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Planning an Author Visit? Let Students Run the Show

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When authors visit high schools to discuss their work with students, the same uncomfortable scene often unfolds: The author gives a short presentation, then opens up the conversation for questions and sees hundreds of blank faces staring back at her—crickets from an audience of teenagers.

Last year, our school decided to do a school-wide read (a project where all the students and faculty read the same book) and an accompanying author visit. But we knew we wanted to do more than just have an author come and talk at our students. We wanted our high schoolers to be actively engaged in the assembly.

So instead of the typical model, we asked our Advanced Placement literature seniors to interview the author in a panel discussion in front of the entire school. Participating in the assembly was not only fun for the students, it also engaged them in in-depth research and critical thinking about the book. Here’s how we did it.

Setting Up the Visit

There are many ways to go about setting up an author visit. Sometimes the school already has a book in mind and contacts the author’s representatives; other times authors make themselves available for these types of visits on their websites.

Our school contacted a literary agent who was able to put us in touch with Damian McNicholl, author of The Moment of Truth, a novel about the first female bullfighter in 1950s Mexico. The novel was a perfect fit for our high school—it was accessible to students at different reading levels, had a message about women’s empowerment, and introduced students to a period of history they might not have otherwise had the opportunity to explore.

We purchased copies for the school and the students read the book over the span of a couple of months. Some classes chose to allow students to read the book on their own and discuss it a couple of times in class, while other teachers integrated the book more directly into their curriculum. The AP literature students, after reading and studying the book in great detail, prepared for the panel discussion.

Preparing for the Panel

After reading the novel, students in the AP course completed a writing assignment reflecting on the book’s themes. They then looked at a number of sample interview questions from different media outlets. We studied Diane Sawyer’s interview with Amanda Knox in 2013 and Bob Dylan’s Interview on "60 Minutes" in 2004—both of which had more than a few awkward moments our students said they wanted to avoid in their own interviews.

Examining these questions helped students write their own, avoiding loaded questions and questions that lent themselves to one-word answers. The students also wanted to stay away from questions that were too open-ended or too easy, opting instead to take a hard-hitting look at the larger issues in the books. They were determined that their interview not be a “puff piece.”

We then practiced interviewing each other—at first, as normally and as professionally as possible. The second time, students selected a character trait, such as "has an attitude" or "is overly excited," so they could practice a more challenging interview as well. Students had a lot of fun acting out these personas and appreciated the interview practice.

The Day of the Event

Even after all of that preparation, the students and I were a bit nervous when the day of the interview arrived. My class congregated for a pep talk before the author joined us. I reminded them that after all the hard work they had done, they were more than prepared for this.

Thankfully, when he arrived, McNicholl was friendly and eager to make small talk with the students in the moments before the interview. It really helped ease their minds, and once they were on stage, they were much more relaxed.

The students rotated up to the stage in groups of four to ask their questions on the panel, while I remained on stage to moderate. They asked detailed and intelligent questions like, "Was it difficult writing at a cross section of race and gender?” and, "How much research went into creating this character who is both an example of political ideas and historical periods?"

The students were even willing to challenge the author. Some students believed a certain scene was somewhat sexist, and when they asked the author about this, a healthy discussion ensued.

After about 45 minutes, when the students completed their interview and discussion, the author said a few words about his inspiration for the novel and his writing process. He also read a short excerpt from his book.

The floor was then open for questions from the audience. From the thoughtful questions the students in the audience asked, it was clear that the panel discussion had allowed them to further engage with the novel. We had to stop the Q&A for time constraints, to the sound of a collective groan from the auditorium.

Expanding Opportunity for Author Visits

Having the opportunity to get inside an author’s head and learn about his writing inspiration is a unique gift. Even though only one class participated in the panel interview, the whole school benefited from hearing the conversation—and many students in the audience were inspired to engage further and ask their own questions.

For the students on the panel, learning how to conduct an interview was great research experience. Preparing for the event helped the AP English students think about how to ask good questions, and the process also gave students the chance to consider the hard work journalists and researchers engage in before and during an interview.

Though our school did this project with a novel, an author visit would work just as well with an article or book in a science class, or a non-fiction text in social studies.

Access to technology also means that an author doesn’t necessarily have to be in the same auditorium with a group to engage in live discussion. She could participate in a panel discussion or interview via Skype or a similar platform.

Some teachers might wonder, “Will an author actually want to come and talk to my students?” But just as our school experienced, many writers are happy to engage the public. These projects allow authors to share their work with a wider audience. And many times, it is simply an author’s passion for their work that touches a student and inspires them to keep reading.

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