As children return to school, how can author visits safely return to the classroom too?

25 Sep 2020
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Children’s author Tom Palmer shares his experience of returning to schools and his top tips for schools and authors who are thinking about arranging a visit this term.

COVID-19 presents huge and unprecedented challenges to schools and authors alike. One of the many things schools have to consider carefully is visits from outsiders, while for authors like me, school visits can be crucial to their livelihoods.

There are fantastic benefits to introducing children to a diverse range of inspiring people as it can really broaden their horizons. And – in my opinion – authors are great for that. Research from the National Literacy Trust also shows that author visits can encourage pupils’ enjoyment of reading and writing, build their reading and writing confidence and skills, and support the school’s teaching of the English curriculum.

So, how can authors and schools work together to provide children with safe and engaging visits at this unique time?

As a children’s author, a vital part of making a living is delivering engaging school visits and interactive sessions. After four months out of the game, I have been lucky that, in the first two weeks of this term, three brilliant primary schools have already welcomed me in. Without school visits, I could not make a living as an author. Things are looking pretty shaky for me. Things are looking catastrophic for other authors I know. I’ve already started applying for jobs outside children’s books.

Having visited three schools this term, I wanted to share my experiences to encourage schools and authors to keep working together to bring the magic of author visits to children, if not in person, then virtually.

It begins with planning and communication.

It was vital for the schools and I to work together to plan the visit. After our conversations, we all knew what to expect from each other and understood that all parties needed to be flexible on the day.

Ahead of my latest visit, Shakespeare Primary School in Leeds sent me their policy on hand hygiene, social distancing, moving around their spacious corridors and use of the toilet and other facilities. They also shared their Covid-19 policies to make sure everything was going to be adhered to. They gave me very detailed instructions about where and when to arrive and were there to greet and guide me when I did.

At Grasmere Primary School we held the session in a temporary marquee the school has had erected in its grounds to create more space for the children to meet visitors – and do other activities – without crowding the school, which has limited space. In line with their policies, masks were worn at specific times, hand sanitiser used regularly and everyone social distanced.

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On the day of the visit, everyone did what was expected of them.

Even before I entered the three schools, I immediately sensed that the children, parents and staff found social distancing, using hand gel and wearing masks normal. There was respect and courtesy in the corridors and doorways. No sense of chaos. Zero anxiety.

Knowing the three schools’ rules in advance, I was able to play my part in their new systems. Within a couple of minutes I was at ease and in the groove doing what I was there for: inspiring young writers and encouraging reading for pleasure at a safe distance.

In the classrooms, if I was uncertain about what to do at any time, I would stop and seek clarification from the teachers who were happy to help. As did the children in some cases! This already felt very normal and everybody was really patient with each other.

Shakespeare Primary school had staggered lunches and breaks, so the staffroom also felt quiet and safe during my breaks. Back in the corridors, I moved from class to class, using hand gel in between and keeping a safe distance from others, wearing a mask when it was appropriate to do so in line with school policy.

Throughout, the guidelines I followed made me feel safe as well as the children.

It felt brilliant to be on a school visit again!

It was wonderful and completely refreshing just to talk to and listen to children who are enthusing about books and about expressing themselves in writing. I think authors need to meet their readers to help them write. I’ve not been into a school for six months and my writing has suffered as a result. I’ve missed running ideas by the kids, testing how they’ll react to a scene or a character. And – frankly – being there made me happy. Spending time with children is good for you.

I think the feeling was mutual. At Green Howarth C of E Primary School in Lancashire, the teacher said: “We had an excellent time on Friday, the children were buzzing about both reading and writing which is wonderful. The atmosphere was fantastic and I would recommend a visit from Tom to anyone and everyone - I already have!”

In addition, I am thrilled to have earned two full days' fee for the first time in months. Grasmere Primary School actually helped me write ‘After the War’ so it was great to see them again.

The children responded to all three visits just as they always do. They were enthusiastic, creative and funny. Aside from safe distancing, the energy was no different to pre-COVID times once we got going. Even though I had a table in between me and the children most of the time and I wasn’t going round the class to have one-to-one chats, it felt normal. It was a joy.

For most of my sessions I chatted and took questions from the front of the class. For the interactive part, I enlisted the teachers’ help.

For Grasmere Primary School in Cumbria, I signed copies of my books in advance and boxed them for three days, then at Green Haworth C of E Primary School, I signed the books – having used hand gel – and the children were told they’d be given them in three days’ time.

Virtual visits

I – and many authors – have been doing virtual visits for months. I did them throughout April to July and am also doing them now. I’ve done Q&As, writing workshops, readings and more.

Whilst I think a virtual visit may have less of an impact than an author visit in person, as we have found with our families over lockdown, as much as we would like to see them in person, it is still great to see them via the screen. So I think it’s worth having an author visit virtually if a school is unable to welcome an author in.

Please do consider a virtual visit if you are a school that is unable to have visitors in.

My top tips for authors who would like to run school visits this term

  • Contact schools local to you or that you have worked with before and send them a list of what you can do, when you can do it, how you have adapted your work in line with current measures and how much you charge.
  • If you’re doing virtual visits, become au fait with platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and others. Practise using them so that you can not only talk live, but show images and more.
  • Be flexible about everything.

My top tips for schools who would like to arrange author visits this term

  • If you don’t have an author in mind, or one you regularly work with, check out this list of authors and storytellers on the National Literacy Trust’s website to see what authors can do for you and where they are based
  • Talk to your chosen author in advance about your school’s safety policies to make sure you’re both happy with a school visit in person or, failing that, online.
  • Speak to the author and your local book store about facilitating bookselling. The author will be thrilled to sign copies of their books.

To find an author or storyteller near your school, visit the National Literacy Trust’s website.

To find out more about the benefits of author and writer visits to schools for children’s literacy engagement, read the National Literacy Trust’s latest research report.

Tom Palmer is the author of 50 children’s books, including football series for Puffin and history fiction for Barrington Stoke. His best known books are Football Academy, Armistice Runner and his recent story about a group of Holocaust survivors, After the War.

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