In the past few weeks, I have had an amazing experience working with a first and fourth grade teacher and their amazing students on a virtual author/illustrator visit via Skype. Let me start from the beginning...
I was fortunate enough to be offered the opportunity to Skype with illustrator LeUyen Pham and author Ellen Potter as part of a presentation for the NCTE annual conference in Orlando in the fall. I thought long and hard about the best way to utilize the virtual author/illustrator visit. I could have set it up so that LeUyen Pham an Ellen Potter Skyped with the teachers in my children's literature course. That would have certainly been a valuable experience for all since teachers are more likely to utilize resources such as Skype if they have had positive experiences with it themselves.
However, about half way through my children's literature course, I knew that the more powerful way to use this wonderful opportunity was to have the author and illustrator Skype with children. Teachers would certainly benefit from the experience themselves, but they would see the greater benefit through the eyes of children. That would truly show the power of virtual author/illustrator visits.
For an author/illustrator visit (virtual or in person) to be successful, the students must be very familiar with the author/illustrator's work. It can take weeks or even months of reading, discussing, and studying an author/illustrator's craft before students are ready for the visit. So you would think that finding teachers who, at this late date in the school year, were willing to add a study of LeUyen Pham's illustrations and Ellen Potter's writing to their already busy end-of-the-year schedule would be a task, right? Not so.
Two amazing teachers enrolled in my children's literature course were more than willing to take on the task and the opportunity. Leslie Panaro, a first grade teacher at a local elementary school jumped at the opportunity to engage her brilliant first grade students in the study LeUyen Pham's work and Amy Moser, a fourth grade teacher was also willing and eager to engage her brilliant students in the study of Ellen Potter's writing.
I observed in both teachers' classrooms as they immersed their students in the work of an author/illustrator study. Leslie's first graders constructed an anchor chart on which they documented the illustrative medium, style, and technique for each of LeUyen Pham's illustrated books. Amy's fourth graders all read Ellen Potter and Anne Mazer's new book, Spilling Ink: A Young Writer's Handbook. In the book, the authors encourage their young readers to try a particular writing techniques through prompts titled, I Dare You. Amy started a class blog on which the fourth graders would post their responses to the I Dare You prompts and would reply to each other.
After about a month of studying the author/illustrator's work, Amy and Leslie set up the Skype event with their respective author/illustrator. Now here this big secret: NO ONE involved in the project (teachers, author, illustrator, students) had ever Skyped before! That's right. Everyone was a neophyte. So, to be sure everyone knew what they were doing and the virtual visit would run as smoothly as possible, they conducted a "dry run" in which they connected via Skype a few days before the actual visit.
Leslie's class visit with LeUyen Pham was first. Leslie, her students, myself, the local newspaper, the principal of the school, and the media specialist were all waiting in anxious anticipation for the event to begin. And of course, it was AMAZING! You can read Leslie's account of the event on her blog here. You can read about the event from the report in the local newspaper here. It was the first time anyone had done anything like this in the school district. Below is a picture from the local paper:
Amy's Skype session with Ellen Potter was also an amazing success. You can read about the event here from the William & Mary News, which also reports on Leslie's Skyype event with LeUyen Pham.
For these virtual author events to be such a success took careful planning by the teachers and the author/illustrator. Without such careful planning, these events would not have been nearly as successful as they were. The students were clearly engaged and excited about visiting with these authors not only because to the medium through which they were "meeting," but because they genuinely enjoyed the author/illustrator's work and wanted to learn more.
Leslie and Amy will be presenting with me at NCTE along with LeUyen Pham and Ellen Potter. We will show video clips of the Skype events and discuss in more detail the pros and cons of using Skype for virtual author/illustrator visits. But, I can tell you now, there are way more pros than cons. I hope to see you at NCTE!