Guest Post: Shana Burg on Take the Crowd by the Horns

Shana speaks to students.

By Shana Burg

You’ve worked hard to figure out how to impart words of wisdom about the writing process to a classroom of students.

You’ve spent hours designing creative activities and snazzy graphics that will captivate young minds.

You feel prepared—heck, over-prepared—to speak to a classroom, or gym full of kids, but you’ve forgotten one thing: You’d better be carrying a host of behavior management strategies with you along with everything else.

There are levels of rudeness you experience as a teacher and presenter: There are the girls who braid each other’s hair as you speak, the student who reads a book while you talk—implying that it is far better than yours, and the teens who won’t stop cracking up at their own jokes. And then, my favorite, the teachers—yes, teachers—who won’t get off their cell phones.

Through years of teaching middle school, author visits, and a day job that requires me to present to thousands of students of all ages each year, I’ve developed strategies that help me minimize distractions and take the crowd by the thorns:

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1. Venue matters. Set yourself up for success by arranging to present in the best possible setting. Usually, this means the auditorium. Beware the dreaded cafetorium, as students are used to chatting with friends and tossing French fries there.

But if you must present in a cafeteria, ask that the tables be turned (literally, not figuratively), so that students are facing you and not facing each other.

A gym is usually my last choice, because of poor acoustics and post-traumatic stress from P.E. during my own middle school years. However, if you need to present in a gym, plan to do a whole lot of movement to keep attention from one end of the bleachers down to the other.

In general, students do much better sitting in chairs than on the floor where they can fiddle.

2. Discuss expectations prior to your arrival. When arranging your presentation, be sure to mention that teachers should discuss behavior expectations with students prior to your arrival and, extremely important, teachers must plan to remain with classes during your visit.

I once presented to 300 eighth graders in a cafeteria first thing in the morning, and suddenly realized that there wasn’t one teacher in the room with me—turns out the principal had used the opportunity of my presence to call a staff meeting at that time. If I’d realized this before I started, I would have said I can’t do the presentation until staff returns.

3. Use a microphone. Even if you’re addressing a small crowd or have a loud voice, there’s something about the projection of a microphone that demands attention. I always turn up the volume just a bit louder than I feel is necessary. I prefer to have a handheld device rather than wear one on my lapel, so that I can better engage students. Students always get a kick out of saying their answers to my questions directly into the mic.

Request a wireless handheld mic, or a handheld mic with a very long cord, so that you can mingle with the crowd.

4. Establish behavior expectations with your audience. Tell your audience that you want to keep the classroom or auditorium a place where everyone can see and hear. All cell phones must be turned off.

And for elementary and middle school students, you can have a signal for quiet. For example, “When I put my hand on my head like this, I want you to also put your hand on your head and stop talking. Now let’s practice that. Everyone talk to your neighbor…”

5. Communicate your enthusiasm! Let students know that you are super excited to be with them. They will respond to your excitement. Anyone who teaches knows that young people pick up on our vibes. If we’re having a bad day and faking joy, they’re going to be moping too.

Find a way to give a genuine smile and let them feel your true passion for the subject.

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6. Abandon the script. If you try to memorize what you want to say and stick with it at all costs, students may rebel against the contrivance. Instead, remember, what’s most important is the energy behind your words and not the words themselves. Honestly.

This is the single most important piece of advice that I have. Be genuine. Tell a joke. Insert something about the fire ant bites on your foot. Go off the cuff here and there.

They will know you are keeping it real, and you will reap the rewards.

7. Interact—or Don’t. It takes skill to interact with a tough audience, because you risk the wise guys taking advantage of the opportunity to show off.

That said, I always prefer an interactive presentation—one in which learning is a two-way street between the students and me.

These days, I size up my audience within the first few minutes, and if I think I can keep them on course, I make my presentation as interactive as I can. But if I feel they are a particularly rowdy bunch, then I limit the number of questions that I ask.

8. Body language. This is huge—especially for students in grades K-7. You will do well to be more dramatic than you think you should be.

Don’t be afraid to gesture wildly with your hands, and when in a large space, move all around it!

If students are talking or engaging in other sorts of distracting behavior, stand right next to them—and I do mean right next to them—as you continue talking. If they don’t stop what they’re doing, you stop talking and just stare for a moment or two, and I guarantee the distracting chuckles will melt away like ice cream on a summer day.

9. Call attention. Work the distracting behavior into your talk. To take an extreme example, the presentation I do for my day job requires me to show a short film in the middle of the assembly.

One time, just before I turned on the video, I noticed that two high school students were, shall I say, rounding the bases in the middle of the auditorium.

All other strategies had failed, so I said, “We will now be watching a five-minute film. I need everyone’s eyes up here, and no making out during the show!”

I turned on the video and went to relax in an empty seat directly behind the loving couple. That finally did the trick.

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10. Stop everything. If you’ve tried moving closer and you’ve tried your quiet signs to no avail, the next step is to stop and say, “I won’t speak over others. I’ll let you get control of yourselves and then I’ll be happy to continue.”

Then just smile at the principal or librarian, and wait for students and faculty to figure out what to do.

If there’s a child with an extreme behavior issue who needs to be removed from the scene, I guarantee some adults will swoop in, remove the offender, and save the day.

There is no rush like the one I get from a meeting of the minds with young people. There is no exhilaration greater than the one I get from knowing we’ve truly connected.

The more I use these tools, the more confident I feel walking into a cafetorium of 300 eighth graders. I hope they’re useful for you.

Cynsational Notes

Shana Burg is the award-winning author of Laugh with the Moon (Random House, 2012) and A Thousand Never Evers (Random House, 2008).

Central Texans: check out Shana’s panel discussion about creating powerful settings at the Texas Book Festival from 1:15 p.m. to 2:15 p.m. Oct. 28. Signing to follow the discussion. Panel also features Avi and Karen Cushman, moderated by Barbara Immroth.

See also Shana Burg on her new release, Laugh with the Moon (Delacorte, 2012), from Cynsations. Peek: “Soon I found myself in the middle of the Malawian bush in a Land Rover next to Norman, my driver and translator, who quickly became a good friend. Each school day for three weeks, Norman and I traveled to different primary schools, where I spoke with hundreds of teachers, parents, students, and school administrators.”

7 thoughts on “Guest Post: Shana Burg on Take the Crowd by the Horns

  1. Yup. True story. Let's just say I had a little chat with the principal after. As I write this, I'm sitting in a caf waiting for 350 7th graders. At least their teachers are coming. Wish me luck!

  2. Shana — these are great tips. Thanks for sharing them. I haven't seen anything so specific in the interwebs before regarding practical techniques for handling school presentations. I'll keep this one, for sure!

    The thought of being trapped alone in a cafeteria with 300 8th graders is the stuff of legend! *shudders*

  3. What fabulous tips! I bet the schools love having you visit. I’m a speech therapist and I work with students of all ages. I’ve been to several assemblies and I know it isn’t easy to manage crowd behavior but it sounds like you’ve got it down.

  4. Great tips! I've put a link to this post on my website – hope it brings me some large audiences to manage! I can see a lot of your suggestions working for smaller groups as well. Thanks for sharing your experience and knowledge, Shana.

  5. Thanks so much for appreciating the post! To be sure every word in this was born of blood, sweat, and tears. And thank you, Cyn, for having me. It's an honor!

  6. I'm a speech-therapist too, and I've also done a number of author presentations, so crowd management is a daily struggle. I once got some unruly football players to volunteer to get up in front of the crowd to sing a song about meatballs. Kids aren't bad, they just all seem to have ADHD these days.

    But I must speak out in the teachers' defense. I doubt they were texting. I'm sure they were just taking notes on your wonderful presentation on their smartphones:)

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