For the most part authors are invited into schools to complement this work, but this does not mean that you need to have specific knowledge of the school’s English programs and/or your state’s specific requirements. Authors are usually called upon to enthuse students with knowledge of aspects of literature, promote a love of reading and provide insights into the writing process — all of which falls within the gambit of the values, attitudes, knowledge, skills and understandings that primary students need to develop.
In schools today, teaching English in the Australian Curriculum: English means a focus on the language of the text, with class discussion about how the language constructs the meaning in the text. With literary texts this can mean attention to i) the written style or styles in your work, ii) any special language ‘effects’ you have introduced, and iii) any ‘special’ vocabulary (just three of the possible examples). The effect of language choices made by the author is part of class discussion. This focus is extended to the visual language of illustrations, with teachers required to draw attention to how the images have been constructed and why the illustrator may have made those decisions as well as the relationship between the visual and verbal texts.
Literature is the central strand of the curriculum and requires the study of a range of literary texts, both prose and poetry, in print and digital form. Students’ enjoyment and appreciation are at the core of the study. An understanding of the literary genres you used, or combinations of genres, appreciation of literary elements in your work — such as setting, characterisation, plot sequence, mood, and any use of symbolism, could be useful to teachers. Teachers also need to develop recognition of poetic forms and techniques.
Literacy is seen as an integral part of the English curriculum, as students learn how to read and write a range of texts and develop more sophisticated understandings of texts. With literary texts, creative writing is a key link between your work and children’s creative narrative and poetic writing. For authors/illustrators, this can mean that aspects of how you created your work — how setting was developed, or the plot, or characterisation, for example, can provide models for students to create their own imaginative writing.
The introduction in 2008 of the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), included narrative writing, which raised the profile of students’ creative writing, within a narrative structure. More recently, persuasive writing has been a focus, which requires writing that is effective in its ability to persuade, within the structure of an exposition. Whatever future writing demands are made by NAPLAN, teachers and students will always need ideas about how to make writing clear, interesting and aware of its audience, just as your work with literary writing does.
Libby Gleeson makes a pertinent observation about teaching narrative writing: ‘Writing narrative is different to and more complex than writing in any other genre. A class writing procedures, reports, recounts, descriptions and explanations will produce many examples that are almost identical. A class writing narrative … will produce many different stories’ (Writing like a writer, page 9).
This observation has significant implications for the role of authors in teaching this process. Narrative has the least number of rules and is the one that many teachers are not confident in teaching. Authors need to remember that they have unique skills and the writing of their narratives is, of course, usually the basis of their invitation to present in schools. Narrative writing is a genre that many teachers are not comfortable with, and authors can assist teachers and students gain firsthand knowledge as well as confidence.
How schools work
Primary schools vary according to size, location, jurisdiction, funding, priorities, background of students and learning culture of the school. There are, however, enough similarities to make some observations that may assist authors who are not familiar with current school practices.
The responsibilities of primary principals are numerous and include leadership, policy, community liaison, educational and administrative duties. Schools in large metropolitan communities and regional centres will have a non-teaching principal with one or more assistant principals (AP) on staff. In smaller schools, especially in rural communities, the principal also has a teaching role. The principal is responsible for ensuring a safe school environment for all students and staff. This includes ensuring that the relevant child protection policies are followed. In some states this means authors must be ‘registered’ and/or have undergone police checks before they can go into schools. See Protection of children and young people below.
The majority of author visits to schools are organised by the teacher-librarian. The percentage of schools employing a qualified teacher-librarian varies from state to state, as do the number of hours allocated to the library. Many teacher-librarians are part-time with some working as little as one or two days a week. Ideally they work collaboratively with classroom teachers but in some schools the library lesson is treated as release from face-to-face (RFF) for the classroom teacher and the teacher-librarian takes the class alone.
Many teacher-librarians are members of professional library networks. These provide invaluable professional support and a forum to discuss issues, concerns and share information, including feedback on author visits they’ve organised. These networks, especially in more remote districts, are often the actual organisers of author tours, with a number of schools participating over a few days.
OZTL_NET is an active online community of mainly teacher-librarians.
Again the role of the classroom teacher varies from school to school. What does not vary is the expectation that the classroom teacher will be responsible for the detailed planning and delivery of curriculum and, usually, compulsory co-curricula activities such as regular physical education and weekly sport. Classroom teachers are also the first level of support for pupil welfare needs.
Many schools employ full-time or part-time teachers in a specialist or curriculum support role. Some of these roles are in computers or technology support, Reading Recovery, gifted and talented education, welfare, support for children with a disability, sport and creative arts.
The ancillary staffing in a primary school also varies greatly from school to school and system to system. The responsibilities of these staff range from grounds maintenance to technology support and, most importantly, administration, which, in government schools especially, usually means a role in the school financial procedures.
Duty of care
Teachers remain in the room
A teacher must always be present while the author is working with students. They are the ones who are responsible for duty of care for their students. The exception to this may be if you are a writer-in-residence over a longer period of time or conducting a writing camp. In this case you may be asked to complete forms associated with Child Protection legislation and undergo a police check.
See Protection of children and young people below. Teachers are also there to support you in the case of difficult classroom management issues.
Authors and illustrators report that the most successful workshops and talks are those in which teachers/librarians participate enthusiastically and later follow up on what has been said. A teacher who joins in and asks questions is an asset to a session, as long as the student focus is maintained.
Authors also report that the least satisfying sessions are ones where the teacher sits at the back of the room and marks books, or a group of teachers chat. Authors handle these situations in various ways — either by ignoring them, trying to involve the teachers in some way or asking them to chat outside the room.
Protection of children and young people
All principals are bound by government policy to ensure that there is no danger to any child in a school from staff, visitors and volunteers. Procedures differ from state to state.
In NSW a new Working With Children Check is being phased in over five years. However, the Commission for Children and Young People’s website states that you only need one if you ‘have direct unsupervised contact with children’. This means authors should not require a check as a qualified teacher should always be present when you are with students. Read more about NSW requirements.
In Queensland, authors require a Blue card, which is issued by the Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian once it has carried out the Working with Children Check. More details of QLD requirements.
In Victoria, the Department of Justice takes a similar position as NSW. If the work is unsupervised, a Working With Children Check is necessary. Read more about Victorian requirements.
In Western Australia, rules are slightly different and authors should investigate applying for a Working With Children Check card. The Working with Children Check is a compulsory criminal check for many people who work with children under the age of 18 in WA. It is administered by the Working with Children Screening Unit, Department for Child Protection.
Under new rules in the ACT, people who work with children and vulnerable adults must register with a Statutory Screening Unit. Under the Working with Vulnerable People (Background Checking) Bill 2010 it is expected that all employees and volunteers who provide regulated services to children will be checked. Read more about ACT requirements.
In the NT it is mandatory for people who have contact or potential contact with children in certain specified areas of employment to hold a Working with Children Clearance Notice.
In South Australia, under the Children's Protection Act (Section 8B) people who work in jobs which require regular contact with children are required to obtain police clearance before they commence employment. A National Police Certificate application form is available from the South Australian Police Department.
Currently there are no legal requirements for people working with children to undertake a police check in Tasmania, however, organisations which require employees and/or volunteers to work with children may have their own policies in this regard.
The care for kids website also keeps a list of working with children checks in states and territories.
The operating budgets of primary schools are financed through government recurrent grants, occasional targeted grants, school fees or bequests. Obviously there is a huge disparity between the finances of large private schools and the smallest government or Catholic systemic schools.
Most government and Catholic systemic schools have limited funds for author visits so costs must be passed on to students. Author visits are just one of the extras parents are asked to fund so schools must prioritise what they are prepared to ask parents to pay for.
Schools are constantly on the lookout for grants to provide quality experiences for their students at minimum extra cost to parents. Disadvantaged schools may be eligible for special funding that can be used for author visits; likewise special funding may be available for Gifted and Talented programs. Schools will sometimes join together to apply for a grant, with the author visiting a number of schools in the area. In NSW, the Children’s Book Council of Australia has a grants program called CBC2U to assist schools in funding author visits.
Payment of authors
Some schools are surprised that authors expect to be paid for their time. (They think selling books will be sufficient payment). Be sure to agree on payment before the visit. The author (or representative) must supply a tax invoice to the school. If payment is required on the day of the visit, invoice well in advance.
See the section in this guide The business of visiting schools.
Literary events in a primary school calendar
While authors can and should be invited to schools at any time during the school year, there are a few special events and celebration periods when these invitations are generally concentrated. Three examples are:
Children’s Book Week
Schools across Australia observe this celebration annually in August. During this week, the winning titles from the shortlist in the various categories of the Australian Children’s Book Council Awards are announced.
There are a number of official functions, organised by the Children’s Book Council at a state and national level, to honour the award-winning authors and Australian children’s literature in general. Many CBC branches arrange Book Week lunches and other events for schools, to which they invite authors and illustrators. While authors and illustrators usually attend these events in a voluntary capacity, they can lead to paid engagements.
Further information about shortlisted books and the events planned for this week can be found at the CBCA website.
National Literacy and Numeracy Week
Promoted by the Commonwealth Government, this week is usually celebrated in Term 3 and focuses on the efforts of all Australian schools to support the literacy and numeracy development of their students. All schools and districts are invited to publicise a program of events scheduled for the week. Learn more.
Education Week and Catholic Education Week are annual celebrations, held in most states although at varying times of year. This is another opportunity for schools to promote themselves to the wider community, who are invited to visit for special events and observe the success of their teaching and learning programs. Author visits certainly fit into the spirit of this week. For further information check out the websites of the various state and Catholic education departments.
What do schools expect?
Authors should arrive early and well prepared for their scheduled presentations. A minimum of at least 30 minutes before the official starting time is recommended. This means that visitors should leave themselves enough time to locate schools, if they are in unfamiliar districts, and, in the case of many metropolitan schools, ensure they are well aware of any parking restrictions that may cause delay. Many schools do not have a street number so be sure to ask for the closest cross street and if there is parking available in the grounds. Always have a contact number and mobile phone with you in case you are unexpectedly delayed.
Schools expect you to have prepared a presentation for students. It is not good enough to just read an extract from your book and call for questions. Discuss with the organiser what they’d like to get out of the session. Find out about the students (grade, ability level, background), as this will help you pitch the content at the right level and capture and maintain their interest. While this is true, never, underestimate children. They can be delightfully surprising and kids who may not ‘traditionally’ do well in school, can shine during a stimulating and exciting author talk
School visitor protocols
When authors arrive at a school they should report to the office, and, if appropriate, make themselves known to the principal or their representative. It is an important protocol to register in the office as a visitor. Many schools also require that a school visitor badge or name tag be worn for the period of the visit.
Mind your language
It is crucial that language used in a presentation to school students be appropriate to their age and maturity. Attention to this is even more crucial now, as in many schools guidelines exist where principals are bound to monitor and report any inappropriate or offensive language or behaviours that are used when addressing students.
While all government schools are bound by the policy for the Protection of Young People, some non-government religious schools have even more rigorous expectations of the language used by anyone presenting in these schools.
Some authors will need to adapt their language to a school situation. Swearing or blaspheming is not appropriate in the classroom. You may hear this in the staffroom or even in the playground but it is not to be used in the classroom. Be careful about any exclamations you may use when surprised or if something goes wrong.
Talks for all classes
It is not unusual for the organiser to request presentations for all classes from Foundation to Year 6. For most authors this is a challenge. If it is a requirement, then it is better if sessions for the F–2 students are limited to 20 or so minutes. Alternatively, suggest that you attend a school assembly where you can meet all the students for a brief introduction to your work and everyone gets the chance to ‘meet the visiting author’. Some smaller schools, however, particularly in country or remote areas, are used to assemblies where all the students are involved, so a longer session may not be a problem.
Messages teachers like kids to hear:
- Ideas come from everywhere
- Don’t give up on your writing
- You need to edit and re-edit your work
- Sharing your work with others is a great way to improve your writing
- Reading is an essential to create the best creative writing.
On this last point, Libby Gleeson provides excellent advice:
‘To anyone who wants to improve their writing: read read read and write write write. In the context of teaching young students I vary that to read, talk, draw and write. And then I add, be ready and willing to share your work.’ In 2007 Writing Like A Writer, page 8.
What should an author or illustrator expect from a school?
Key people are aware of the visit
Your contact person has hopefully communicated with all staff, or at least the school executive and key personnel, so that they are aware of who you are and the intended schedule and associated details of your visit.
Schools will be welcoming
Schools will be well sign-posted, and, ideally, you will be met and welcomed by the organiser or a school representative. If you’re at the same school for a number of sessions, adequate breaks must be built into the program. This will generally include morning tea, when staffroom etiquette (for example, which cups are for visitors) will be explained by the host. Many schools arrange special morning teas so other staff members have the chance to meet you.
If you are at the school all day, you need to check on the arrangements for meals prior to your visit. Lunch may be arranged for you but not always.
Students will be prepared
The most satisfying author visits are those where the students and teachers have been well prepared for the visit. The students have read, or had read to them, some of your books and they have engaged in some discussion about them. They may have visited your website and even brainstormed some questions to ask. Unfortunately, this does not always happen so you may need to start from scratch.
Author’s publications will be available
School librarians will generally purchase books by the author and promote them to the students. It is worth checking which of your titles they have so you can mention them in your presentation and perhaps promote interest in another title by reading an extract from it. Ideally, especially in regional centres and smaller towns, the local bookseller should be advised of the planned visit so they have your books in stock or may even arrange to sell them at the school on the day of the visit.
Programs and itineraries remain unchanged once negotiated
The author and organiser need to agree on the number and length of sessions. Author talks for upper primary are generally 45–60 minutes, middle primary 30–40 minutes and younger students 20–30 minutes. Writing workshops require a minimum of 60 minutes.
See the section of this guide on Being a presenter for more information.
Ideally the agreed program will not be changed after the details have been finalised. Any changes should be made known to the author as soon as possible.
It is not unusual for authors to be asked at the last minute to judge a Book Week parade, have more students in the group than originally agreed or fit in an extra session. Most authors try to be flexible with the first two requests, but fitting in an extra session is often asking too much.
If travel is required between schools, the organiser should ensure that is provided for the authors, and if the distance is substantial, that the day’s sessions are organised so that there is sufficient time to relax before the start of each session.
Payment for services
Always discuss with the organiser what work is required, what the payment will be and whether you will be paid on the day or after the visit. You (or your representative) will need to provide the school with a tax invoice. (See the section of this guide on The business of visiting schools for information on tax invoices.)
Communications prior to the visit
Authors who are arranging their own school visits to schools should ensure they have at least three ‘conversations’ with the organiser of the visit: the first one when the original booking is made, the second one to confirm the program and any special requirements, and the third one a few days before the visit to confirm that everything is in place. If special provisions are needed for your presentation (for example, data projector or computers to be used), or if there are personal needs that the host school should consider (for instance, vegetarian), this should also be discussed prior to the visit. If you use an agent to book your sessions, it is still recommended that you contact the school personally before the visit to pass on any requirements and introduce yourself to the organiser.