May 25, 2017

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The Skyping Renaissance

Illustrartion by Jean Tuttle

Illustrartion by Jean Tuttle

IN THIS ARTICLE
Skype Resources

“What’s a Skype?”

I still remember my mother asking that question when I mentioned one of my early virtual author visits in a phone conversation years ago. Today, there are few corners of the globe where Skype isn’t a well-known verb as well as a noun, describing the videoconferencing platform that connects kids and grandparents on computer screens all over the planet. Those few years have made a world of difference in the way videoconferencing is used in educational settings as well.

In 2009, I’d just started experimenting with Skype author visits with the launch of my first middle grade novel, The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z (Walker, 2009), and wrote a feature called “Met Any Good Authors Lately?” for School Library Journal (August 2009). It detailed the ins and outs of using Skype to connect readers with the people who create the books they love.

Back then, this was something of a radical idea for many schools. Even though Skype itself had been around a while—it was founded as a start-up in Europe in 2003—the idea of using it as a teaching tool was new. The technology was still spotty in many places; dropped connections were the rule rather than the exception. Not everyone trusted this new way of communicating. Many school districts blocked Skype entirely, while teachers in others had to get special permission to use it for projects.

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The new world of videoconferencing

Fast-forward five years, and we’re living in a whole new virtual world. Ask teachers and librarians about their experiences with Skype today, and you’ll be treated to a long list of projects, from the traditional Skype author visit to virtual writing workshops, interviews with scientists in the field, Mystery Skype connections, and more. Skype, which is currently free, has gone from being a novelty to an everyday tool, as much a part of the school day as whiteboards and textbooks.

As Skype has grown, the connections have improved; it’s rare to find the screen frozen mid-sentence anymore. In addition, as virtual visits become more commonplace in educational settings, the bells and whistles of the technology are less of a distraction for young readers. Students who are new to the technology are sometimes overwhelmed by the fact that they can see not only the author on the screen but themselves as well.

“A fifth grade class spent the entire 40-minute visit making faces at themselves on their monitor,” says author-illustrator Marty Kelley, creator of The Messiest Desk (Zino, 2009). “I’ve learned to ask teachers to acquaint their class with Skype before my visit.”

Savvy teachers and librarians have been doing this for a while, and now many find that students come to them already having had Skype experiences. That can make for much smoother interactions with virtual guests, even on the most chaotic of days.

“I Skyped with a school on their ‘dress as your favorite book character’ day,” says Sarah Albee, author of Bugged: How Insects Changed History (Bloomsbury, 2014). “So my interlocutors included Darth Vader, a fairy princess, Ivan, and a kid with a Bad Case of Stripes. The teachers were all dressed up, too, and clearly everyone was into it. Best Skype ever.”

Albee was one of dozens of authors who Skyped into classrooms around the world for the organization LitWorld’s World Read Aloud Day (WRAD) in 2014. According to the LitWorld website, the event, observed on the first Wednesday in March each year, “calls global attention to the importance of reading aloud and sharing stories. WRAD motivates children, teens, and adults worldwide to celebrate the power of words and creates a community of readers taking action to show the world that the right to literacy belongs to all people.” LitWorld founder Pam Allyn says Skype author visits have become a big part of that day in the past few years.

Widening the circle

“The virtual visits exemplify the spirit of what we believe literacy is in the 21st century and what LitWorld is advocating for: access for all,” Allyn says. “Children all around the country and around the world can experience the joy and pleasure of meeting an author and feeling the profound power of a connected literacy community.”

Sometimes, educators find that the virtual visit technology brings out different students’ voices, too. Those who might not participate in a large classroom discussion may feel more comfortable interacting with an author onscreen, especially when the group is small. Author Lisa Schroeder Skyped with two students and a special education teacher at a middle school in Connecticut after they’d read her novel It’s Raining Cupcakes (Aladdin, 2010).

“One of the girls is selectively mute, and the teacher told me not to expect her to talk to me,” Schroeder says. “She ended up asking me a question, which was a wonderful surprise, as you can imagine.”

The kinds of connections that happen during virtual author visits are evolving, too. While most early Skype author visits were straight Q & A sessions, many authors and illustrators now offer longer presentations that include everything from drawing demonstrations to virtual writing workshops. Publishers, including Scholastic and Penguin, list Skype author visit opportunities that range from visits available at any time to special promotions tied to book releases.

Many teachers and librarians are expanding their Skype virtual visits to include not only authors but experts and mentors in other fields as well. Recognizing an opportunity, Skype set up its “Skype in the Classroom” website, which allows educators to search for guest speakers by location or subject area. Available experts recently included authors, paleontologists, an educator from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation group, rangers from Badlands National Park, a marine robotics expert from MIT, and one of the first oceanographers to use a combination of submarines and robots to map the undersea world. The list is ever-changing and extensive, and it just scratches the surface of what’s available in terms of virtual visits.

Many educators have also had luck approaching experts on their own, via email or social media, to inquire about Skype visits. Sarah Mulhern Gross, an English teacher at High Technology High School in Lincroft, NJ, works with a diverse population of students who have an interest in STEM fields, and has been using Skype in her classroom for four years. When her students read Romeo and Juliet in class, Skyping with Shakespeare obviously wasn’t an option, so she arranged the next best thing—a virtual visit with Ian Doescher, the author of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars (Quirk, 2013), a retelling of the sci-fi classic in the voice of the Bard himself. Gross’s students Skyped with an American living in Niger while they were reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (Heinemann, 1958), and with a local news anchor while they were studying media literacy.

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Windows onto new ideas

Gross’s most ambitious Skype project centers on David Haskell’s book The Forest Unseen (Viking, 2012). It began with a virtual visit in which Haskell discussed with students his interests in science and poetry and where the two intersect. The following year, Gross ordered copies of Haskell’s book for a joint English-Biology project.

“The students would emulate Dr. Haskell by adopting a square meter of space on our campus and visiting it once a month,” Gross explains. “They would observe the space and write about it each month. Dr. Haskell Skyped with us in the beginning of the year to introduce himself and his book and take questions from the students. Then in May, we Skyped again and approached it a little differently. The students created a slideshow of the experiences and shared it over the Skype call.”

After Haskell read some student writing samples and commented on them, the kids asked for writing advice, and tips on science compositions in particular. “The students and Dr. Haskell discussed science writing and the importance of reading and writing in all careers,” Gross says. “It’s been an amazing experience and one we plan to continue!”

Such interactions can be motivating for younger students as well. Greg Armamentos, who teaches in a third and fourth grade classroom at Frank C. Whiteley School in suburban Chicago, arranged a Skype visit with student athlete Winter Vinecki for his school’s running club. After losing her father to prostate cancer, Vinecki set out to become the youngest person to complete a marathon on all seven continents. She’d recently met her goal at the age of 15 when she had her virtual visit with Armamentos and his young runners.

“The Skype visit with her was incredibly motivating for the kids, who asked her questions about her training as well as her study habits,” Armamentos says. “She related so well to the kids and the staff, and her example was inspiring to the kids, as they were training to participate in a 5K run a few weeks later.” Armamentos adds that preparing kids for such experiences in advance—doing research and writing down questions—goes a long way toward making such experiences valuable.

Maria Selke, the gifted resource teacher for Hillsdale Elementary School in West Chester, PA, also finds that a Skype visit can be a meaningful way to wrap up a unit of study. Her students had been clamoring to learn basic programming, so she used the Hour of Code website (code.org/hourofcode) to get them started with some simple tutorials and basic projects. Once they’d had a chance to learn the fundamentals, she contacted Ichiro Lambe, a friend who runs an indie game company out of the Boston area.

“Ichiro was able to give the kids an overview of life as a programmer,” Selke says. “He talked about the path that led him to game design, what kinds of things in school ended up being most helpful in his current career, and what his day-to-day experiences are. I was excited to hear him discuss many different job types that are available in the gaming industry, since my students have a wealth of different strengths and skills.”

“[My students] asked about college majors that could help with gaming, his current and future games, and the process of creating new games,” Selke adds. “They were able to make many connections between this process and the writing process, from brainstorming to storyboarding plots to marketing the ideas.”

All the world’s a stage

While many teachers and librarians use Skype and other videoconferencing tools to explore content areas and possible career paths with students, others focus on the geography-learning potential that such virtual visits open up. Melissa Thom, a teacher, works with fourth through sixth graders at the Renzulli Academy, a school that serves high-achieving students in the Hartford (CT) Public School system. She’s used popular “Mystery Skypes,” a Skype in the Classroom activity in which classrooms try to guess each other’s locations, sometimes internationally, to engage her fourth graders in their study of U.S. regions.

“As a class, the students come up with clues that will help the other classroom determine our location,” Thom says. “In this scenario, the students are the experts of the place where they live and are responsible for describing it in creative terms.”

Classrooms can match up with others in different parts of the world through the Skype in the Classroom site, and teachers can also connect with other educators in areas of similar interest.

Educators who use Skype once or twice tend to become advocates—big believers in its potential. Thom says many of her students don’t have opportunities to see other parts of the country. “This is one way to bring the world to students who aren’t able to travel or explore the world in physical terms,” she says.

Students who have been exposed to this kind of virtual visit grow to believe in the power of the technology as well. When Gross’s seniors learned that they’d be away on their senior trip on the day Eliot Schrefer, author of the National Book Award finalist Endangered (Scholastic, 2012), was to visit the school, they refused to miss out.

“Their senior trip [involved] camping up in the mountains, but they were determined to Skype into our book club meeting while Eliot was visiting,” recalls Gross. “I did not expect them to have any service, but they hiked back from a waterfall and made the call [using a student’s smart phone].”

“It was an awesome experience,” she says. “They loved getting to interact with Eliot and talk to him about writing even while traipsing through the woods in the mountains.”

Gross, Selke, Armamentos, and Thom all say they plan to expand upon their use of virtual visits this year.

“I’m in Pennsylvania, but now I can have experts from almost every corner of the globe bring their knowledge and passions to my classroom,” Selke says. “How amazing is that?”

Kate MessnerKate Messner (@katemesser, katemessner.com), the author of more than a dozen books for kids, is a frequent school speaker, both in-person and via Skype, and the creator of a list of authors who do free Skype visits.

Skype Resources

Online

Skype in the Classroom
Home page for Skype in the Classroom, where educators can sign up, browse lessons, and search by geographical location of speakers and subject area.

Mystery Skype from Skype in the Classroom
Skype in the Classroom’s dedicated “Mystery Skype” page, where educators can sign up to connect and that students can engage in long-distance Q & A sessions to learn more about geography.

LitWorld’s World Read Aloud Day
Celebrated the first Wednesday in March, LitWorld’s World Read Aloud Day promotes the value of reading aloud for all children and all people worldwide.

Scholastic Books: Invite an Author
Scholastic Books maintains a Web page with a listing of children’s and young adult authors who offer school visits, both in person and via Skype.

Penguin Books: Skype in the Classroom
Penguin partners with Skype in the Classroom to bring authors into classrooms and libraries via Skype and offers various Skype visit offers and virtual book tours.

Authors Who Skype with Classes & Book Clubs for Free
This list that I maintain has grown from a few dozen authors to more than 250 who offer free Skype Q & A sessions with classes and book clubs that have read one of their books.

Kate Messner’s Skype Writing Workshop Offer
Many authors offer free Skype visits in connection with the launch of a new book. My free Skype visit is a virtual writing workshop called “Writing with a Magic Pencil,” in connection with my book All the Answers (Bloomsbury, Jan. 2015).

Articles

“Met Any Good Authors Lately?”
My 2009 SLJ article on Skype author visits in classrooms and libraries includes tips for getting started and a list of things to do before and during the visit.

“Author Visits? A Remote Possibility”
An SLJ article exploring the use of Skype author visits on LitWorld’s World Read Aloud Day, with information about this annual event.

“Virtual Visits”
A 2012 Publishers Weekly article featuring interviews with authors and educators who participate in the Skype visits.

This article was published in School Library Journal's November 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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Comments

  1. Nicole Eva says:

    I used Skype to teach classes at our satellite campuses around 2010/2011. I preferred it to using webinar software because I could be live on screen between the demos, but could also show my screen for live demos and PPT. The students (& instructors) really feel disconnected at these off-site campuses so I thought the connection with a ‘real’ person on the other end was important. It worked quite well.

  2. It’s terrific to see that the use of video conferencing tools to give students access to outside adults is becoming commonplace. Last year we wrote this piece that curated the best examples we could find of how educators connected students to government leaders, experts, authors and eyewitnesses to history. The most compelling examples I’ve seen are schools who connect with schools from other cultures, and classes that connect with Holocaust survivors, which is a quickly vanishing opportunity. See: http://www.findingdulcinea.com/news/education/2013/Skype.html

  3. Heather Verreault says:

    I tried the link at the end of the article but it didn’t work.
    slj.com/SkypeResources

  4. Hello,

    Thanks for the article about teaching english on skype.I did the lessons from http://preply.com/en/english-by-skype. It very useful and I am quite satisfied.