Jacqueline Woodson visits my kids! (Tips on guest speakers for middle school)

Bringing in a guest speaker for middle school does not automatically well. Connecting tightly to curriculum and relevancy are amongst the list of thought-provoking planning tips that need to occur in the forefront to have this rich experience for all.

Last week, Jacqueline Woodson, one of my very favorite young adult authors, came to speak to my seventh graders. Now, if you teach middle school, you know that bringing a guest speaker to 100 seventh graders doesn’t just automatically go well. There is a novelty factor, yes. And though we’d like that to sufficiently ensure that students receive the guest properly; in reality, middle school students pay attention to many more factors than that. So we must too, if we want it to be a positive transaction for all.

Jacqueline Woodson’s visit went very well, and students did get the rich experience—of hearing and seeing an author in person share her work with them—that I hoped they would. In reflecting on the thought and preparation that went into the event, I’ve come up with a few factors to consider any time I bring a guest speaker.

Clear connection to the curriculum: Students will wonder, “Why is this stranger coming to talk to me?” The more connected to their learning or any aspect of the work they do at school, the more appropriate and genuine the connection will be. A guest speaker comes for a quick moment, which can seem unimportant to many students. But if it is well-placed within a curriculum, the guest will be part of a much bigger conversation and in a sense “last longer.” In this case, we had read and discussed Woodson’s novel, From the notebooks of Melanin Sun, as a whole class. Many students went on to read many more of her books. She was known to them but through her writing. We had spoken about possibly communicating with her or bringing her to our school since she is from Brooklyn. Her finally coming was a way of continuing the conversation about her novels and a point of comparison for the current novels we’re reading.

Relevent to students: Students will wonder, “Why this?” and “Who cares?” As with any curriculum piece, the content of the presentation should be developmentally appropriate. It should matter to the students at their age level. If Woodson came and talked about her college experience, my students may or may not have been interested. But she presented to them about her books, which all deal with developmentally appropriate themes for middle school students.

Also, the event should be as culturally relevant as possible, whether that means direct identification with students culturally or through exposing students to worlds different from the one they know.  Either way, identity is a big factor for middle school students so we need to consider how students will identify or not identify with the guest and the value that could have for them. One thing that made Jacqueline Woodson’s presentation great was that she was a black woman speaking very candidly and confidently about issues of race to a group of diverse students who were themselves hungry for fresh perspectives on this aspect of their growing identities. She also had the attention of many committed student writers, looking to understand the practice better.

Doing our homework: It was really important that we did our homework and discovered that Jacqueline Woodson has a great website designed for kids and teachers, which answers the questions she most often is asked by readers. She also has many interviews available on the web. We took a day in class to explore the website, watch an interview with Woodson about her writing, and create questions we’d like to ask her in person that hadn’t already been answered in the resources available to us. I encouraged students to ask questions about her use of literary elements, something we’d been looking at in all the novels from this year.

Participation and accountability: On the day of the visit, students understood what they were expected to DO during the presentation. In class we went over the fact that they would receive a grade for ther participation in the event. (Yes, I was willing to use any and all measures of control to make sure they did not make fools of themselves or us in front of a guest. I also justified this because it is actually an important life skill to be able to make a good impression on others, especially those who are successful at something we are learning to do.) The grade was be based on:

  • active listening throughout the event
  • asking appropriate questions at appropriate times
  • taking (some) notes on points of interest

Students received a clipboard with a packet as they entered after lunch. The front page outlined these expectations again. The next page had all of the questions (with some editing) they had created in class typed up. This was a great resource for students. When Ms. Woodson asked for questions, practically every hand went up. The questions were not superficial and Woodson was also excellent in her ability to respond. She clearly was practiced at speaking to kids about her work. She provided a great mix of humor and depth and had some witty comebacks to occasional seventh grade silliness. Students were also quite obviously doing their best to avoid possible distractions (i.e., each other).

Timing and space: I spoke to Ms. Woodson before she came and she aptly noted, “Ninety minutes for 100 seventh graders in June could be a long time to keep their attention.” The only scheduling option for the assembly was for the period directly after lunch….groan. I talked over the timing with my principal, and we decided that the whole grade would stay for 60 minutes (not 90), and then students who were interested in more Q & A would stay for the extra half hour. We also decided on a large meeting room instead of the auditorium, so that she could speak without a mic (more intimate) and where students would not be too spread out and therefore hard to monitor.

It worked just about perfectly. Students were just starting to get squirmy at the hour mark but left wanting a little more, not bored yet—always a good thing. The self-selected group that stayed for more time was a great mix of avid writers, voracious readers, and students who were just plain curious for whom this visit sparked something new.

Teamwork and the teacher look: It was important to coordinate with a lot of people to make this run smoothly. The admin team helped organize the schedule and the flow of students from lunch to the room and made sure our tech director was there to record it and shoot photos. The other seventh grade advisors each walked their advisees to the event and seated them together. I gave each advisor a clipboard and instructed them to mark down the names of any of their students making any kind of disruptions. I asked them to tally up the number of times said students disrupted. Students also knew these would become points deducted from their grade (out of 10). I don’t do this sort of thing for regular class activities but when the stakes are high, like during a student poetry reading or an event like this and each individual’s self-control at that moment really is crucial to the experience of the entire group, I am all for taking points off for talking, humming, poking, etc.  Advisors also did a stellar job of applying the “teacher look” aka “side-eye” to students who may have been tempted to do any of the actions listed above. The united front supported by the system for teachers to share the task of keeping tabs on individual students was effective.

Follow-up: We’re working on a creative thank you card. I hope Ms. Woodson will come back next year! I highly recommend her as a guest speaker for NYC teachers, who read her books with their students.

 

[The image above comes from ncte.org only because I don’t have my hands on the real pics of Woodson speaking to my students!  Soon!]

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