Sunday, October 19, 2008

Teach Your Children Well

Recently, I was asked to speak at three different high schools in my area. After confirming that it was really me they wanted - and not the Rosemary Harris who appears in the Spiderman movies - I said, of course, and proceeded to think nothing more about it. How hard could it be to speak to a bunch of 15 year-olds?

The only other time I've prepared this extensively for a talk was my lecture at the Philadelphia Flower Show. I agonized over that. I had over 300 pictures on a powerpoint presentation. I worked on it for months and rehearsed with my husband a dozen times usually ending with me yelling at him for something I screwed up. In the end the presentation went well and they've asked me back, but it could just be that I was the only person there who wasn't talking to them about cow manure or slugs. (Actually, I had some funny slug stories..)

But this is different. These are kids. Granted half of them will be on their phones, or sleeping or listening to their ipods, but some of them might actually be hoping to become writers. I'm planning to give them the Cliff's Notes version of what the publishing business is like, but I feel I should do more to, dare I say it, inspire.
You gals have been in this business longer (and most of you have kids...I don't.) Any tips?

HALLIE: Be afraid, be very afraid. Seriously. The only speaking gig that has ever left me quaking in my boots is talking at a high school. It's better if you're addressing a classroom full (as opposed to an auditorium full)...but chain the teacher to her chair, DO NOT let her leave the room.
Katherine Hall Page does this all the time and she's wonderful at it...we should ask her what's the secret.

JAN: Be funny, be very, very funny. Be loud enough to carry over the cell phone conversations and keep it as brief as possible. Honest, though, I really enjoy talking to kids, and think the key is to speak from the heart and engage them with something participatory. In a smaller class setting, I used do a thing where I'd illustrate how a story works by making them choose the protaganist, the goal and the obstacles. Sometimes it was hysterical. In a larger setting, you might just let them choose one or two elements from a pre-set list. Good luck, you'll be terrific.

ROBERTA: I talk to 5th and 6th grade classes every year, first describing how a book gets made (with tons of props), and then having them work on their own idea for a mystery using a worksheet. When Lori Avocato and I went to Homer, Alaska, we used the same ideas with two high schools. It went better than expected. Jan is right--speak from the heart and loudly. Hallie's right, keep the teacher in the room with you. My very worst experience was the day there was a sub in a class that was troubled anyway. We lost any semblance of control and I spent an hour shouting over the din! I always leave a day of teaching thinking that school teachers are truly saints.

HANK: Oh, Roberta, I love the idea for having then work on a mystery. You know, too, they all love movies. Wonder if you could bring up some mystery/thrillers they know of and use them as illustrations about "story" and the importance of a story. Of start with half a sentence, the old: "It was a dark and stormy night, or better: Tiff and Melissa knew they shouldn't climb out the window, but... And see if they have ideas on how to make it a story. Could there be a mystery just in text messages?
I would do something very very organized and structured, so the kids know what to expect. Like 'the top ten' of something. Or a quiz.
And some of them, even many of them, will be terrific. It'll be fun to watch them connect with you. When the light goes on in a teenager's eyes--there's nothing more fulfilling.

RO: LOL..well I had my debut and not only did the light NOT go on in any of their eyes, I'm pretty sure one of them WAS fast asleep. And another spent the whole hour drawing.
I didn't really expect them to know Elmore Leonard, but shouldn't they have recognized Hemingway? I tried dropping names...Project Runway (which I only know about from you guys!) Brett Favre, Sarah Palin..humor...text wasn't horrible but I'm convinced they only came for the cupcakes, which they inhaled at the end of my talk.
At least they weren't as bad as the kids in the old Glenn Ford movie..where they terrorize Anne Francis and break poor Richard Kiley's records. Anyone remember who played the leader of the bad kids? The good kid? The kid with the coke-bottle glasses?
**check back on Wednesday to hear how my NY DL lunch went. No one fell asleep!


  1. Speaking in front of a group of high school kids doesn't faze me, after all I was a high school teacher for 27 years. HA! I have the worse case of panic attacks imaginable when I'm scheduled to appear in front of teenagers. However, I soon recover as soon as I go into teacher mode.

    I enjoy this blog, and wish I could figure out how to follow it.


  2. Ah Vivian. We're working on it..we are so delighted you want to follow us!

    Watch this space!

  3. One way to follow it, Vivian, is to bookmark it (or add it to your Favorites list if you're in IE) and then just go there every day. That's what I do, and it's like a little present to myself to find a new topic or new comments. A great break during my work day!


  4. OH, you are too lovely. Thank you! Talk about a little present--that's what it's like for us to come here and find you both!

    Hallie is looking in to rss feeds now...and I'm sure we can figure that out!

  5. RSS defeats me, as well.

    As to the giant font problem in the earlier post here at Jungle Red, have you tried editing in "Edit HTML" mode (as opposed to "Compose" mode)? You will probably find some messy font coding has made its way in there.

    As to the kids: I mentioned Agatha Christie to a young man (early twenties) the other day, and he had no idea who she was.

  6. Oh, yeah, Gin, messy font coding. Sure. (Huh?)

    (Actually, I did go in an tweak the HTML on another blog, and it was fun that I could get it to work. And even more fun to say so.) But I know nothing about this...

    ANd oh--shall we make a list of the "no idea" names? I'll submit--Timonthy Leary. A co-worker. NO IDEA.