Book News, On Writing

An Educator Education

That's right, Dad, I'm giving you free publicity for your 40-year-old book. Better late than never!
That’s right, Dad, I’m giving you free publicity for your 40-year-old book. Better late than never!

The community relations manager at the Springfield, NJ, Barnes & Noble dropped me a line the other day. She had seen me plugging my book Sarah Gives Thanks back in November and liked my presentation. She liked it so much she asked me to be a guest speaker for the store’s upcoming Educator Appreciation Days.

This offer made my day, for I can appreciate teachers with the best of ‘em. I’ve been surrounded by teachers – either by choice or design – my entire life:

My wife and soulmate, Ellen, is a teacher.

My sister is a teacher, too.

And I’ve worked in schools (as a non-teacher) for about 15 years.

But my love and respect for teachers goes back to when I was a wee bitty thing; both of my parents were teachers.

My mom taught in the Paterson Public School System for 26 years, which is a kind of a miracle, really. During her tenure, she won several Teacher of the Year Awards, more than a few mentions in Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers, and – don’t ask me how – an NAACP Award.

By the way, can you do me a favor and not tell Mom I told you any of this? Mom doesn’t like being talked about – even when the talk is complimentary, which it almost always is. Case in point: When Mom won her first Teacher of the Year Award, she didn’t even tell her own mother about it. Mom and Grandma weren’t mad at each other or anything, Mom just didn’t want Grandma to make a fuss about the award. Instead, Grandma made a fuss about having to learn about Mom’s award from “the G*****n newspaper.”

That was a fun conversation to overhear.

Mom is also tough. You had to be tough to teach in the inner city, and she often took that toughness home with her. When I once told Mom that my third grade teacher “didn’t like me,” Mom’s reply was, “So what?”

It’s been more than 30 years since Mom and I had that conversation and I still can’t improve upon her advice.

It was at about that same time that Mom decided on The Allegra Family Motto: “Don’t Be a Candy-Ass.” Someday I shall get that sentiment embroidered on a pillow.

Unlike Mom, Dad likes being talked about. I’ve mentioned him a few times on the blog before – most notably in May when I praised him for his Indian Guides leadership skills.

Dad was a public school administrator who possessed the dual skills of being very good at his job and knowing just the right thing to say or do to drive superintendents crazy.

Back in the 1970s, Dad wrote some very popular math books, which is hilarious, because he, to this day, has trouble figuring out how much to tip a waitress. These books, I’m proud to say, were a very big deal. The publisher even flew him around North America to speak to educator groups. (By the way, Albert Whitman & Co., if you wanna fly me around the country to promote my book, I am more than happy to go. Just sayin’!)

At the end of Dad’s career, he founded and ran a very successful school for kids who had troubled childhoods and, in some cases, brushes with the law. Whenever I would come to visit Dad at his school, he would greet me at the door with a boisterous, “Detective Spencer! So nice to see you!” This announcement prompted an eerie and awkward silence in the classrooms, as each kid racked his brain to determine if he had recently done anything that was worthy of arrest.

Mom and Dad were a great influence on me, as you can imagine. So when that Barnes & Noble community relations manager asked me to speak at the Educator Appreciation event, I was quick to say yes.

“How many teachers would I be speaking to?” I asked.

“It varies from one year to the next,” she admitted, “but the last one had about 130.”

Woah. I’ve never had much trouble with public speaking, but that’s a pretty big crowd.

But I’ll be fine, I think. And if my nerves get to me, I’ll just call my mom.

And Mom, true to form, will remind me of the Allegra Family Motto and send me on my way.

Book News, On Writing, Three Things...

Three Things Every Author Should Know about School Visits

This many! (Fun fact: This photo shoot took A LOT longer than it should have.)

Have you ever been on the move for so long that once you finally stop moving, you don’t know what to do with yourself?

I feel that way now. For the past several weeks I had gotten into the habit of running from one place to another, talking about my book, coming home, and then collapsing in a heap. It was exhausting. It was also exciting and new and it made me feel very, very important. I really did love it. I loved it more than I thought I would.

Now that it’s all over, I’m suffering a little from promo withdrawal.

But my schedule, exciting as it was, didn’t allow me to write at all. So I am very eager to reacquaint myself with my first love. I missed writing much more than I liked feeling important.

During the tour I visited lots of schools. That is par for the course for a picture book – especially a nonfiction one. Now that I’ve had a little time to reflect on those visits, I’d like to share three takeaways:

1. Kids love to take you down rabbit holes.  

During one class visit I told a group of 40 third graders that my fondest childhood Thanksgiving memory was watching Big Ape Movies on the local TV station. Every single year the station aired Mighty Joe Young, King Kong, and Son of Kong. “Six straight hours of simian mayhem!” I announced. “I have no idea what giant gorillas have to do with Thanksgiving, but, hey, who cares? It’s wonderful!”

And by opening that door, I invited in a long string of ape-related questions. Clearly I was the King Kong expert these kids had been waiting for their whole lives. “How big was he?” one asked. (I guessed about 50 feet tall.) “Did that big building get damaged bad?” (No, they just needed to patch up some bullet holes.) Would King Kong win a fight with Godzilla? (If Americans made the movie, I replied, then yes.)

It was a blast. And, because I indulged this line of questioning, the kids loved me. Oh, and my “simian mayhem” line made one teacher to do a spit take; this is perhaps my proudest achievement ever.

2. There’s one teacher in every school who assumes you don’t know what you’re doing.

This teacher is the wet blankie who tries to calm down the children after you have invested so much time and energy revving them up. Not. Cool.

This teacher is either very, very young and well-meaning or one of those old law and order types who is one year away from retirement. (Teachers with tenure and more than a few years of full time work left in them are happy to sit back, drink coffee, and let you do your thing.)

I find it important to address the interrupting teacher directly. Doing so is a bit of a tightrope walk, however, for I have to communicate two messages at the same time. My first message is for the kids: “Your teacher is the boss. Your teacher is even MY boss and it is important to always do what she says.” My second message is for the teacher and is rich with subtext: “Why don’t you follow the fine example of your peers and drink some coffee?”

At one of my recent visits, a young teacher, trying to be helpful, inserted herself into my presentation to “calm things down, a bit.”

In front of the crowd I told the teacher she made an excellent point. Then I thanked her. Then, before the teacher could say anything else, I called on an earnest little girl who  could be counted on to ask a question that was “appropriate.” As the girl asked her question, the teacher and I chatted to each other with our eyes.

“I got this,” my eyes told her.

“You sure?” her eyes asked back, concerned.

“Your coffee is getting cold,” my eyes replied. “And that chair waaaay over there looks hella comfortable.”

3. Controlling a Q&A session is a lot easier than you might think. 

Kids wear their personalities on their sleeves. Even if they say nothing, their body language makes it easy to differentiate the silly from the studious. You don’t need talent to figure out who’s who. You just need eyes. Anyone can do this. Really. Anyone.

By using this information, I became a Q&A conductor of sorts; I called on the sillies when I wanted to dial up the energy in the room and the studiers when I wanted to dial it back.

And because I love and respect teachers and don’t wanna make their jobs any more difficult than they already are, I wrapped up all my Q&A sessions by calling on three studious students in a row. You’re welcome, teachers. Here’s hoping I’ll see you again next year!