It is ten o’clock on a Thursday morning. I have just finished a final revision of a manuscript for a new book, I pour myself a fresh cup of coffee and get ready for my next author visit. I will be speaking to over a hundred primary students at Okanagan Landing Elementary School in Vernon, B.C.
The only unusual thing is that I am still at home on Salt Spring Island. No need to travel 500 km by car or airplane. You see, I will meet these students via Skype.
Founded in 2003 by Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, Skype is an Internet tool that can be used to talk to anyone in the world who has computer access. You simply download the free application. As long as your computer has a camera and microphone (or you can plug in a telephone headset with microphone), you can talk to a friend in Paris, see your grandbaby in Thailand or meet with colleagues around the world. And it’s free. Skype has rationalized communication.
Rick Penner, teacher librarian at Okanagan Landing School, decided to put the technology in his school to good use and invited me to conduct an author visit using Skype. “In our school,” says Rick, “teachers are encouraged to use powerful published writing from well-known books to illustrate effective writing.” The school focuses on development of writing concepts such as ideas, organization, voice, sentence fluency and word choice. “The message comes across so much more powerfully when an author explains how they use these skills in their own writing and how much editing they have gone through to enrich their own writing. An author discussing their writing through Skype can be a very meaningful experience for students,” he says.
Prior to the event, we discussed logistics. Rick worked hard on the arrangements. For the first trial session he decided to invite all primary classes to the gym. Using a large screen, he connected a laptop with wireless Internet to a LCD projector and a speaker system. He displayed my books on a table underneath the screen and held them up when I referred to them.
We connected via Skype while the students filed into the gym. I felt like I was there as they smiled and waved at me. Rick introduced me and I launched into a 15 minute talk. I used props—a photo, a stuffed chicken when talking about my “chicken” book Emma’s Eggs. Then I asked Rick to have the students get up and stretch before I shared background information on another book. In all, my presentation was about 50 minutes.
Following my talk, Rick and I discussed what went well and what would need improvement. I felt it should have been a bit shorter. It was hard to truly stay in touch with such a large group of young students. We both felt that Skype author visits might work better with a smaller group of older students. So Rick selected a Grade 5 class for my next visit. He discussed my books with them in detail. The students prepared questions.
Seasoned speaker Pam Withers, author of ten “Take It To The Xtreme” books, comments that the question and answer period of a Skype session with a small group of Grade Five students was very meaningful. Students came up to a chair in front of the camera to ask their individual questions. “This is what Skype was made for,” she smiles. “I believe I maximized the sense of one-on-one contact by going beyond just answering the questions.” She had meaningful discussions with the students, asked them questions and even promised a student to write a book about the student’s favourite extreme sport. “I really believe authors need to do more than just answer questions,” she says as she explains how she showed the class her office by moving the webcam around. Allowing budding writers a look inside the mind, and workspace, of published authors or illustrators will encourage them to write in more powerful, more meaningful ways.
Having the right equipment is a major component of a presentation through Skype. Pam had purchased a webcam and installed it on top of her computer. She also uses a plug-in microphone but discovered that the voice cut out several times.
I used my MacBook laptop computer with a built-in camera and built-in microphone. This seemed to work fine. Rick did not notice any difference in our equipment, other than that Pam’s sound cut out. During my presentation, the video feed sometimes froze. For subsequent presentations, Rick made sure the school’s computer lab was closed during a session. Having fewer computers on the Internet seemed to solve this problem.
Many authors and illustrators feel that some settings work better than others. A large group in a gym works fine if the speaker is there in person, in front of them. But when it is just a face on the screen, it is much harder to keep the students’ interest. Without a teacher in front to remind students about audience behaviour, children will be more restless and appear less interested in the speaker.
Pam Withers felt at a bit of a loss when faced with a large audience through Skype. “The audience was more restless than I have ever seen when I speak in person,” she said following a Skype session with ninety grade 5 – 7 students at Okanagan Landing School. “My usual presentation is quite interactive, but I felt like my wings were clipped for that.” She describes how movement was blurred if she presented standing up and how limiting it was not to be able to easily call on people with raised hands.
Sitting in front of a tiny camera is limiting. The presenter cannot show much other than a few objects. You have to look at the camera rather than at the window on your screen where your audience is, which takes a bit of practice. The speaker system on the receiving end needs to be tested prior to the talk to ensure the speaker’s voice is clear but not echoing.
When you use Skype with more than two computers, you cannot use video but you can still talk and see who else is online and who is currently speaking.
A smaller group of older students, who have prepared questions and read the books, lends itself better to a Skype discussion.
Simon Rose, author of popular books such as The Doomsday Mask, recommends, “Schools should have a technical run through a few days prior and be sure to have someone who understands the technology on hand on the day of the visit in case there are any snags.”
Like a live school visit, a Skype presentation works best if the teachers, librarians and presenters have prepared well. Speakers need to present in a different way than what they may be used to. They need to work on content and rely less on props. Teachers need to prepare students, work on questions, and relay their enthusiasm for the interaction. Librarians need to prepare the ideal setting, help to select the right numbers of students and share their excitement about the author’s books.
All of us felt strongly that book creators can support teachers and librarians by sharing their experiences with students. Bringing in an expert to talk to students, and to answer their personal questions, is an amazing opportunity that can add incredible value to learning. Using Skype allows this to take place much more easily and at less cost than by bringing in someone from far away. In an age of budget cuts and reduced spending, it helps if the author or illustrator does not have to fly or drive and stay overnight. Many presenters offer Skype presentations at a rate lower than appearances in person. It allows the writers to stay home and work on their writing without having to spend days traveling. You can find many names listed by the Skype An Author Network, and contact speakers directly.
Alexandra in Grade Five sees the benefits of an author visit via Skype, not just for her own class but in a larger context. “I thought that the Skype author visit was really cool because it was easier for Pam (Withers) instead of flying from Vancouver and this way we could see where she writes her books. I also really liked how you can ask questions and you see the person up close. It’s really convenient because Pam had everything she needed in her office. I believe it is good for the environment because it saves a person gas rather than driving here.”
So, next time you would like to bring a creator of books into your classroom, consider doing so through the use of technology already in your school. It may save money and it will encourage your students to become readers as well as writers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Margriet Ruurs is a Canadian children’s book author, who conducts school visits across the country. www.margrietruurs.com
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s September 2010 issue.