The Compelling Conundrum of Middle School Events

Kenny Brechner -- March 27th, 2019

Many times I ask myself what do about middle school author visits. It is so hard to get pre-orders for them that one inclines towards despair. What makes it worse is that they are often the most dynamic in terms of student engagement. Some of the most memorable school visits I have ever witnessed, and I’ve seen many, occurred at middle schools. This is paired with the most lackluster pre-order sales one can cringe to recall.

The reason for this phenomenon is obvious, but the answer is not. Nobody lives in the now more than middle school students. Do pre-order forms make the trip home and then back again? The answer is no. No school event in the future is worth considering. Even Bilbo Baggins, mister there and back again himself, would have left his pre-order form at home were he a middle school student. On the other hand their inner lives are under immense pressure, and if a good presentation draws them forth into public view, the results are correspondingly spectacular.

Just recently I toured three schools with the great Diane Magras, a fabulous presenter by any standard, two upper elementary and one middle school. We had great sales at the elementary schools and anemic ones at the middle school, bailed out by faculty. The painful thing is that the participation element of the presentation at the middle school was a show stopper. Diane creates a narrative with three student volunteers and then the whole audience built around a series of choices to establish primary and secondary characters, stakes, goals, problems, and so forth. She offers multiple choice options or else the kids can go off the grid.

For a protagonist they chose an ill-mannered kitchen knave who sought to avenge himself on the Castle’s Lord. ‘Why,” she asked the audience. Hands erupted and one was chosen. “The Lord stole his girlfriend and is keeping her prisoner in his chambers.” The crowd erupted. “Okay” said Diane. He needs a sidekick.” More hands erupted. She chose one. “His sidekick’s a squirrel.” Uproarious laughter. “Okay,” said Diane, “what’s at stake for the Squirrel?” More hands. “He wants to avenge himself on the Lord too.” “Why?” asked Diane. “Because the Lord stole his girlfriend too.” The whole gymnasium convulsed with laughter and then began filling in the squirrel narrative with more ideas.  Your can’t beat that.

Diane Magras with her three volunteer helpers at Spruce Mountain Middle School.

If these presentations are uniquely valuable at middle schools, the question becomes how to make them financially viable so that they can actually continue to occur. High schools can’t have giant assemblies; their student schedules are too highly compartmentalized and so we use smaller presentations and reading-group style institutional business to make them work. Middle schools, however, can still have all school or all grade assemblies. True, we could scale down to guaranteed sale events like reading groups, but the assemblies can be so crazy great that one hates to consign them to the P&L scrapheap. That’s what’s at stake. That is where our narrative stands. All we need to make it all work are the squirrels. They’re awfully hard to capture, though.

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