Virtual Class Visits Link Book Authors to Students
Skype visits keep writers close to young readers
Among the current generation of teachers, many spent their childhoods seeing authors as out of reach—otherworldly even. Sending a fan letter was often a symbolic gesture more than anything, since responses were unexpected and rare.
But now, some of those educators, particularly at the elementary and middle school levels, are trying to change that dynamic by connecting students and writers—and they're using technology tools like Twitter, Skype, and even Google Docs to do so.
"It's kind of changing the way we bring literacy to kids," said Stacey Riedmiller, a 4th grade English/language arts teacher in Reading, Ohio. When these students grow up, "I'd not be surprised if we saw a huge influx of authors and illustrators."
Teachers often say they use social media as an entry point for making those connections. They might reach out to a writer who has an active Twitter handle and let him or her know their students enjoyed the book. Many authors respond to those sorts of messages, and at times, a conversation begins online.
These days, more authors are also doing virtual school visits—using Skype, Google Hangout, or Facetime. While in-person visits can cost a school as much as a couple thousand dollars in author fees and travel costs, these short video-chat sessions are generally free if the students have read the author's book.
"My kids don't look at the classroom anymore as having four walls," said Rayna Freedman, a 5th grade teacher and instructional-technology specialist in Mansfield, Mass., "because they can now reach out to anybody."
Such virtual interactions, many say, can be beneficial for students, educators, and writers alike. For students, they offer a behind-the-curtain look at the writing, revising, and publishing processes and convey that authors are real people. For teachers, they give insight into the kinds of questions students have about being a writer.
And for authors, these conversations are both a boon for marketing and a source of authentic feedback from the students they're writing for.
"I find that when I get too caught up stressing about the business aspect of children's books, talking to these young readers helps ground me, reminding me of the joy and why I do this," Debbie Ridpath Ohi, the Toronto-based author and illustrator of Where Are My Books?, wrote in an email.
'Not How It Works'
Author Julie Falatko last month kicked off a Skype call with 5th graders at Oxford Elementary School in Oxford, Maine, by introducing her pet dog to break the ice.
She then gave the class a preview of the second book in her Snappsy the Alligator series, which doesn't come out until this fall. "There's a little bit of a secret in the book, so you need to keep the secret," Falatko, Skyping from her home about an hour away, told the group.
After reading the book—pausing every so often to point out the illustrator Tim Miller's good work ("Look at all that pizza, you guys!")—the writer took student questions.
Students were curious about her inspirations and narrative choices ("Why is Snappsy so grumpy?" one asked). With steering from the teacher, the conversation turned to revision.
"When I was your age, I thought authors sat down and wrote the words and they were done, and illustrators would sit down and draw the pictures and they were done," Falatko said. "That is so totally not how it works."
She waved an early draft of the original Snappsy for the students to see. "Version 18—that's a low version number for me. Generally, it takes me about 30 drafts on average to get the story right," said Falatko.
The book continued to change, she said, up until it was published—more than three years after she had started writing it.
"Do you work on more than one piece of writing at a time?" asked the teacher, Melissa Guerrette.
"I do. … I find I'm much better at revising if I forget about it for a bit," Falatko said. "I can look at it with fresh eyes almost as if I didn't write it."
Guerrette reiterated that point for her students. "Do any of you sometimes need to take a break from what you're working on?" Yeses were heard all around.
The discussions students have about revision can be illuminating, Guerrette, who has been Skyping with writers for about five years, said. At times, students open up to authors in ways they don't with their teachers.
For instance, they might tell an author that they struggle with revision because they "don't want to feel like they did all that writing for nothing," Guerrette said.
Hearing the questions students ask can also be a method of formative assessment. Through Skype sessions, Guerrette said she's learned "what [students] knew about being a reader, the way they value books, what some of their preferences were, what they thought of themselves as writers, and their interpretation of what writers do."
Authors do these chats for various reasons—to promote books, to help with the creative process, to stay connected to the age range they're writing for, to make a sometimes-isolating profession a bit less so.
"If you're going to write for kids, you have to be around kids," said Barbara O'Connor, an Asheville, N.C.-based author, who does about four or five free Skype sessions per month. "My son is all grown up, and I don't have access unless I make the effort to travel. But I can Skype with kids in Georgia or Hawaii."
Recently, Freedman, the Massachusetts teacher, reached out to O'Connor on Twitter with a link to a shared document. Freedman's class had read O'Connor's book Wish, and each student had written comments for the author.
"I tweeted out around 12:55, and by 1 p.m., she'd already responded on Twitter," Freedman said. "Mind you, I've never met her."
O'Connor asked for access to edit the Google Doc, so that she could respond to each individual student—which she did within the hour. "The look on their faces when they were like, 'The author actually responded to my comment … ,' " Freedman recalled. "This was amazing."
Social-media interactions can be effective forms of advertisement, said Tracy van Straaten, the vice president for publicity and education/library marketing at Scholastic, "like word-of-mouth amplified." But it's not something her company pushes on writers. "Some of the authors are super engaged on social media and some aren't, and that's OK," she said.
Tracey Baptiste, the author of The Jumbies, who spent her early career as a teacher, tends to use her personal Facebook page to connect with teachers and librarians. "With Facebook, I can come back three hours later and participate in the conversation, and somebody else can pick it up two weeks from now," she said.
As the technology has improved, more authors have been interested in doing virtual visits, according to van Straaten.
Erin Downing, the author of The Quirks, is a big fan of classroom Skype visits—she does about 30 to 40 a year. "I hear from teachers sometimes that they think they're bothering you to reach out," said the Minneapolis-based writer. "If I was overwhelmed, I'd stop. … This is an industry that's filled with so much self-doubt and worry. To get that positive affirmation every once in a while is really lovely."
With a day job as a software engineer, Josh Funk, author of Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, can't actually go to schools often, so he spends his Friday lunch breaks Skyping with classes. For World Read Aloud Day in February, he took the day off and did 21 virtual visits.
While reaching out to authors can be intimidating, a single interaction can snowball quickly, teachers say. The online children's literature sphere is active, engaged, and supportive of one another.
"I think the kid-lit community, it feels large until you're kind of in it," said Riedmiller, the Ohio teacher. "But everyone knows everyone." Authors introduce teachers to other authors. Teachers pass on the names of authors who Skype.
Several online hubs for children's book aficionados have fed those relationships. The Nerdy Book Club, a website devoted to discussing children's and young adult titles, was started by four teachers in 2011 and now has more than 60,000 people on its RSS feed.
Delving into these online communities has another benefit, some teachers and authors say: the formation of close friendships across the professions.
"To get to know these people who like the same kinds of books that I do and care about kids the way I do, you have a ton in common," said Downing. "It's the best part of both of our jobs."
Vol. 36, Issue 25, Page 6Published in Print: March 22, 2017, as Social Media Connects Students to Authors