Whether it’s a single class or an auditorium packed with 600 kids, nothing rings my chimes more than a school visit. I’m a high-energy, high-excitement guy who makes learning fun. Youngsters recognize these qualities and respond in kind.
My presentations fall into two categories: craft and content. Craft draws on my unmatched breadth of professional experience to offer solid suggestions that improve your students’ writing.
In particular, teachers express their appreciation for my emphasis on the important of revisions. It’s especially useful for students to see the amount of rewriting my editors ask me to do. I’m certainly not alone in this regard. All authors go through the same process.
Content emphasizes the pleasures of reading nonfiction. It also provides deeper looks at curriculum-oriented topics. Fifth graders often study American history. Sixth and seventh graders may look at ancient history. I have written and edited dozens of books on those two subjects alone. Some are based on “boots on the ground,” such as the battlefield at Marathon, the original Olympic stadium (where I was nearly arrested, but that’s another story), and the largest volcanic eruption in history. I’ve even swum in Homer’s wine-dark sea.
INTRODUCTION: Who IS This Guy?
Based on my years of experience, I’ve found that the best use of my day with you begins with an all-school assembly I call “Who IS This Guy?” It’s an introduction to this fellow Jim Whiting, showing me as a person and establishing my bona fides as an author AND a storyteller. I emphasize that as a nonfiction author, my stories are every bit as gripping as my fiction counterparts—and they are true! I’m also honest with the kids. I’m not some god who writes perfect prose from the moment I turn on the computer. It takes hard work and lots of revisions. To say nothing of coping with the occasional dread of confronting a blank page.
My dramatic ability is in full flower. One of the great joys of my life was appearing on stage for many years in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker. A Seattle Times critic noted that “The party scene flew right along with lots of fresh new business, particularly that of PNB fan and volunteer Jim Whiting, in the ‘super’ role of the drunken uncle.” This accolade is significant because it is almost unheard of for non-dancers to be mentioned in reviews of major companies.
And it’s not just critics. One evening, when I had just exited, a Snowflake awaiting her cue came up to me. “A friend of mine told me that the only good thing in the party scene was the drunken uncle,” she said. “I was standing in the wings and watching you. You are really very good.” So good, in fact, that the dancer who played the central role of Herr Drosselmeier even volunteered to teach me his part, so I could spell him a couple of times. We thought it would make a great human-interest story. Alas, it never happened.
The point of this little exercise in self-congratulation is that my body language communicates on a professional level. Add my spoken words and my PowerPoint slides and voilà! The same animation, innovation, energy, and ease in front of audiences to my “super” role as visiting author.
I usually devote the rest of the day to grade level presentations, most commonly in the library. My colleagues often limit themselves to four or even three. I’ve done as many as eight, with the energy and enthusiasm as high for the final one as for the first. The upshot is that every youngster in your school is likely to spend at least an hour with me. Librarians tell me that memories of my visits linger for a year or even longer.
Get It Down, Then Get It Right
Many students fret about writing because they’re afraid that their first drafts aren’t perfect. Of course they aren’t! Even experienced authors NEVER get it right the first time. I demonstrate the importance of getting words on paper as quickly as possible, then revising…and revising…and revising. The centerpiece is Buzz Words. Students give me four random words. I quickly (within 30 seconds) write a paragraph incorporating those words, then revise to improve it. Then I reverse the process. I give the kids three or four random words and urge them to get them down in a paragraph as quickly as possible. Then revise. They love it! Hands fly up all over the room when I ask for volunteers to read what they have written. Teachers often incorporate this technique into their language arts lessons.
Helpful Hints That Get Your Teacher to RAVE About Your Writing
A handy mnemonic for several elements that help your students improve their writing, with lots of examples and student interaction.
R = Rule of 3s (A priest, a rabbi, and a minister…)
A = Alliteration (On a cloudy day in Caxton Court, Calvin’s curious cat caught a colorful crimson caterpillar).
V = Vivid Verbs
E = Edit (in turn broken down into the three Ps: Punctuate properly, Prune unnecessary words, Proofread)
Off and Running
Grab immediate interest with strong first paragraphs. Includes discussion of The Worst Opening Sentence I’ve Ever Read.
It’s a Wrap
Many students stumble when it comes to the final paragraph. This presentation offers proven techniques to write satisfying conclusions. Often combined with Off and Running to demonstrate the Alpha and Omega of writing.
It’s Showtime, Not Telltime
One of the most common mantras in effective writing is “show, don’t tell.” I explain what this means, and how students can improve their writing by creating mental images that help readers visualize what is going on. One key element is Vitalize Your Writing with Vivid Verbs. It focuses on the importance of using precise verbs. For example, rather than the generic “walk,” create a more exact image with “saunter,” “stroll,” “strut,” “sashay,” “stomp,” “stride,” and so forth. And rather than the even more generic “to be” in its several forms—the classic form of telling—take a little extra time to give us a picture of what you are describing.
As a published light versifier and editor of numerous rhyming picture books, I am a master of rhythm and rhyme. I offer a lively grade-level-based exercise in which students write rhyming couplets, quatrains, or even longer forms after an introduction which includes numerous samples. Oodles of fun/and lots of laughter/as we’ve just begun/to see what comes after.
Practice Like a Pro
Even top authors never stop trying to improve. Here are some tips that will make youngsters into better writers.
- Copy a passage from a book or magazine. Doing it by hand on paper rather on the computer makes you more aware of the way in which the author has structured her/his material and the word choices s/he has made.
- Buzz words. Open a book or magazine at random. With your eyes closed, point to three or four words. As quickly as possible write something using those words as described above, then revise. This exercise often has another benefit: generating story ideas.
- Poetry. Reading poetry can be energizing. Or you can write a bit of poetry yourself. Don’t worry about making it perfect. The object is just to play around with words.
- Keep a journal. There are countless ways of structuring a journal. Play around and find what is best for you.
- Fifty-word story. Write a coherent story of exactly 50 words. Students learn to tighten their story or message and optimize their word choices. These skills improve the quality of all of their writing.
Such a Deal!
Draws on my experience in writing e-commerce ad copy and organizing successful marketing programs for Northwest Runner. After several examples of well-known ad campaigns, students write copy for a product of their choice, ranging from personal items (a used bike) to something in daily use. This exercise is an ideal introduction to persuasive writing. Students need to be upbeat, organized, efficient, and forceful with no wasted words. It could be a good idea to prep them before my appearance, so they have a product in mind and perhaps even a few thoughts. That way they don’t spin their wheels coming up with an idea.
CONTENT: Have I Got a Story for YOU!
Nonfiction has been enjoying a renaissance in recent years. I enjoy telling stories that demonstrate how to present its fun and fascination with a little imagination and a reasonable amount of research. Here are a few samples, and I’m continually adding more. I’d also be happy to develop a presentation to complement your curriculum. I’m especially interested in ferreting out points of interest in subjects that otherwise have no obvious street appeal.
- Franz Liszt: The First Rock Star. Long before Beatlemania, there was Lisztomania, as Lizst inspired the same type of overheated adulation as the Beatles.
- The Enduring Mystery Surrounding the Father of the Mystery Story. One of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous stories—“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”—segues into his bizarre life. Librarians consistently tell me of a run on Poe-related media following my visit.
- The Big Brass Button That Saved Handel’s Messiah. The famous composer nearly died in a duel when he was a teenager.
- Doing a 180 on Snoop Dogg. A textbook example of how learning can destroy superficial impressions and thereby enable a more realistic understanding of the world—a vital skill in the era of fake news. Writing a book about No Limit Records, one of the biggest hip-hop/rap labels in the late 1990s, was a stretch for me. I knew nothing about that type of music. Based solely on skimming newspaper headlines, I also believed that the artists were a bunch of thugs. To me, none was more thuggish than Snoop Dogg. But as I researched him, I discovered how he passionately wanted to give back to his community. I came to admire him, and the book became one of my more memorable ones.
- Titanic: Not Enough Lifeboats. A close look at why the doomed ship was deficient in lifeboats, though according to contemporary maritime law she had more than were required. Includes her two relatively unknown sister ships—Olympic and Britannic—and their respective fates.
- The Loch Ness Monster. Ideal for younger grades. Does “Nessie” exist?
- Dr. Seuss Lives. Years after his death, the beloved author published some new books. How is that possible? And how a seemingly innocuous decision led to his enduring fame when he encountered a seemingly endless stream of rejections at the outset of his career.
- Is This the World’s Most Haunted Ship? I stayed on the Queen Mary, now a floating hotel in California, and the scene of hundreds of paranormal encounters. About midnight one night, I heard voices…
- Mum(my)’s the Word. How the ancient Egyptians made a mummy, in all its gory glory. Includes a do-it-yourself guide to creating one of your own, using a well-known .
- A Grunt’s-eye View of the Revolutionary War. Most accounts of the war focus on the leaders, battles, and overall strategy. Get down and dirty with the men who did the actual fighting. And see how the new nation showed its “gratitude.”
- Ghouls, Ghosts, Goblins, Even the Occasional Zombie: The History of Halloween. I begin with the fascinating history of the haunted holiday. Then I present several spooky stories (for younger students) and the works and life of horrormeister Edgar Allan Poe (for older ones). Per prior request, I'll even appear in costume!
- Biracial Achievers. Ideal for Black History Month, this presentation examines the lives of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois. All three had white fathers and black mothers. The presentation includes the Tuskegee Airmen, who trained at Tuskegee Institute (which Washington founded) and disproved the notion that blacks wouldn’t make good pilots.
And Finally . . .
Lunch with the Author
I’m happy to have lunch with 12-20 selected students. This offers another opportunity to ask questions in a relaxed, informal atmosphere.
A favorite among all grade levels, this presentation draws on my long tenure in magazine publishing to make an ideal brief finale by showing how a book or magazine gets printed. Youngsters are fascinated by the way in which color images are produced and how a seemingly chaotic jumble of pages emerges from the printing press in perfect order.
NUTS ’n BOLTS
Number of individual presentations
This is up to you. I’ve given as many as 8 during a single visit. Four to six is ideal.
K-2 – 25-30 minutes
3-8 – 35-50 minutes
- I have my own laptop, projector, and extension cords. I need a table to set up my equipment, preferably one on wheels and large enough to accommodate both the laptop and projector
- Especially if we are doing book sales, table(s) to set up my books
- A screen
- A surface on which I can write. This can be a blackboard, whiteboard, or large easel and oversized tablet
- One or two water bottles
Book Sales and Signing
Purchasing books from me makes an excellent souvenir of my visit, and I am happy to provide a personal inscription. Starting the pre-sale process about a month in advance of my appearance allows ample time.
I welcome questions about myself and/or any aspect of writing. I’ve found it helpful if students write them out in advance, and of course they are also free to ask questions that arise as a result of the presentation. It’s also very helpful if younger grade teachers read the questions, as most students of that age don’t project their voices well.
$1095 (Possible additional cost for transportation/lodging. May be waived for two or more visits in the same area on successive days).