Thursday, November 14, 2013

Author Skype Visits in the Classroom

I was in kindergarten in 1980. I graduated from high school in 1992. Want to know the first time I “met” an author? I’m guessing 2009 when I first attended a national conference. As a child, authors did not travel to tiny rural towns in the middle of cornfields. My little hamlet is about halfway between Chicago and St. Louis, but that is quite a distance for authors on busy schedules who really need to be writing. 

The lack of authors in my life created a mystique around them. When I thought of Judy Blume I thought of this person that was completely unlike me, doing something I couldn’t dare to dream of as her job – writing. Writers weren’t real people; they were smarter, braver, more talented, etc. While I still think they are smart, brave, and talented, I am now very well aware how my earlier perceptions of writers was so very wrong.

Attending conferences like NCTE and being on Twitter has brought me into contact with so many authors – many of whom now feel like friends. Last year I really thought about writers and my students. There is no reason why my students can’t dream of being authors just like they dream of being a teacher, doctor, hair stylist, etc. My dilemma was how to make these authors real to them. I wish with everything in me that I could transport my school down the street from Anderson’s Bookshop. Since that is not reality, I settled for the next best thing, Skype.

Skyping with all my reading students
My homeroom during a Skype visit 
In the last month my students – both in my homeroom and reading sections – have had the opportunity to Skype with five authors. Sometimes we Skype as one large group of about eighty students, sometimes it is only my homeroom. If it is an author Skyping in about a book, I schedule it with all three classes and give my two colleagues a break while we meet with the author. If it is geared towards writing, my homeroom hosts the Skype since they are my only language arts class. Every experience has been unique and meaningful to both my students and myself. To share a bit, and give you some impetus to Skype yourself, let me introduce you to our guests.

Our first read aloud of the year was Chris Grabenstein’s amazing Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library. I read this in all three classes and the students were crazy about it. We loved keeping track of clues and characters and trying to solve the mystery before the main characters did. I have had several students go back and read it on their own, looking for the clues to solve the mystery that lays unsolved in the book.

Chris agreed to Skype with us after many students Tweeted him from our classroom Twitter account, @SagesHoots. His Skype was hilarious. He drops into voices/ characters at any given moment. He shared stories from when he was the age of my students and made them laugh repeatedly. He was also an excellent sport about our poor connection and made even that seem fun. Chris was an unbelievably kind guest and made one student’s day when he followed her on Twitter. One month later, the kids still talk about him.

Ame Dyckman has Skyped into my classroom and home on numerous occasions. Her
Note the boa in honor of Tea Party Rules
enthusiasm never fails to engage students and make them smile – as does her blue hair. Ame kindly sent goodies ahead of our visit, and the kids were thrilled to get them. We read her picture books in advance of her visit and they’ve been checked out again several times since she Skyped in. Ame was also an excellent sport about trying on her “writing hat” for the students to see. (A Viking helmet – which she has been known to wear to the post office!)

Kathi Appelt was a Skype visit I won on a blog this summer. We had such a terrific time reading nine of her picture books in anticipation of her visit. The students learned a lot about the bayou, cats, and Texas. I shared a chapter from The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp with them and they were mesmerized. After Kathi’s visit many students have gone on to read that book and her other novels. They loved her “accent” and how kind she seemed. To have eighty students in a small classroom hanging on your words and not talking to their friends they were squeezed next to is amazing.

My last two Skype visits were with Linda Urban and Penny Kittle. To be honest, I scheduled these as much for myself as I did my students. To say I am in awe of these two ladies is an understatement. Both Linda and Penny are amazing writers who believe in the power of the writing notebook. This is something I wanted to work on this year – for myself and for my students. I want them to see the purpose of the notebook and how they can use it to live as writers do.

Both Penny and Linda inspired my homeroom students to write after their visits. They both shared their notebooks with the kids, showing entries, ideas, sketches, and more. Both shared how they weave writing into their lives – sometimes very early in the morning. When Linda mentioned to my students that they could Skype her again and share their narratives, they were beyond excited. When Penny showed them the pocket in the back of her notebook where she stores quotes and poems, they had to make their own. (Side note – when Penny moved and they glimpsed The One and Only Ivan on her shelf; I thought half of the class was going to completely lose it. IVAN was shouted from more than one child. My reading teacher heart melted.)

I cannot adequately express my gratitude to these amazing people for taking the time out of their days to Skype into our classroom. By doing so, these kids have the chance to: meet their heroes, be inspired to read more, and be inspired to write. Skyping takes planning and a great deal of class time. Sometimes the event is stressful as I try and make sure it runs smoothly- darn technology- but it is always worthwhile. Thank you Chris, Ame, Kathi, Linda, and Penny for being guests in our classroom. You are welcome back anytime.