5 Ingredients for an Awesome School Visit

P.M. Freestone portrait
Category: Writing

Are you an author looking to add more awesome to your school visits? Maybe you don’t even know where to start when it comes to successfully engaging a room full of students?

Until last month, I was in the same boat. While my short stories have been taught in schools, I don’t have lots of experience working directly with pupils. I imagined a gauntlet of nightmare scenarios awaited me, strewn with the rookie mistakes I was bound to make along the way.

Enter Scottish Book Trust’s first Working in Schools Industry Lab. Delivered by a stellar array of speakers across an inspiring three-day programme, the Lab was designed to equip authors with the skills and confidence to work with schools in a variety of ways (from one-off talks to longer-term writer-in-residence initiatives).

It’s impossible to condense everything I learned into one post. But if I had to list five ingredients I now know help make a school visit awesome, these would be my top picks:


Make like a scout: be prepared

Confirm all the details. Then reconfirm in the days leading up to the visit.

Every speaker at the Lab, whether they were authors, librarians or teachers, highlighted the importance of ensuring everyone is on the same page in the lead-up to the event. Have you confirmed the number of sessions you’ll be doing, their timings and the audience (what’s great for P6s won’t necessarily be suitable for P2s)? Will you be speaking to a single class in a quiet library, or to a full assembly in the cafeteria with the clatter of lunch prep as the backing soundtrack? What are the technical facilities available and is there a Plan B if you can’t use PowerPoint, access the web, or illustrate on a flipchart? Have you discussed whether your books will be available for sale and how that will be handled? Confirm all these details. Then reconfirm in the days leading up to the visit. It’ll help everything run smoothly and keep you cool, calm and collected so you can deliver your best session.


Know your people

So, you’ve communicated clearly and checked in with the school before you arrive. Everything’s in hand, right? There’s a good chance it is. But there’s a way you can make that ‘good chance’ closer to ‘sure thing’—find out who you’re dealing with on the day. The best laid plans can go swiftly awry if you’ve been communicating with a Head Teacher and don’t know whose class(es) you’re going into, who will be in the room with you, who will be engaging in any pre- or post-visit activities with the students. If possible, check in prior with your on-the-day contact (pro tip: avoid getting lost in a time-poor teacher’s inbox and give them a call just after the school day finishes). Once you know your contact, enlist them as your ally! Get them involved in the event. They’re key to your on-the-ground success, and to word-of-mouth referrals within and beyond that school.


Bite-size is the best size

Once you know your contact, enlist them as your ally

We all have limited attention spans. This is even more important when it comes to young people. P1 students are going to have far less concentration power than S4 students. It’s your job to work with that. Design your session in modules or ‘chunks’ of discrete activities that run for 3-15 minutes depending on the age group. It’ll keep your audience engaged and, if parts of the session take longer than expected, you can easily end on time by omitting a module. Similarly, if one of your modules falls flat, you can quickly move on to the next one. And hey, there’s a reason bags of bite-size chocolate bars are called ‘fun’ size!


Mix it up

Drone relentlessly on at a school visit and you’ll be the antithesis of inspiring. And, just like those bags of chocolates—variety makes it more likely any given student will find something in your session that engages them. So, keep readings to a minimum (a few minutes, tops!), get interactive, consider group work activities, prompt your audience to use their own imaginations. Where practical, get students out of their seats, and always leave room for Q&A at the end (bonus points: because you’re so well prepared and have made your on-the-day contact an ally, you’ll have pre-prepared them with some initial questions in case no hands go up at the beginning of your Q&A).


Harness your ‘real live author’ superpower

All authors are dead.

Take in ‘artefacts’ from your writing life

This is what many students believe—books are literary tombstones, so gloriously revered they must be written by saint-like apparitions, or by fusty old relics of the past. You, however, are a Real Live Author™. You’re flesh and blood; you’re standing in their school. That’s a bit magic. Think your writing process is mundane? Most pupils will find it fascinating. Even better, take in ‘artefacts’ from your writing life—your notebooks, plans, pens, objects that inspire you, the favourite mug that holds your never-ending cup of writer’s tea. In other words—you’re interesting because of who you are and what you do (and because you’re Not A School Teacher. Well, for the day you’re not, anyway).

And there you have it—five ingredients in the recipe for school visit success. If you’re in Scotland and interested in learning more, I’d thoroughly recommend keeping an eye out for the next Lab for professional creators, and make sure you apply—it was awesome!

P. M. Freestone

P. M. Freestone writes middle grade and young adult speculative fiction. Her short stories have appeared online and in print, including work in anthologies from Penguin Books, and she is now developing novel-length projects. She is a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop (University of California, San Diego), and received a New Writers Award in 2016. She ponders writing and bookish things at pmfreestone.com.