June 23, 2017

Author Visits? A Remote Possibility: Using Skype to connect is fun and affordable

From

Illustration by Tom Nick Cocotos

By Kate Messner

It started with a Tweet. A couple weeks before World Read Aloud Day (WRAD) 2011, a teacher tweeted a request, asking if an author would be willing to read to her students that morning to celebrate the annual event.

I volunteered, as did other writers. Soon, more teachers began to seek author volunteers. As I watched this growing tweet-storm, I thought, there might be an easier way to connect people.

I already maintained a list of authors who do free Skype chats with book clubs and classes that have read at least one of their titles, so it made sense for me to put out a call on social media for authors who were willing to Skype during WRAD. Within hours, I had a list of over three dozen volunteers up on my website. I shared the link via Twitter, and teachers and librarians worldwide, in turn, passed it around.

On March 9, 2011, the day of the event, authors were connecting with classrooms across the globe, reading from their current and upcoming books, and sharing their own childhood favorites with eager kids. The folks at LitWorld, the nonprofit international literacy organization that sponsors WRAD, were delighted. “We thought it was an amazing idea, and we were so excited about the way it developed naturally,” says LitWorld programming development coordinator, Yaya Yuan.

The author-classroom connections forged through Skype are especially valuable in rural and financially strapped communities. Just ask Karla Duff, a sixth-grade teacher at a middle school of about 300 students in Oelwein, IA. The district is in a rural area with a struggling economy, and in-person author visits simply aren’t possible. “As of last year, in my 18 years of teaching, we had never had an author visit our school,” says Duff. “Skype brought authors to us—free.”

Duff arranged a marathon day of Skype author visits for WRAD. The kids loved it so much that she made Skyping a regular part of her literacy program. Now, her students are old pros at virtual author visits. They have assigned roles on the day of the chat and run the whole event themselves, greeting the author as they welcome her to the classroom, asking questions they’ve formulated ahead of time, and even live-tweeting the Skype chat to share the experience beyond their classroom.

They’ve even taken the idea further and connected with other classrooms. Duff’s students, for example, have used Skype to read to a special education class at an elementary school in their district. “By the end of the year,” Duff says, “the elementary students were reading to us. This really was a positive activity that brought our students together without travel time and expense.”

Just hanging out

That’s part of the appeal of Skype visits for many authors, too. Laurel Snyder, author of Bigger Than a Breadbox (2011) and Penny Dreadful (2010, both Random), finds visiting schools rewarding—but also exhausting. “The presentation feels so formal to me,” Snyder says. “I dress up. I travel. I have to arrange additional childcare for my own kids. I have to remember the right wires and cords for my PowerPoint. All of that takes away from the spontaneous quality for me, the idea that underneath it all, I’m really just talking to kids.”

Snyder discovered something when students she was Skyping with inquired about the art they saw on her dining room walls and asked to meet her dog. The video chat was more like having them hang out at her house, and it allowed her to be more spontaneous, jumping up to grab props that related to kids’ questions. Snyder cites another benefit of Skyping. “The kids see an author as a regular person, a human being, doing a job that they could do, too, if they wanted to work hard,” she says.

Katherine Sokolowski, a fifth-grade teacher at Washington School in Monticello, IL, would agree. Her students Skyped with a number of authors, including Snyder, during last year’s WRAD. “The use of Skype… and Twitter… has made them think of authors as their friends,” Sokolowski says. “I love that they refer to them by first name.”

During my own Skype session with Sokolowski’s class, I asked students which book they’d like to hear. Almost unanimously, they wanted me to share a bit of the manuscript of my upcoming thriller, Eye of the Storm (Walker/Bloomsbury, 2012). The kids were excited to hear the first reading from a book that wouldn’t be released for another year and have been asking about it ever since,” says Sokolowski. “I still have kids contact me to see when ‘that tornado book by Kate’ is coming out.”

Another benefit of author visits? Writing advice. After hearing suggestions from the pros via Skype, students were newly motivated to work on their own writing projects, Sokolowski told me. “I think that was the best writing workshop ever,” she says. “The kids were so focused trying to apply what they had learned.”

Best practices around WRAD

For library media specialists Shannon Miller and John Schumacher, Skype has been instrumental in helping them create a close connection between their schools, even though they’re more than 300 miles apart. Miller, a district teacher librarian and tech specialist for Van Meter (IA) Community School District, began integrating Skype into classrooms three years ago. The school library director at Brook Forest Elementary School, in Oak Brook, IL, Schumacher has been using Skype for the past year and a half and connecting with Miller’s students for just over a year now.

Since then, their students have grown more comfortable with the technology. “They’ve taken ownership of the sessions,” Schumacher says. “They aren’t as silly. They’re more connected, and they see it as an extension of the classroom and the curriculum.”

World Read Aloud Day was a busy one for Schumacher and Miller. In fact, their Skype author visits continued throughout the week, an adventure that the two librarians chronicled in a shared wiki and an Animoto video recap. “Our kids loved the day,” says Miller.

This year, WRAD will be on March 7, and based on the success of last year’s grassroots Skype connections, LitWorld has decided to make video read-alouds an official part of the 2012 event. “We wanted to make sure that the video chat visits were an even bigger part of WRAD this year to emphasize the international aspect of the day, so we set it up as an official sign-up on our site,” says Yuan.

Authors and schools are also making direct connections once again this year via my online World Read Aloud Day Skype author volunteer list.

Duff will be celebrating World Read Aloud Day a little differently this year; she’ll be at Books of Wonder, a New York City landmark, for the official LitWorld gala, so she’ll be Skyping with her students back home from the other side of the camera, a new experience.

For those who are new to Skype—and maybe a little wary of the technology—veterans of virtual visits offer advice and empathy. “My first experience was feeling fearful that the technology wouldn’t work,” says Sokolowski, who’s been using Skype for two years now. “I’ve become more relaxed with it as I’ve used it more.”

Her advice for a successful Skype experience? “Prepare the kids in advance. Make sure they know who they’re meeting with and have read some of their books. Practice using Skype,” says Sokolowski. She had her students do trial runs Skyping with her husband and her mom to get the feel of the technology. She also recommends having a backup activity like journal writing or independent reading. “Have a plan in place for if and when the technology doesn’t work,” she says. “My students bring a book with them to their chairs.”

Yuan and her colleagues at LitWorld hope that these World Read Aloud Day connections will continue to inspire kids. “In coming years,” Yuan says, “technology will be used more and more to introduce young people to global ideas and the important conversations that emerge from relationships across the world.” And they won’t even have to leave their classrooms.

 

World Read Aloud Day and Skype: Resources and links

  • LitWorld is the organization that founded World Read Aloud Day (WRAD).
  • Interested in a Skype read aloud for your students? Here’s Kate Messner’s list of authors volunteering to read via Skype for WRAD 2012.
  • SLJ’s feature on WRAD 2011 shares more about last year’s celebration.
  • And here’s Messner’s 2011 WRAD roundup.
  • Karla Duff’s blog post on WRAD 2011 shares her students’ Skype experiences.
  • John Schumacher and Shannon Miller created this wiki for World Read Aloud Day.
  • Schumacher and Miller also created an Animoto video to show how their readers celebrated WRAD 2011.
  • New to Skype author visits? Check out these previous SLJ features for a crash course on how it all works:
  • “Met Any Good Authors Lately?”
  • “An Author in Every Classroom”
  • Visit the Skype website to download (free) software and set up an account.
  • Interested in a Skype author visit that’s not on World Read Aloud Day? Here’s a list of authors who offer free Skype Q & A sessions with groups that have read one of their books.
  • The Skype-an-Author Network is another resource that lists Skyping authors who offer both free and paid visits.

 

 

Kate Messner (kmessner@katemessner.com) is an award-winning author of books for kids, including Over and Under the Snow (Chronicle, 2011) and Marty McGuire Digs Worms (Scholastic, April 2012).

 

 

 

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