It had been more than a few years since I’d taught in a classroom setting, and when I had, my largest class numbered twenty-three students. After taking early retirement, I tutored one-on-one in the S.T.A.I.R. program, led Junior Great Books discussion groups, and, as a volunteer docent, explored the butterfly gardens of City Park with young children. Each of these activities involved groups of fewer than twelve children.
So when I accepted the opportunity to do my first school presentation of A Dog Steals Home at Northshore Elementary in Knox County, Tennessee, I was a bit overwhelmed to find I would be working with one hundred seventy-five fifth graders. The butterflies from the City Park gardens seemed to have relocated to my stomach.
Then the demons of self-doubt moved in. Are middle-graders today a different species from those kids I taught years ago? How will I keep the attention of children who were practically born with tablets or cell phones clutched in their little fists when I don’t even own a laptop? What if they ask a question I can’t answer? What if they didn’t like my book? The “what-if” birds pecked away at my self-confidence.
As I prepared for my presentation, the butterflies, birds, and demons began to scatter. They were lurking around somewhere, I’m sure, but I was too busy to look for them. I outlined my talking points, wrote and sent writing prompts for the teachers to use for a “pre-visit” activity, and requested that the teachers have students submit questions for me to answer on my visit.
I arrived in Knoxville the afternoon before the presentation and stayed at the home of the teacher who had arranged my visit. She offered the use of her laptop and worked with me to put my talking points on a flipchart file for the students to view. We added pictures and diagrams from the internet and from my downloads. I spent some time looking over the students’ replies to the writing prompts and chose a few to share. I was impressed by the quality of their responses.
The next morning we arrived at school early so my host could set up the laptop and I would have time to practice using it. My first group arrived at 7:45—sixty bright-eyed fifth graders! The session flew by as I led them in discussion questions. They shared their thoughts willingly and actively supported opposing viewpoints.
Then I had a chance to answer their questions. Just as I had been impressed when I read their writing prompt responses, I was equally pleased with their questions. “What inspired you to write this book?” “What was the hardest part about writing?” “Where did you get the ideas for your characters?” “How do you get a book published?” were just a few. They listened to my answers and responded with more questions if they weren’t clear about something I’d said.
By 11:45, I had met with all three groups—all one hundred seventy-five students! I loved that some of them wanted to stay and talk, asked me to sign scraps of paper if they didn’t have a copy of the book, or gave me suggestions for my next book. Some students had illustrated my book chapter by chapter! Not one demon, butterfly, or what-if bird had made an appearance during the entire morning. I realized that teaching, perhaps, is a bit like riding a bike. Once you learn how, you never forget.