Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Learning Experience

I recently read Barbara Walter’s fascinating memoir Audition. If you envy her life she says, “Then you have to take the whole package” complete with plenty of failures, heartaches, and sacrifices. The title of her book refers to her perception that she was always trying out, always subjecting herself to the judgment of other people and, of course, her audiences. I can relate to that. Every book I write and almost every performance or talk gets reviewed, often publicly, sometimes anonymously. You’d think that after all this time a less-than-stellar review would get easier. In some ways it does. But last week I discovered that my skin is still thin in places and that criticism has its place.

I’m learning about performing in a new medium--videoconferencing. I did my first two school visit videoconferences right before Christmas vacation. The first one got a rave review from teachers and kids and the second lukewarm approval—not negative but mixed and somewhat confusing. Since I had repeated the program and the kids in both presentations seemed similarly enthusiastic and attentive, I could only wonder what caused the difference. Tepid approval is not good enough for me. I need to “knock ‘em dead!” every time.

I was reminded of an incident in the past when I received a devastating evaluation. I had been hired by a California educational company to give a week’s tour of day-long inservices for teachers (the toughest of audiences). I prepared an extensive program of hands-on science activities based on my books. Thinking I would make things easier for the teachers, I attributed each exercise to the book I took it from (I also gave them handouts of with all the material copied from the sources). At the end of the day I read my evaluations (always a humbling experience). There was one frequent criticism: “I didn’t spend all this money to listen to a book commercial.” Dagger to the heart! What was I to do? I had to get up in front of a similar group the next day and I had no program other than the one I had so diligently prepared from what was in my books.

During a sleepless night, I analyzed the criticism. I figured that somehow I had not met the teachers’ expectations. What, then, did they expect? Most of the inservices offered by the company that had hired me were given by educators who had written one or two books that gave them credibility on some problem that concerned teachers. In contrast, I had written dozens of books directly for children on the content teachers were required to teach. Most teachers have little or no experience with children’s book authors, particularly nonfiction authors. I was clearly a different kind of consultant and my constantly reminding them of this worked against me. The next day I faced my new audience determined to appear to be more of what they were used to. This time I said nothing about my books. I presented each activity as if I had created it just for them and never alluded to the display of my books at the back of the room. Since many of the activities were new to them there was no question that I knew my subject. This time the evaluations of my performance were extremely favorable. A lot of criticism was leveled toward the company, however, for “not offering more of her books for sale.”

Now back to the present. The first videoconference had been set up by the school district media supervisor. She worked closely with two librarians who collaborated directly with their teachers. There was a lot of advance work, which also involved the support of the technology teachers (yes, a lot of schools have them now.). The second videoconference was set up five days before the date by the technology teacher who found the program “Science Surprises” listed on the
CILC website. Since I need an extra computer projection set up to show videos during the presentation, I needed to talk to this teacher. When I explained what I wanted to do—show videos of kids doing science activities from my book—she said, “I’m not hiring you to do a book commercial.” Obviously I’m now dealing with yet another teacher who doesn’t know about children’s book authors. I explained a little to her about what we authors do for school visits and I asked her to get her school librarian involved. That didn’t happen. Not enough time. When I received her evaluation the next day from CILC I could sense her disappointment. Immediately, I went to my write-up of the program and inserted a paragraph about collaboration between librarians and teachers; something that needs to be fostered at every turn.

Definition of a “Learning Experience:” what you get when you don’t get what you want. Barbara Walters never stopped being open to them. Neither am I.

1 comment:

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Listening to our critics is always a great idea because we can learn from their comments. But in these 2 cases, what you learned was that using great books to get kids excited about learning was merely an advertising ploy. Bosh. I say that using great nonfiction books in the classroom is a bold new idea that thoroughly deserves its time in the sun. As they say, bold new ideas upset the status quo, then become the status quo, which is in turn upset by bold new ideas.