School Visits in Review

Over the last year I’ve visited an incredible variety of schools throughout the U.S. and U.K. It’s a fun change from being a teacher, because as a teacher, I tended to get insulated in my own classroom. I knew my own students very well, which was great, but I didn’t know what was going on in the other classes or what my students were like out in the real world.

As an author, I see a huge cross-section of the education system in a series of one-day snapshots. I never get to know any one group in depth, but I still feel privileged to meet and work with so many young readers. The travel schedule can be exhausting, but I love doing school visits. It keeps me in touch with kids. It keeps my writing grounded, and reminds me who I’m working for.

I often tell people that when I first started writing Lightning Thief, I imagined myself reading it to my fifth period class after lunch. As any teacher can tell you, that’s a very difficult litmus test. If a book can hold the attention of an entire class right after lunch, the author has done something right. Nowadays as I’m writing Percy, I imagine reading each passage to a school assembly. Every chapter has to have the right mix of humor, action and emotion. It has to move at a brisk clip. It has to be interesting, entertaining, and relevant to kids. It can’t lose them! I’m not saying I succeed 100% of the time, but that’s my goal, and school visits are an essential part of my writing process.

I always get many more requests to do school visits than I can possibly do. I know, this is a fantastic problem to have, but I hate saying no, especially when there are so many enthusiastic kids, teachers and librarians out there. I’ll start booking visits for next school year (fall 08-spring 09) on Jan. 1, and I’m already looking toward the date with some trepidation. I know there will be a flood of requests, judging from the inquiries my webmaster has already forwarded to me, and I’m not sure how I’ll sort through them fairly. I’ve made the decision that twenty school visits is about all I can book next year because of my writing deadlines and the number of events my publishers expect me to do. Several librarians have asked, “Are you still doing school visits?” They assume that once I get to a certain point with the success of the series, I will stop. I hope it never comes to that. Even if I must continue to cut back, school visits are so important to me. I can’t imagine writing for kids and not interacting with them in the schools on a weekly basis.

While I’m grappling with the problem of how to cut back, from time to time there are some schools that I seek out and volunteer to visit. I got the chance to visit some schools like this over the last few weeks.

Just before Thanksgiving, I presented at Winston School here in San Antonio. The school had come to my attention because they specialize in helping children with learning differences. This is an issue near and dear to my heart. After all, if it wasn’t for my son Haley struggling with ADHD and dyslexia, I never would’ve written the Lightning Thief. I offered to speak to the entire school – kindergarten through high school – which I don’t usually do. It was like talking to three hundred Haleys! Imagine running over the top of a herd of wild stallions. That’s sort of how I felt leading that presentation. All of them were full of energy, full of questions. Many were ADHD and/or dyslexic. All had struggled in conventional schools, but all were wonderfully divergent thinkers. The students seemed so at home at Winston, and so comfortable with who they were. I found it exhilarating!

This week, I visited another kind of school – KIPP Aspire Academy, also in San Antonio. The campus is in an old parochial school on the near West Side, quite close to the first house my wife and I ever shared in San Antonio. It’s a tough neighborhood – lots of poverty, gangs and homelessness. The kids who go to KIPP would be labeled “at risk” in almost any school district, but they made the choice to go to this charter school where they are pushed hard to succeed and to think about college. The school offers clear structure and lots of support. The teachers are incredibly dedicated. When they described their jobs and how long they work in a typical day, my jaw dropped. I learned about the school last year from an article in the Express-News, and I knew right away I wanted to visit and help out however I could. I am so glad I did. I’ve rarely spoken to a more appreciative audience or a more impressive bunch of young readers. As a teacher, I sometimes wondered, “Am I really making a difference?” The teachers at KIPP should have no doubt on this score. It is so obvious that they are changing these kids’ lives.

Today, yet another kind of school — I drove up to Austin for a morning at Kirby Hall. Set in a 1930s women’s dorm near UT, tucked away on a quiet crooked street overlooking a park, the school has tons of atmosphere and character. It looks like an aging mansion with a long rich past, the perfect setting for a book. The classes are small and the kids were bouncing off the walls with excitement. The third grade made me a hand-drawn WELCOME sign for the front entrance of the school. The fourth grade made an encyclopedia of terms based on vocabulary words they researched in the Lightning Thief. The sixth grade did character collages. The fifth grade painted banners for the book covers. They all asked great questions, and after the two presentations, I got to see some P.E. games the third grade and their coach Deborah had come up with based on the Percy books. You haven’t lived until you’ve played Medusa in the Middle! I’m hoping to post the rules about the seven games they created on my website. Stay tuned for that!

Next week, in one of my last visits before winter holidays, I’ll get to speak at Cole Middle School on the Fort Sam Houston Army base. I met the librarian at a recent conference, and when she told me about her kids, and how many of them are dealing with so much uncertainty, having parents who are stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan, I really wanted to come visit their classes. I look forward to that!

In short, how could I not want to continue doing school visits? I always learn at least as much from the kids as they do from me. Every school visit is a gem. It never gets old. When I visit a school, I feel like I’m still a teacher, and that’s such a huge part of my identity, I can’t imagine losing that feeling!

Rick Riordan