I’m no booking agent, but I have individually planned poet visits to my school, so maybe telling you about my process will help you to give it a whirl as well. And I sincerely hope that you do because it is a remarkably inspiring experience your students will remember for a long time.
I remember reading an edu-blog a couple of years ago about bringing visiting writers into the classroom, and one of the author’s rules was “Do not attempt to plan an author visit by yourself.” I took this as a personal challenge and have since planned classroom visits with poets including José Olivarez, Kate Partridge & LA Johnson (they came together), and RA Villanueva & Kaveh Akbar (also together) by myself. José came for a half day; Kate & Liz came for a Creative Writing class. Ron and Kaveh spent an entire day at my school, and I will focus on this most intensive event, as it required the most planning and preparation.
1. Check with Admin
I’m more of an ask for forgiveness not for permission kind of person, but some things are too big of a deal to go that route. I am fortunate to have extremely supportive administrators who see the value in students learning from professionals, but I understand this might not be the case in all schools. So you might need to have your justification prepared for convincing your principal that an even like this is worth it – both educationally and financially. Be prepared to answer:
How it will impact students’ learning?
How is it aligned with the curriculum?
What is the cost, and what ideas do you have for where this money will come from? For example, are you asking for money from the school or relying on fundraisers?
How many students will be impacted?
What are the benefits of having a real world context and why is it more beneficial than a virtual visit (via Skype, Google Hangouts, etc)?
2. Contact the poet well in advance to secure a date
Poets are busy professionals; many have full-time jobs and spend much of the year traveling for readings, workshops, and literary events. I suggest looking at potential dates during the previous spring for the following school year you wish them to visit. For example, I have already started discussing dates for another visit for (hopefully) March 2019, and it is currently May 2018. Getting your school on their official calendar early will help to secure your ideal date. The more popular the poet, the earlier I suggest you ask. Check out who you should be asking this to, as well, which you can usually find on their website. Does the poet maintain their own schedule, or do they have a manager you should be asking instead?
3. Read works by the poet
Spend quality time with the poet’s work in class. Read their entire collection if you can. You want your students to be as well-versed (pun intended) with the poet’s work so that they can have the most meaningful and engaging experience possible. In my opinion, reading just a couple of poems doesn’t cut it. I put both Ron and Kaveh’s books on my syllabus as required reading for the class. We spent over a week on each book, having class discussions, annotating, writing reflections, debating themes and symbols, analyzing structure, making posters, shooting videos–we got dirty with the poems.
4. Know what you need to pay for
Poet visits are typically not free, so you may need to get creative to make this happen. If a poet happens to be in town, you could get lucky with a volunteer visit like we did with José Olivarez last year. If not, you will most likely need to pay an honorarium and cover any travel and hotel expenses. The experience your students will get will be well worth it. The honorariums I have paid range anywhere from $150 to $1,500. For Kaveh and Ron’s visit, the grand total came to $4,180 in order to cover everything. Here’s my list of things we paid for:
Honorariums, flights, hotel, a catered lunch the day of the event, poet’s dinner, welcome bag of goodies for the hotel, and any Uber/Lyfts if necessary.
5. Raise money
Some schools have instructional budget allotments, booster clubs, and/or PTOs you could ask for funding. You could set up a Go Fund Me or Donors Choose. You could do your own fundraisers, like bake sales, T-shirts, restaurant nights, etc. We did several fundraisers, including restaurant nights and Matchmaker surveys. In addition, each of my students paid a small fee to attend the whole-day event — kind of like a field trip, except we didn’t technically go anywhere. We also invited guests from a nearby school and charged them a fee, too. A chunk was donated by local businesses and family members as a tax write-off. Finally, a potion was paid for by my school’s instructional budget. Parents also helped immensely by donating items for breakfast and lunch treats.
6. Book hotel and flights – 3 months ahead of time
Ask the poet the best way to go about this. Usually, the poet/manager will research flights and send you their request for you to book for them. Or, they might book it themselves and then you reimburse them. For the hotel, send them a couple of nearby options for them to choose from, and once they choose, book it for them. You should also ask them about payment – do they need to be paid prior to the event, or is sending a check afterward okay? I had to do both, so knowing this ahead of time may save your event if they need payment prior to. Also, check with your school’s financial/business person in regard to what you will need from the poet to pay them, such as a W-9 form or an invoice.
7. Make a schedule
To make your event run as smoothly as possible, you need to map out a schedule. Workshops typically run between 1-2 hours, readings 20 minutes, and Q & A about 30 minutes.
If you have a half-day workshop, it could look like:
1:50-2:20 Q & A
2:20-2:45 Book signing
For a full-day workshop, I made this schedule below. I had a large group or 60 students and two poets, so we split in half for the morning workshops.
7:45-8:15 Breakfast (donated by parents)
8:20-10:00 Workshop with Poet 1
10:20-12:00 Workshop with Poet 2
12:00-1:00 Lunch (catered by local pizza/pasta place, with desserts donated by parents)
1:00-1:20 Poet 1 reading
1:20-1:40 Poet 2 reading
1:40-2:20 Q & A with both poets
2:20-2:45 Book signing (will need to allot more time for this next year, at least 15 more minutes)
8. Two weeks before the event
- Confirm everything! (Hotel, lunch, staff affected by event)
- Ask about any poet dietary restrictions or allergies, as well as what equipment they will need. Ron needed video-showing capabilities and Kaveh needed a supply of poetry books to pass around. Ask your poet what they will need in order to have a successful workshop so you can prepare ahead of time if needed. Also, in this email you should include the information your school may need to pay them. I specifically needed a completed W-9 form.
- Now would be a good time to create Sign Up genius for any donated items or volunteer help needed. I made easy to accomplish slots (i.e., bring in a dozen donuts, cream cheese, a dozen cookies for lunch, a box of utensils) and put in the description where and when they should drop them off. I also needed a couple parent volunteers to set up the breakfast while I was out picking up the poets, as well as lunch while we were in the workshops. I am so grateful to the parents who helped out, and I think they were happy to support their senior student in one of the last school activities they are ever going to have!
- Prepare introductions. Poets deserve a good introduction and they are so much more meaningful when they come from students who love their work. In each of the workshops, we started with a student introduction for the poet, written by the students themselves. Introductions included awards, publications, and what the poets’ works meant to them personally.
- Get a substitute to cover any of your classes that are not attending the event. You can’t be in two places at once!
- Find places to displace your other classes not attending the event. They will have a sub, so that makes it easier; you won’t need to ask any colleagues to cover. I begged some of my colleague friends to borrow their classrooms during their planning period for my sub and my class to be in there. I ensured that I gave my students plenty of meaningful work to keep them busy, and that the sub would not need to use the classroom computer (except for maybe attendance) so my colleague could still work while they were in there.
- Email other teachers as needed to give them a heads up that they may have a lot of students “absent.” As an AP teacher, I felt a sense of duty to email the other AP teachers, as we share a lot of the same students, that they may not want to schedule a big assessment or super important activity for that day, especially if it’s close to AP exam time.
- Secure a large space or more chairs (and someone to help set them up) for any large-group events. I had to bring 30 additional chairs into my room for the whole-group afternoon events: the readings and the Q&A. The chairs were generously placed in my room by one of our custodians while we were down in the cafeteria at lunch. Thank you again, Warren!
9. Two days before the event
Email the poet to see if there are any handouts they need copied. Double check on the equipment needed and send them the schedule for the day.
Have your students prepare questions for the Q & A. You certainly want to avoid the crickets in the room situation. You could even identify a brave student ahead of time to ask the first question to get things started.
Check and practice the introductions your select students have written.
Also send the finalized schedule to admin, and anyone else involved, especially the secretary – secretaries are the glue that holds a school together, right? Touch base again with any custodians you may need help from.
Email a list of student names attending the event to the necessary people so that they are not marked absent. Inform students that they are responsible for any work they miss in their other classes.
Email parent volunteers from the Sign-Up genius a friendly reminder / thank you for their contribution.
The day before your event, drop off welcome bags (labeled with the name) for your poets to arrive to when they check in at the hotel. I got a mix of sweets and healthy snacks. After a long day of travel, some dark chocolate and dried mangos sounds really good… I also included a special-made coffee mug with the #TeachLivingPoets hashtag on it because that’s my favorite little gift to give to people who appreciate writing and art.
Stick to your schedule so things don’t get chaotic. And it’s okay to feel nervous. I was a hot mess the entire week leading up to the event; I felt anxiety and stress like I haven’t felt in a long time. It was the biggest school-related event I had ever planned, and I wanted so badly for it to go well. I was nervous to meet the poets in person, and I didn’t want to let my students, my school, and especially the poets down. My fear of it somehow not going smoothly was turbo fierce.
10. Enjoy yourself!
Now in hindsight, I realize I should have taken some deep breaths and reminded myself that I double-triple checked with everyone about everything. I managed to get it together the morning of the visit so that I could enjoy the day with my students and the poets. Because I had planned everything so meticulously, I was able to appreciate and delight in playing student, and participate as an equal with them in the workshops. And enjoy the day we did! Read more about how the day went and my students’ reactions here!
Thank you for reading.
You can follow me on Twitter @MelAlterSmith