If you want to be a better writer, you have to read, read, read. If you want to be a better reader, you have to write, write, write. Most teachers understand the reciprocal relationship between reading and writing. The question is, how do we get our students to read and write and then write and read some more?
Virtual author visits are a good start. Thanks to Skype, Google Hangouts, and Zoom, it’s easier than ever to host published authors in your classroom. Last year, my students met with many authors, and each visit inspired them (and me) to read and write with renewed energy and purpose.
A Writer’s Life
As the school librarian and a teacher who is keenly interested in literacy, I want my students to think of themselves as writers. Real writers. Why? Because writers write, and when we do, we think. To write is to explore worlds, both those within and those that surround us. Writing is rigor. “Real” writers know that, and when they talk to students they share that message. When students hang out with writers, they see themselves as a part of a writing community, and that leads them to think of themselves as real writers too.
Preparing for a Visit
This year we visited with authors of fiction and nonfiction, picture books and novels, from places near and far. Preparation was simple and fruitful in and of itself. If a student wanted a visit with an author, they only had to do one thing—read one of the author’s books. For most, the excitement of knowing they would meet the author and be allowed to ask her or him questions drove students to read several books. For some, it meant reading every single book written by the author.
Often, I would also ask students to write questions they might like to ask the author before the visit. Students asked an array of questions, everything from the expected “How do you get your ideas?” and “How long does it take to write a book?” to the career-oriented “Can you make enough money as a writer?” to the poignant “Do you think your stories help kids deal with tough times?”
Inviting an Author to Your School
Finding authors is usually easy. Even a simple Google search will yield results—an email address or Twitter handle, for example. I’ve had good luck finding visitors on the Skype in the Classroom site and through the blog of author Kate Messner.
About half of the authors I’ve worked with ask for remuneration for Skype visits, anywhere from $50 for an hour to $350. The other half offer free Skype visits for 15 to 30 minutes. Most authors have been willing to work with me if I didn’t have the funding. Some do advance sales; others ask me to send order forms home with the kids after the free or reduced cost visit.
Some of our favorites included:
- Jonathan Rand, author of both the American Chillers and Freddy Fernortner series. This visit wasn’t cheap, but it was well worth it. Rand is personable and relatable, and inspired students to read so many of his books, I could barely keep them on the shelves.
- J.C. Phillipps, author of the picture books Monkey Ono and Wink: The Ninja Who Wanted to Nap was a hit too. She joined us for a free 30-minute Skype visit, answering questions and demonstrating how she uses a cut-paper technique to illustrate her stories.
- Laurie Keller read a book to students, answered their questions, and showed them how to draw the star of one of her picture books.
- Tracey Maurer, writer of over 100 nonfiction books, talked with students about how she does research, works with a publisher, and comes up with ideas for her texts.
- Chris Kreie shared his process for writing graphic novels and working with an illustrator.
Tips for a Smooth Visit
Having facilitated dozens of visits over the course of several years, I’ve learned a few things the hard way and can offer three tips to ensure your virtual visit goes well:
- Have plenty of copies of the author’s books available in advance of the visit. Share them freely so that students have a strong connection to the author.
- Try out the connection before the visit. The author won’t always be available for this, but practicing with Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom, or other connection methods is a good idea.
- Share procedures with students in advance. I ask students to show active listening skills while the author is speaking and give them directions for where to stand and how to look into the webcam when they ask a question.
With each of these virtual visits, students made a connection with the world of reading and writing. In each case, they were inspired to read and write as a part of their own lives, engaging in hours of inspired thinking and creating.
Maybe one day, I’ll be able to invite a former student for a virtual visit as a published author. These kids are real writers.