Recently, author Elizabeth Van Steenwyk, who usually talks to intermediate audiences, asked me for advice:
“I’ve got a school visit scheduled in October . . . I’ll be speaking to fifth graders, but that’s not what has me worried. The principal wants me to talk to first and second graders as well . . . What do you suggest? Sing? Dance? My tap shoes are rusty.”
Among her many books, I discovered that has two book starring dogs – and one is a nonfiction picture book, First Dog Fala, published by Peachtree in 2008. Fala, a Scottish terrier, was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s loyal dog. Perfect! Kids love animals and can really relate to stories about pets.
This is what we came up with in our brainstorming session:
Length of presentation: 30 minutes. (She could ask for 40 minutes and will have 30 minutes by the time the kids file in and get settled.)
Focus: Showing the difference between a real story (nonfiction) and a made-up story (fiction).
Sub-focus: How an author finds facts and puts them together to make an interesting book for readers.
Big-Picture Audience Take-Away: The sheer joy of learning more about a subject that you love – in this case, dogs!
Making it 3-D: By presenting material on both the visual and auditory level, Elizabeth will reach more kids (and adults, too) and have more fun in the process. Here are some image possibilities she can use as props and in her PowerPoint show (some of this will require contacting the school ahead of time, but the pay-off will be terrific)
- Table props:
- Stuffed animals, the author’s books
- As kids file in, play a series of songs that feature dogs
- Famous dogs (of presidents, stars, heroes, or heroic dogs, etc.)
- Illustrator’s dog (now and “back then”)
- Author with her dog or dogs (especially on when author was a kid)
- Images from the books including the covers (of course)
- Historic photos used in research
- Sketches from illustrator(s) with perhaps reference photos that they used.
- Dogs of the school’s employees such as the principal, teachers, librarian, custodian, lunch ladies, etc. These can be clicked through fairly fast or even put to music. The kids will love this! Even if she includes just two or three photos, it will “humanize” the folks at the school for the kids and give conversation starters for a long time to come.
- Before the author visit
- Ask the teachers or librarian to read the books aloud that will be featured in the assembly.
- Encourage the teachers to have kids share stories, draw pictures or share photos of their own dogs (or a dog they know if they don’t have one as a pet) and perhaps make a booklet or a bulletin board display.
- For class discussion, send clips related to President Obama’s family’s quest to find a pet dog.
- After the author visit
- Invite kids to write letters to Elizabeth, telling about their favorite part of the assembly, what tips they learned, or share a story about one of their pets. This kind of authentic writing experience is priceless – and gives kids practice in writing friendly letters.
- Leave behind a bibliography of picture books – both nonfiction and fiction – that feature dogs.
These are just a few of the many ways that Elizabeth – or any author for that matter — can make this a great experience for first and second graders. She still has some shaping to do to find her assembly “story arc,” but the visuals can guide her.
If you have other suggestions, I’d love to hear them! After all, our presentations are always a work-in-progress – right?!
BIO NOTE: In addition to First Dog Fala, Elizabeth Van Steenwyk is the author of Three Dog Winter, a middle grade novel, countless short stories and two Los Angeles Times stories about dogs, and over 70 books for children. Two of her books were made into films: The Best Horse and Three Dog Winter.