pretend to write on the board or find your place in your book or scroll mindlessly through your laptop as your heart starts to race. NO! Bad Author. Connect as they are filing into the library or auditorium. Smile, wave, tell one of them you like their tennis shoes or their Nirvana tee shirt. See? You’ve already won a few of them over.
6. Teach them, from the beginning, how you want them to behave. Remember: Don’t shush, don’t glare, don’t look helplessly at the teacher. You got this. Bring a timer if you like and clip it to your pocket. Three methods:
a. This works best with younger groups, mainly because most of us lack the chutzpah to pull it off with tweens and up. However, let me tell you, I have absolutely made this work with teens and college students. Do it deadpan. They think it’s hilarious. They might think you’re nuts too, but then again, it’s never a bad thing to look a little unhinged with the youth. It keeps them on their toes. Start out with: Hey! I want to introduce you to someone! Pull out a closed, small box—the kind you get when you buy a pair of earrings. The thing is, my friend is really shy. She won’t come out unless the room is totally quiet. Start to open the box. Pretend you hear a noise. Stop. Close the box. Okay. So her name is Choupinette. When I open the box, can you whisper, Bonjour Choupinette? Introduce them, get them to whisper. Then close the box. Okay you all can talk now. Then open the box and use your timer to see how quickly they quiet down. Then whenever they start to get out of control, raise the box. They will quiet down immediately. Obviously call the thing in the box whatever you want. And the box can be empty.
b. Clap clap clapclapclap. You know this one. You do that clap and then they respond by repeating it and quieting down. It’s universal. Personally, I hate it. I find it infantilizing, but then again, I talk to an empty box.
c. This is the one I always use. I stand at the front in the same spot every time. That spot is the quiet down spot. I put my hands in namaste. Say Whenever I put my hands like this, we’re going to quiet down, okay? With teens, don’t even bother saying that. Just start looking at the clock or your timer. Whenever they get out of control, go back to your spot and namaste.
7. If a student asks a question and their voice is so quiet that you can’t hear it then get yourself to that child! Really, do not say “Speak up!” Trust me, they will do the opposite. When you get closer, try not to get right in their face. Stand a bit to the side (it’s less confrontational) and get your body down to their level. Repeat their answer loudly as you move back to the front of the room. *If you can’t hear them because the other students are talking too loudly, get your namaste back on.
8. Never talk over them. Never. Wait for their attention.
9. Worried about structure? Try this : Show a ppt image, discuss it, read a passage from your book related to it, ask a question about it that allows for their opinions and imagination (so we saw what Raul was doing in that passage. What do you think Mean Jack and Mary Anne were up to?)
10. Ask very direct questions.
a. How do you think writers get inspired? If you’re a writer, how do you get inspired?
b. Do you remember how there is a bike stuck in a tree in my story? And the tree has grown around it? Do you know who gave me that idea? My son, when he was 9. We were walking to school and I said, Hey Mac, I need a metaphor for change in my story. For how the character is stuck in a bad situation at the beginning of the story and how he breaks free of it at the end. And my son, who had heard about a bike that a tree had grown around on Vashon Island, thought it would be a good metaphor. (show ppt slide) Other metaphors for change in my story are the crumbling cliffs that Raul sees out of his window. (Read passage). How about you? If a writer asked you for a metaphor for change and growing up, what would you choose? Take a minute and think quietly. Set the timer for two minutes, and then ask for suggestions. If they are at desks and have paper/pen handy, have them write it.
11. Read from your book, yes. Do it dramatically. Lower your voice and raise it when appropriate. Speaking quietly will make them lean in. But do not ever read a prepared speech. Use your PPT images to guide you through what is important.
12. Have a PPT that is image heavy and very light on text. Like, no text at all. Choose images that are striking but remember, they will react—and loudly—to everything. It’s not like with adults, where you get a chuckle or a knowing smile. They will fall over, they will shout out, they will point. Be ready for this. Let them get it out for a second—you did this to them so these are the consequences. When you want to move on, take up Namaste or pull out Choupinette, and get control. Do not move on until every single child is back with you.
13. Avoid the ‘favorites’ questions with teens. Too much is at stake. Instead of ‘what’s your favorite movie/band/book’ ask what they’ve seen or read recently and if they liked it. That will open them up and take the pressure off.
14. Circulate, move! Go to them. Maybe I said this already.
15. When their answers are really weird… Say you ask, “Which character is most like you?” and get the response, “My new puppy is black.” Nod and smile. “Really? That’s wonderful!” But don’t feel obligated to make something from nothing, just keep moving. And beware. Once one kid starts sharing off topic information, other will follow them down that same random path…So you might need to change it up for a bit, which is where #16 comes in.
16. Bring in some props. I bring in my gris-gris—all the good luck charms I keep on my desk. I show them a photo of my desk and then pass around my toys—a mini White Deer, a dollhouse cast-iron oven, my Writing Mouse I’ve had since I was 16. I pass around the ‘novels’ I wrote in the third and fifth grade, and my favorite rocks. They really like the rocks.
17. Take the pressure off yourself. They are so excited to meet you! They will hug you and tell you that they are your biggest fan even if they haven’t read your book. It’s wonderful.