Monday, 6 March 2017

School Visits for Infant Years by Abie Longstaff

It's March. School visit season. So if you see raggedy authors looking exhausted, pulling large bags behind them please smile at us in sympathy.

For me, school visit season is both the most exciting and the most knackering time of year. It's the time when I step away from my computer and go to see my audience. It's wonderful to find that the world you created in your head really resonates and impacts on kids. And there's nothing better than seeing children dressed up as your character.

Kittie Laceys on World Book Day 
But school visits can be really stressful and tiring, I cover Reception to Year 6, and each year has its own particular needs. KS1 is an age group that few authors cover (we PictureBookDenners are a rare breed) and I often get phone calls from panicked author friends saying 'Help! I have to talk to Reception - what do I say?' Here are some tips for the picture book age group.

1. Timing
4 year olds do not sit still for long. 30-40 minutes is about right. 

2. Size
Large groups can be intimidating for small children. It's better to do multiple sessions repeated in each Reception class, rather than put all the year group together into a hall.

3. Technology
Put the book up on the interactive whiteboard so that all the children can see the illustrations clearly. If you read from your lap the kids will jostle and wriggle to get a closer view.

4. Make your session interactive
Ask questions, do noises and silly voices, ask children to bark like a dog or cackle like a witch. The more they are involved the more they'll listen.

5. Dress up
Kids love outfits, wigs and costumes.

Fairytale Hairdresser skirt
Fairytale Hairdresser hair

6. Bring props
This age group is very tactile. They love to hold things. Bring soft toys or objects that go with your book.
Bottles for Magic Potions Shop
Rapunzel hair to try on

Dolls waiting to have their hair done
7. Show them your mistakes
I bring my sketchbooks and notebooks and show children how messy I am and how many times I need to re-write until I get it right.

8. Tell them about you
Kids love to hear about where you live and work

My writing hut
9. Get them creating
This age group is old enough to plot very simple stories.
I show them a scrapbook with animals in and together we invent a story about a character. Pick a photo where an animal is doing something exciting or showing a strong emotion.
The Comedy Wildlife Awards has great pictures you could use.

10. Structure your event
I asked picture book author Alex English ('Yuck! said the Yak') how she organises her infant events. She said:

'I'd suggest splitting your workshops into lots of sections so that there is a variety of activities - listening to stories, getting up and being active, colouring, cutting and sticking, writing a poem together (with you writing on the board). Then you can do as many or as few bits as you can fit in - it can be very hard to judge how long things will take them or how quickly they will start to get bored!'

11. 'Questions'
The questions from this age group are not really questions. They are more of a chat. One little boy put his hand up to tell me 'I had pineapple for breakfast'. This is the kind of interaction you should expect. It's VERY cute and I love having little chats with all the kids.

12. What can illustrators do?
Hannah Shaw ('Bear on a Bike') advises:

I do live-drawing, and I make my talk much more about the illustration side. I prepare rhymes, riddles and jokes, as well as a 'making' or drawing thing linked to the book. The children love any kind of craft activity and I often give them a fun worksheet for them to colour in or add to.’

13. Relax and enjoy it
I love this age group! They are always so excited and enthusiastic. My main problem is gently peeling them off me when they've been cuddling me for a bit too long.

Please add your tips below - I'd love to hear how you cope.

Abie's latest book is The Fairytale Hairdresser and Aladdin - out on 9th March!


Michelle Robinson said...

Good tips, Abie. As predicted, my throat is sore from multiple school visits last week and I have come down with a cold! I think I would recommend clapping to get their attention if they get very noisy (as you know, most schools have a 'secret clap' that teachers use to get them to be quiet and pay attention - you clap a pattern and the kids copy). I'd also say keep a couple of extra ideas or alternative plans up your sleeve. What works for one group might not work for another so it helps to be able to change tack.

Jacob Sager Weinstein said...

Thanks, Abie! That's super-helpful. My first PB comes out next year, and I'm saving this article so I can return to it when it's school visit time.

Jonathan Emmett said...

Some great tips here, Abie. I can't really add anything, just echo what you've said.

All of my infant's "Q&A" sessions used to end up with me chairing a stream of consciousness, 'apropos of nothing' debate, until an infants teacher in one of my Skype sessions prefaced our Q & A by saying to her class "Remember, a question is something you want to find out from someone else". She obviously drilled this into them regularly and we had a proper Q & A. I've been using this phrase in infants sessions ever since with some success.

Lucy Rowland said...

Thanks for this post Abie. I have my first school visit coming up this month so this was great advice. Jonathan, I agree about the question thing. The children I work with still need a lot of support understanding what a question is!

Moira Butterfield said...

Great blog. And I'm lovin' the skirt!

Michelle Robinson said...

Yes, so true! Depending on the group and the mood I sometimes just say, "Does anyone have something they want to know? Or maybe just something they want to tell me?" Because that's usually what they want to do. Last week I had, "I have a pet tarantula," (followed by loads of unsolicited pet stories) and "Do you know Lego Ninjago?" At least that last one was a question.

Unknown said...

So interesting - I've also written about my tips from an unpublished teacher's perspective too! and we seem to have very similar thoughts on questions!!!

Penny Dolan said...

A small thing: whatever your own "everyone hush" sign in is, share & practice it (cheerfully!) with the class before you start on the lively & noisy bit of activity!

Penny Dolan said...

Ooops. Mentioned the above point not in a bossy way but because I can have my next "big story or activity" in mind, and forget to allow for that essential pause when you guide/lead the children's responses into the new thing happening. I love KS1 classes!

Abie Longstaff said...

Yes the 'everyone hush' signal is really important! Some schools use a clapping rhythm the kids have to copy, some do the waggling fingers method (just put up your hand and wiggle your fingers), some ring a little handbell. It's a really good idea to ask the school their method and, as Penny says, to practise it first.

Abie Longstaff said...

Thanks this is really helpful :)

Emma Barnes said...

I do sessions with this age group from time to time, and always enjoy it! I agree, they can make up some great stories. I read a story, and then we invent a new plotline around a very similar theme (yes, with an animal lead). I do read from a book though, rather than using a white board, and I prefer that because it creates a very focused, intimate feel - a little circle with me and the book in the middle. But I am constantly turning the book to show them the pictures - I know the story pretty much by heart so don't need to read the text.

Becca McCallum said...

This is great! I LOVE your fairytale hairdresser outfit and hair :) and the magic potions too. Also kids at question time are adorable with their random comments. I've used the clap method before, as well as '1,2,3 - eyes on me'

Juliet Clare Bell said...

I love their questions. I had 'Is your hair magic?' quite recently, and often 'What's your favourite chocolate?'. I always have a couple of action songs that I know they'll know that I get them to stand up and join in with me on if I see that some of them are slightly flagging. Thanks for the post, Abie.