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Your 25 Questions

writing workshop ideas your 25 questionsSomeone had gotten the dates wrong. It was Tuesday, May 3rd, 2005, and I was visiting Villanova Junior High School in Conception Bay South, Newfoundland. As far as I knew, I was coming in to run a full-day writing workshop with a select group of 20 students… so I had my laptop, CD player (those were the days), and all the usual workshop materiel in my arms as I sauntered into the office before first bell.

None of it was needed. See, the staff at Villanova had booked the workshop for Thursday, and instead had thought I’d be coming in on Tuesday to talk to a variety of different classes about being a writer.

Hearing this, I smiled –– said no problem. I even had an hour or so to prepare. So I returned to the parking lot and the rental car being driven by Iceberg’s editor-in-chief (my mom, thank God) Jacqui Tam, where I proceeded to panic. I didn’t even have my classroom presentation overheads (look it up) with me… I’d have to wing it, but how?

If you ever do classroom visits, you’ll probably find that students are reluctant to ask questions. Sometimes they have no idea what you do, other times they know but don’t want to appear as though they do. Because of the schoolyard politics we all remember –– popular kids, unpopular kids, nerds, jocks and all the rest of it –– it’s difficult for a guest writer to wade in, and somehow speak to everyone on an equal footing.

But even with an hour’s notice, you have to try, so Jacqui and I talked options based on the resources at hand. We knew it would be important that I drive the agenda… but that delivering an off-the-cuff lecture would be insufferable (people who’ve been to Iceberg book events know what I’m talking about). Interactivity was vital, but how could that be achieved?

Well fortunately, being rather excellent at everything, Jacqui came up with a system that could have been executed on the back of a napkin. It worked even better because we had a pad of paper.

The method is very simple: you write “Your 25 Questions” at the top of a page, then list 25 things you want the students to ask you. You make some questions serious (how long does it take to write a book?) and others funny (are you done talking yet?). You include some question that will only make sense to you and the teacher (what is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?) and others that let you side with the students (do you think TV is bad?). Once the list is complete, you fold the piece of paper (I prefer into fours, myself), and place it in your pocket. Done.

You see, this is a tool that cannot be easily defeated. Upon arriving in a classroom, you simply introduce yourself, ask for questions, and let the silence drag on for a few seconds. Then, as everyone settles in for what they assume will be an awkward period of you bouncing up and down in a desperate attempt to capture attention… you point to a random kid and say: “Fine, give me a number between 1 and 25.”

It almost feels like cheating.

Once the questions start flowing, the ice breaks pretty quickly. Soon students are calling numbers unprompted, hoping they’ll land on a funny one, tolerating it if they don’t. Everyone knows it’s a gag, but they’re willing to be in on it because it’s better than the alternative of just being bored… and, I think, because it shows respect –– shows that you didn’t walk in expecting anything from them, but that you value their involvement, and have found a way to make sure they can be in on the game.

Needless to say, I never went back to overheads for classroom visits. Instead, I used the very same page of 25 questions over and over again, at countless schools from Newfoundland to Alberta, and at points in between. It wasn’t until 2009 that I decided to retire the original, and replace it with an upgraded (typed!) version, that continues to serve me to this day (though admittedly, I don’t get into classrooms as much as I used to).

So there it is: if you’re ever in a panic before having to do a guest appearance in a classroom, find yourself a pad of paper and a pen, and start asking yourself questions. It might just save the day.