Virtual Author Visits: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, & the Awesome

There’s been a lot of online chatter lately about virtual author visits, and as someone who wears two hats, I’ve been paying special attention. Because I’m a middle school English teacher as well as an author, my ability to travel for school visits is somewhat limited, so I’ll be using Skype videoconferencing software to offer virtual visits to classrooms and book clubs when THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z is released in September.

I also love the idea of my own students having more opportunities to talk with authors, and today my 7th graders had a virtual visit with the amazing Laurie Halse Anderson. We read CHAINS this winter and were swept away, so the kids had lots of questions about how Laurie researched the novel and brought her characters to life. Laurie is planning to offer virtual visits for schools starting in the fall, and we were thrilled to be her guinea pigs. Our kids piled into the auditorium at 9:45 this morning and waited for my laptop to ring with Laurie’s 10am call on Skype.

And then there she was!

Laurie and I agreed to double team an online review of our virtual visit – I’m providing a teacher’s perspective, and she’s blogging about the experience from the author’s point of view over at halseanderson .  So here are my thoughts on virtual visits: the good, the bad, the ugly, and the awesome…

The Good:

~Laurie is not only an incredibly talented author but also a friendly, generous, down-to-earth person, and that came through on the big screen, too. Our 7th graders loved her before this visit; they love her more now.

~She gave answers that were just long enough but not too long. We had time for about 30 kids to ask questions in a 45-minute visit, and they were just thrilled. When the kids asked about her research, she held up her latest sources.

~Our plan to keep things organized worked. Students knew who was asking questions and when it was their turn. I gave each interviewer a rundown, along with an index card with the question her or she wrote.

Kids were on “standby” when the person before them on the list was talking with Laurie, and that kept things moving along.

~The setup for this virtual visit was pretty much painless.

~I brought in my laptop from home (a MacBook with a built-in camera), connected it to the projector in our auditorium, hooked the computer into the school network, and patched it into our sound system.

~Skype worked like it was supposed to work 95% of the time. (See “the Ugly” for the other 5%)

The Bad: (What we’d do differently next time)

~Sometimes, it was hard for our auditorium audience to hear the questions being asked. Our interviewers were facing Laurie on the laptop, rather than the other students. Next time we do a virtual author visit, I’ll remind the kids about the need to speak up, try to get a microphone set up, or perhaps ask if our author might be willing to repeat questions before answering.

The Ugly:

~Skype is wonderful and magical and free. It is also subject to the whims of all sorts of Internet bandwidth, firewall, and other technology issues that I don’t entirely understand. As a result, four or five times during our virtual visit, we simply lost the connection. Laurie’s face would freeze mid-sentence, and we had to hang up and call her back. Usually, that all happened within a few seconds, but once I had to quit Skype and re-launch the application before we could get our connection back, and that took an extra minute. Overall, the interruptions were annoying but manageable.

The Awesome:

~Kids who I never dreamed would stand and share a question were so excited to talk with Laurie. She treated each student like his or her question was the most important one in the world. I watched their faces as they listened. They glowed.

~My class was watching the ALA video-conference from Denver last month and cheered when Laurie was announced as the winner of the Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement. We cheered again today and loved that she could hear us this time!

~We also got to listen to Laurie read the first few pages of FORGE, the sequel to CHAINS, told from the point of view of Isabel’s friend, Curzon. It is so full of promise that I don’t know how I’m going to wait until 2010 to read the rest.

Thanks, Laurie, for such a wonderful morning with our kids!

If you want to read about another author/illustrator’s experience, Elizabeth Dulemba has an extensive blog post on her first virtual visit, too.

And finally….a to-do list for teachers who want to set up a Skype virtual author visit.

1. Download Skype at home and try it out with someone you know. Figure out how it works. It’s pretty simple, but you’ll want to make sure you’re comfortable before you set up a visit.

2. Contact your technology coordinator to see if you can use Skype at school. Some will say yes. Some will say no. And some will wave magic wands and adjust bandwidth restrictions and unblock things so you can pull it off. Send them chocolate later.

3. Contact the author with whom you’d like to have a virtual visit. Find out about availability, technology needs, and fees. Also be aware that video chats aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, so if an author says no thanks, respect that.

4. Once you’ve set up a date and time (morning may be best to avoid high usage Internet times), reserve the space where you’ll be having your virtual visit. Make sure the equipment you’ll need is available and working. If you’re not good with technology, enlist the help of a co-worker who is. Send that person chocolate later, too.

5. Make a plan for your virtual visit. How long will it last? (30-45 minutes seems to be perfect.) Who will ask questions? Where will they stand? Where do they go when they’re done? If you figure it out ahead of time, you won’t have to interrupt your visit to deal with questions.

6. Talk to your students about etiquette for a virtual author visit. In many ways, it’s just like having a guest speaker in your auditorium or classroom in person, and kids need to know that all the same rules about courteous behavior apply. It will also be important for them to know that technical issues are a possibility and that their quiet cooperation will help you get things fixed more quickly.

7. Test Skype at school. It doesn’t matter if you’ve tested it at home; things are different on school networks, and you don’t want to discover a problem when it’s time for your virtual visit.

8. On the day of your virtual visit, launch Skype and either call the author or wait for him/her to call you – whatever you agreed upon in advance. Know that there may be technical problems, but you’ll be able to fix them. You may want to have kids bring books for silent reading in case there’s an extended period of lost contact. Planning and flexibility (and a sense of humor!) will go a long way toward making your virtual author visit a great experience!

One more thing….

9. After your virtual visit, would you stop back here and let me know how it goes? I can’t wait to hear more about kids & authors coming together through technology!

best tracker

49 Replies on “Virtual Author Visits: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, & the Awesome

  1. Great post. I’m anxious to hear how authors plan to charge for virtual visits (because they certainly should, methinks, since they do take time and effort to prepare for, even if they don’t require actual travel).

  2. I’d love to hear more thoughts on this, as I think a lot of people are still unsure what to charge for school visits. My current thought is to offer free virtual chats with book clubs that read GIANNA Z because I feel like it’s a great story for kids & parents to read together (also because I love hanging out at book clubs!).

  3. What a great story! I love technology! I’m glad you all had such a good visit, and it’s so exciting to think that more and more folks will be able to do this sort of thing.

    And now I am thinking I ought to get a camera for my computer so I can try it out too, just in case I need it…!

  4. Not being a teacher or a parent, I’m curious — do book clubs of that sort generally meet during school hours, after school but at the school itself, or are you talking about independent non-school-related book clubs?

    I would love to be able to chat with real kid readers like this but I work during the day so I am not sure how I would fit it in.

  5. I think that makes sense – for you, and at this point in your career. And it would make sense for me, too. But what if we were Cindy, or Laurie, and getting hundreds of requests? (And truly, here’s to you succeeding as well as either of them, or both of them put together!)

  6. I posted this on Laurie’s blog, too, but the freezes and pixelization seem to be inherent bugs in Skype. I’ve used it extensively from work, where we have a T1 line, and we still have those problems. Your suggestion of patience and flexibility is spot on. 🙂

  7. I really want to learn how to do this and figure out a way to promote it. I think it’s a fabulous idea!! Do you think teachers and librarians are getting on board with the idea of virtual visits?

  8. excellent post

    Thanks for sharing this and the SCBWI folks should be calling you right now to publish this in their magazine—Writer’s Digest, too. Fantastic info.

  9. This was super fun Mrs. Messner!
    I had no idea you were on livejournal. I was looking through lists of people and I found you. Laurie was really a nice person! 🙂

  10. Exactly – I went into it knowing there would likely be interruptions and told the kids how to act when it happened. It was slightly annoying but really didn’t take away much from the visit at all.

  11. Well I’m on board! That said, a lot of districts are less flexible than mine and either don’t have the bandwidth for Skype or simply ban its use at school. I think you’ll see that change, though, because it’s such a phenomenal resource. I have Skype at home, too, so if you download it and want to try it out, just drop me a note. I’d be happy to talk you through it and help you try it out.

    I also have a very small creative writing class at school, so if you want to try it out with real live students in a no-pressure kind of setting, just let me know and you can borrow them!

  12. Hi, Cody! I’m so glad you guys had as much fun as I did with the visit – and your question was terrific. I agree – Laurie is awesome. I love it when an author whose work I really love turns out to be a great person, too.

  13. Laurie is actually a very talented author! I’ve read two of her books and I must say, “I’m impressed.” I can’t wait to read FORGE.

    I’ve seen you’re other blogs about GIANNA Z. It sounds like its going to be great. I want to read it. 🙂

  14. This is so awesome! Like you, I’m excited to learn about things like this as both an author and an educator. Nice work.

  15. So Helpful!

    As an author about to embark on offering virtual visits, and a friend of both you and Laurie, I found this incredibly helpful, valuable, and fun! Thanks so much for sharing the process, as well as the do’s and dont’s. I’m printing this out for future reference–but I’ll see YOUR students in person very soon!

  16. Wow! How do you have time?!

    Teaching school, writing books, and planning all this? Wow, I am truly amazed! I find such an incredibly hard time balancing teaching high school, family, and writing, that I am in awe of your talent. This is incredibly cool for you and Laurie to have this presentation for the kids–they will always remember it! Kudos!

  17. Re: Wow! How do you have time?!

    Oh you’re definitely not alone in the balancing act – some days I do better than others! Thanks for your kind words!

  18. You are remarkable! Your school is very fortunate to have you,, Kate. What great opportunities you set up for your students.

    Since you’re heading in this direction, here’s one thought I had. I worry a little with a school’s expectations when you call it a “virtual author visit.” To be honest, I think it might be good to call it something else. “Virtual author visit” sounds a little like it’s a regular author visit (which is usually a presentation of some sort), but only less expensive and done at a distance.

    Even if you’re crystal clear with the person booking you. . .teachers might still hear “author visit” and think they only have to do the regular things they do to prep and to participate during an author visit. More of the event falls on the school in this model.

    To me, this sounds more like doing a wonderfully visual speaker-phone call with a group of kids. When I do a speaker-phone call, the adult on the other end knows she will manage everything, and I will be there to participate and answer questions. But when I do an author visit, teachers expect me to carry the whole program during the event itself–even often, the classroom management.

    It’s not really a less expensive author visit (which some schools might think)–it’s a wonderful, different type of event. And one that requires the school to do some things differently than they might be used to with in-person visits.

  19. This was a fascinating entry – thanks so much for the insight! I’ve been trying to figure out virtual ways to connect with readers next year when my book is published in America (while I keep living in England) – this hadn’t even occurred to me, and it sounds like a fantastic idea.

  20. This is a great point, Cindy – and I know of two very different kinds of experiences that authors are offering. Laurie’s was a straight Q and A session – while I know Elizabeth Dulemba actually sends her PowerPoint presentation and prepares a talk that she gives and then takes questions. Authors who are doing virtual visits will really need to think about which model they’ll use and describe it accordingly to schools. Of course, personally, I don’t think anything virtual is the same as having a real live person there with your kids, but I do like to have the option when that’s not possible.

  21. Hi, Stephanie! This sounds like it might be a great option for you. If you need a small class of guinea pigs to test it out, let me know – I have a tiny creative writing class that would be happy to chat with you if you’d like to test the technology.

  22. You are amazing, Kate. A friend sent me a link to your post which I had missed. I’ve been asked to do a virtual visit with a classroom next month and didn’t have a clue how Skype worked. Your post helped so much. At least I know if things freeze up, it wasn’t something *I* did : )

    Your visit with Laurie looked so organized and awesome. Kudos to you!

  23. Kate! Great wind-up and thanks so much for the call-out! Mind if I add your link to my post on Virtual Visits as well? I’m starting to collect them. Arthur Slade just did a write-up of his recent Virtual Visit, using this same method, and blogged about it as well. Hopefully, the more this gets out there, the more teachers will realize this is a viable option for their students.

    I do charge much less for a Virtual Visit than I do for an in-person event. There’s a lot of front-end testing, but when it comes down to it, once you turn the computer off, you can get back to work, which is nearly impossible after an in-person event. As far as the slideshow – I’m an illustrator too, so much of my material is visual, making that kind of thing integral to my presentations.

    I really enjoy doing Virtual Visits and hope to do more in the future!
    Elizabeth O. Dulemba

  24. Of course you can add a link – thanks!! I like virtual visits, too, and think we’ll see this as a real area of growth in connecting kids with authors.

  25. I so love this idea! I have long fantasized about a completely virtual tour where I’d never have to leave the house. Glad to see you were able to get it past the school firewall! Keep it up.

  26. I think if more teachers are able to articulate to their district technology coordinators exactly what they’re trying to do with Skype and why it’s valuable, then firewalls can be tweaked. We’re lucky to have fantastic people pushing the buttons in district office.

  27. Really, really helpful, Kate, as I’m getting ready to do my first Skype visits in January and are hoping that they work out. It sounds like you made Laurie’s job simple!

  28. I love the skype possibilities, especially for smaller school districts and far-flung schools. Saves on travel expenses and time commitments. As much as I enjoy going into schools and meeting the kids face to face, this is a great alternative. The only drawback is no book signings for kids who look forward to that as part of the visit. (But that’s where bookplates come in handy.) Great post. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  29. Hi Kate,
    My reading partner, our librarian and I are delving into the world of skyping with authors. So far, we have had visits with Dan Gutman and Linda Sue Park. We are looking forward to March when we will skype with Barbara O’Connor and Gennifer Choldenko. Our 6th grade classrooms are meeting with each author for 30 minute sessions. All I can say is Wow!! The response from students has been amazing. It is such a personal connection with the author…totally amazing. (Even teachers and adminstrators thoroughly enjoy the experience.) We are definitely going to apply for a grant next year to skpe with others. I thought that having the author here would be a much better meeting, but I was wrong. It’s actually much more personal when you skype…it’s face to face and our students love it.

    Thanks for putting together the World Reading Day site for March 7th. We’ve booked two authors for our title one reading classes and are very psyched!

    Phyllis Karpen