Lessons From Elementary School Career Day, 2018 Edition

Two weeks ago, I wrote about what went right and wrong with my son’s elementary school career day last year. After participating again this year–this time with a shiny new PowerPoint, plus actual cover art and interior illustrations to show off!–I have a whole new set of lessons.

Short version: PowerPoint good. Emergency backup plan for PowerPoint even better.

Long version:

Have a PowerPoint (or something similar) if you don’t have cool props. Mine wasn’t anything fancy, but just giving the kids something to look at was a big improvement. It helped that because I was talking to elementary school kids, I could use goofy clipart without worrying that someone would roll their eyes. It also helped that, as a picture book author, I was talking about a book with inherent visual interest. I could show an illustration with the original text, talk about how the text and illustration didn’t quite match (the poem referenced “skeletons” and the illustration showed a single skeleton), and solicit opinions on how to fix it (get the poor illustrator to completely redo the illustration . . . or just lop the “s” off “skeletons”). The kids loved that. A chapter book would have been harder.

Sidebar on the goofy clipart: Open Clipart Library is way too white. This school is only about 10% white and I wanted my presentation to reflect that, but “child reading” got me a whole lot of white kids. (“Reading” got me eight zillion white people, a few African-American adults, and one little brown-skinned girl who looked like she was being forced to read against her will.) If you want to contribute to OCAL, take note.

Woman with light brown skin reading book

She’s racially ambiguous, could pass for a teenager, and seems to be enjoying herself, so she’s in! (Credit: Open Clip Art Library)

But have a backup plan. Some of the classrooms had computers hooked up to projectors. Others had computers with an overhead projector haphazardly focused on them, so the kids could kind of-sort of-see a grainy image of the PowerPoint on the screen. Others had nothing. Practice a version of your presentation that doesn’t involve the PowerPoint (instead of showing the illustration, I could say “And he only drew one skeleton! How could we fix it?”), and bring a printout to remind yourself of your talking points if you don’t have a screen to look at.

And keep bringing props. My week was a Lovecraftian dive into madness, so I didn’t have time to handpick book props like I did last year. Next time, I’m making that a priority, because the kids do like having something tangible to look at. In the first-grade classrooms, they had free-reading baskets on the table and I could ask them to grab a book and check the spine for the publisher’s name. In the fifth-grade classrooms, I didn’t have that option, and I wished that I had a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone or Mummies in the Morning handy so I could show them the spine myself. (Of course, next year I’ll have a copy of my own book to bring, which will help.)

The kids have a TON of questions. When you’re presenting to adults or teenagers, you can ask them to hold questions until the end. That isn’t the case when you’re presenting to first-graders or even to fourth-graders, because they’ll lose interest if they don’t feel recognized. None of the kids seemed to mind if I answered with something like “that’s a great question, and we’ll get to it in a minute,” but I had to at least acknowledge their questions as they happened. There was one fifth-grade class where the teacher gave the kids a worksheet with questions about each presentation so the teacher would know they had been paying attention, and if I hadn’t answered those kids’ questions, some nervous little Ravenclaw would have been afraid of flunking because my presentation never mentioned how long it took me to become an author or something.

Children in classroom excitedly raising hands

Remember being that excited about having a question in class? (Image via Flickr)

It’s not just the early readers who are fascinated by the publishing process. This year, I mostly had older kids, and none of them had given any thought to how a book goes from being a file on your computer to being a bound volume that you could buy at Amazon or Books-a-Million. Last year, my one fourth-grade class was more interested in hearing about how hard it was to get published than in hearing about how a rough draft becomes a book. This year, they were all interested in it. It probably helped that I included a little mini-lesson about illustrations and storyboards, so the artistically-inclined kids were fascinated. (Thank you, Shawna JC Tenney, for putting so much of your process on your website. And yes, I credited the heck out of you in my presentation.)

Illustrations give you a ton of activity possibilities. I prepared for an activity this year, but didn’t have time to get to it because there was so much to talk about. I’m going to include it here for other authors who need a career day activity, though.

I put the text of “Sing a Song of Sixpence” on the last slide of my PowerPoint (it seemed appropriate, since Mother Ghost is a sendup of nursery rhymes). My plan was to ask the kids to sketch some concept art of the characters. Do the blackbirds look angry that they were in the pie, or excited to be free? How big are they? Is the king happily counting huge piles of money, or is he grumpy because there isn’t as much money there as he thought? Is the queen eating an enormous plate of bread and honey or nibbling on a tiny snack? Do you want the maid to look mean so we don’t feel sorry for her when the blackbirds peck her nose, or is she a nice lady minding her own business?

If there was still time after that (ha!), I made a printout of a storyboard so the kids could plan the layout of their illustrations.

Word file with an image of a four-by-two table. A dotted line separates the two columns.

Four-by-two table in Word with a dotted line separating the columns. Easy-peasy.

I wish the presentation had been a little shorter so I could have seen what they did. Maybe next year I’ll pare things down a bit.

Wear layers. Remember how when you were in school, the math wing was subtropical and the social studies wing was a few degrees cooler than the Ninth Circle of Hell? School HVACs haven’t changed a bit. It was in the fifties on Career Day and I was sweating in short sleeves half the time. I’m just glad my favorite long-sleeved shirt was in the wash, because they would have been mopping me off the floor otherwise.

Once again, Career Day was a lot of fun. I’m glad I did it and I’m hoping to do it again next year (although the arrival of The Pumpkin might make things more difficult). And as always, if you have any Career Day tips that have worked for you, I’d love to hear them!

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Lessons From Elementary School Career Day, 2017 Edition

I’m still up to my eyeballs in getting this site back where it was, getting a PowerPoint ready for career day at my son’s school, preparing for my sister-in-law’s wedding, and–oh, yeah!–doing the last round of revisions on the novel. Since I have to repost all my Weebly blog entries individually (sigh), here’s my post about last year’s career day. Next week I’ll have some shiny new 2018 insights to add.

And, as always, if you can think of anything I’m missing, let me know before I go in to do it again on Friday!

My son’s elementary school held its career day last month, and because I actually have a forthcoming book to talk about–and one that kids will be allowed to read!–I signed up as a presenter. I knew that I wanted to be an author as far back as second grade, and I would have killed to have an author presenting at career day.

Unfortunately, authors are at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to adding razzle-dazzle to our presentations. One of the presenters was a police officer who could show the kids his car; another was an architect who had the kids build bridges out of straws and marshmallows. (I consistently followed the architect, and it’s a testament to the teachers’ classroom management skills that the kids weren’t building bridges during my entire presentation.) Maybe I was looking in the wrong places, but I couldn’t find many career day tips for writers online, either.

Little girl gazing in awe at a fire truck

That fire truck is cool and all, but let’s talk about how to approach an agent! Right, kids? Right? (Image via Wikimedia commons)

Well, starting today, there’s going to be one more page with writer career day tips! Here are a few things that went right with my presentation, as well as a few things I wish I’d done differently. I also noticed some trends in what kids of different ages found interesting; while this was a pretty limited sample size, it may ring true in other schools. If you ever had a career day presentation as an author (or any other job that doesn’t lend itself well to visual aids and props), chime in with what worked for you!

The kids liked an interactive style. I peppered my presentation with a lot of back and forth: “What might be hard about not having a boss? What do you think is the main thing I do during my work day? How do you think we go from this [holds up pile of printed papers] to this [holds up book]?” I was a little worried that this would lead to a free-for-all–I remember times from my teaching days when I would ask a question that the kids liked, and ten minutes later they’d still be yelling out answers to that question–but here, it worked. No one did yell out answers to a very old question, and even if they had, it would have been a good gauge of what they found the most interesting.

(Side note: I told them the main thing I do during my work day was writing. The correct answer is more like “wasting time on the Internet,” but that’s neither here nor there.)

Any props are better than no props. Mother Ghost isn’t out yet, and my physically printed short stories are either inappropriate for little ones or featured side-by-side with stories that are inappropriate for little ones, so I didn’t want to bring in any of my magazines as visual aids. I brought in a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to talk about the publishing process (“Then J.K. Rowling sent it to a company called Scholastic–see, you can see ‘Scholastic’ on the spine!”), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to talk about why it takes so long for some books to get published (“This must have taken a long time to write, revise, and edit!”), and Mummies in the Morning to talk about research (“What did Mary Pope Osborne need to research for this book?”). I wish that I’d had more props, although I don’t know what they would have been, but even those three props were a far cry better than nothing.

Harry Potter book covers

No, excited second-graders, these are just props. I only wish I wrote them. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Very young kids need lots of activities. My presentation was pretty talk-heavy, because again, I wasn’t sure what else to do. It worked well with the fourth-graders and second-graders. Predictably, it didn’t go over so well with the first-graders and kindergarteners (I wasn’t scheduled to present for third or fifth grade). The kindergarteners in particular were about to start vibrating into another dimension, although that was partly because I was the last presenter before recess.

Next time, I’m going to try to find some kind of activity that I can do for all the kids, but especially for the little guys. One possibility is to give them a writing prompt; another possibility is to give them a sample of the text of a picture book with no illustrations, then having them make their own illustrations as an example of storyboarding and making dummies. If any other career day veterans have suggestions, though, I’d love to hear them. My teaching experience is with middle school, so this age group is outside my comfort zone.

Early readers are fascinated by the publishing process. I had more second-grade presentations than any other, and they were all fascinated by the question of how a book goes from a file on the author’s computer to a printed, bound, and illustrated volume on a bookshelf. It was pretty clear that they’d never thought of that before, and realizing that someone actually has to make that book was pretty mind-blowing. Nearly all of their questions were about the publishing process–who actually binds the book, how does the book get illustrated, how long does it take, etc. I even had a question about typesetting from an eagle-eyed kid who noticed that the font in Harry Potter is different from the font in Magic Tree House.

Older kids want to hear about your failures. I only presented to one class older than second grade, so again, the sample size was tiny–but the fourth-graders really wanted to hear about my failures and frustrations. Some of them had started to think seriously about being authors themselves, and they wanted to know that their first rejection letter wouldn’t be the kiss of death. They wanted to know if I ever got rejected, how long I had to try before I got published, whether I ever got frustrated as a writer–all of those things that could reassure them that, yes, they have a shot even if they aren’t Stephen King right out of the gate.

I am so using PowerPoint next time. The presentation was fine for the second-graders and up, but giving the younger kids something to look at would have been really helpful for them. I like Shawna JC Tenney’s page on making a picture book dummy as a possible visual aid. I may not be an illustrator, but showing illustrations to younger kids will be a heck of a lot more engaging than showing them my rough draft paragraphs, my final draft paragraphs, and my paragraphs after a professional editor got hold of them–although the fourth-graders would have eaten that up with a spoon.

Overall, Career Day was an absolute blast, and I’m definitely going again next year. Has anyone else had experience with Career Day presentations to younger kids? What worked for you?

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Hello! I’ve moved!

Various web hosting issues with both Weebly and HostGator have forced me to remake my website from the ground up.

The short version: Weebly essentially forces you to sign a contract with them in blood, so all of my old Weebly content has vanished into the ether.

The longer version: HostGator stopped supporting Weebly without warning, and Weebly is so proprietary that they wouldn’t let me transfer my content over to another sitebuilder. I assumed that my options were a) find a new host that still supported Weebly in order to access my old Weebly content, or b) rebuild my site from scratch on one of HostGator’s other tools. I was too irritated at HostGator to stay with them–I’d actually been thinking about switching to WordPress for a while and would gladly have copy-pasted my content over to a Gator-hosted WordPress page if HostGator had given me a month or so to prepare. They didn’t, and I don’t know when they’re going to pull something like that again, so adieu, HostGator.

It turns out, however, that Weebly won’t even let you transfer your content over to a new Weebly page. Even if the domain is the same. I could keep my website frozen in amber for all eternity, but if I wanted to update the poor girl, I needed to rebuild her from scratch. Thanks for nothing, Weebly, and adieu to you as well

So! Please pardon my dust as I work on getting this shiny new non-HostGator, non-Weebly page up to snuff. I will put my old blog posts back up on this blog–I worked hard on those and am proud of them. I’ll also get the contact form back, put up the previews for my short stories, and all that other good stuff. But it’s going to take some time, so please be patient.

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