An Author in Every Classroom: Kids connecting with authors via Skype

It’s the next best thing to being there.

Illustration by Harry Campbell

"Do you Skype?"

If you asked that question a couple years ago, you might have gotten a funny look. But these days, Skype and other video-conferencing software have become a staple for teachers, librarians, and authors who want to get kids excited about reading. The past year has brought a huge increase in the number of schools and libraries using Skype to connect classrooms and bring in experts to talk with kids. And with cuts in school funding limiting traditional author visits, meetups via Skype have grown even more popular. "For every day I would normally spend presenting in a school, I used to have an additional two days spent organizing the visit and traveling. I simply don't have that kind of time any more," explains award-winning author Laurie Halse Anderson. "Plus, tight budgets have made it hard for schools to continue to fund in-school author visits. Skype allows schools to connect me to their students in a way that's affordable for them and feasible for me." Halse Anderson connected with students virtually at 16 schools around the world during the 2009-2010 school year. Her advice? "Kids get the most when the groups are small, when they've read the entire book in advance, and when they've prepared some questions. Also, having the teacher or librarian be very familiar with Skype technology is a must; it's awful to watch minutes ticking away when the adult in charge is fumbling around to take the video feed live or figure out how to adjust the volume." As an author, I've also found virtual visits to be a great alternative to traveling, especially since I teach middle school English in addition to writing. When my middle grade novel The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. came out from Walker/Bloomsbury last September, there was no time for a book tour with a new school year underway. With support from my technology coordinator and district administrators, I posted an offer for teachers online: a free lunchtime question-and-answer session for their students. It's simple; students read the book or listen as their teacher shares it aloud, and then we set a date to talk about it. On that day, I teach my morning classes, send my students off to lunch at the end of the period, and tape a sign to my classroom door. "Please Do Not Disturb: Mrs. Messner is having a Skype author visit with students at another school. She'll be available at 12:20." I log onto my computer, open Skype, and within minutes after the bell rings, I'm connected to students on the other side of the country for a 20-minute chat. By the end of the school year, I was doing one or two Skype visits each week, and it was always fun to hear what kids had to say about Gianna and her friends. They'd share their favorite parts of the book, ask questions about the research behind it, and then we'd take time at the end to discuss other books we'd read and enjoyed. Sometimes, the kids shared short pieces of their own writing via Skype. Or they'd show me their artwork inspired by the book, lining up to walk past the computer's camera with their drawings or paintings in a virtual parade. At one school where I Skyped in, a student created a Halloween pumpkin decorated to look like my book's main character, Gianna Z. If all of this sounds pretty similar to the kinds of things that happen during an in-person author visit, you're getting the idea. Sure, there are technology glitches from time to time. Connections are lost and have to be reestablished. And when students first try Skype, they may pay more attention to seeing themselves on screen than the visiting author. But students grow accustomed to the technology pretty quickly, and before long, they've forgotten about the camera enough to engage in the same kinds of personal interactions that make any author visit memorable. YA author Jo Knowles (Jumping Off Swings, Candlewick, 2009) experienced her first Skype visit this summer with a teen book group from the Mesa County Public Libraries in Grand Junction, CO. She agrees that the convenience of staying home is a huge benefit, even though a virtual visit isn't quite the same as being there in person. "You can't connect with teens through a screen the way you can up close, when you can make real eye contact. It definitely feels less personal," Knowles says. "But Skype makes it possible for schools with limited funding to bring in authors from all over the country. These types of visits have the potential to inspire so many kids to read, to write—to dream." Lisa Schroeder, the author of I Heart You, You Haunt Me and It's Raining Cupcakes (Simon & Schuster, 2008, 2010) Skypes with book clubs, too. "The kids get to interact with an author and talk about books and writing, and this can be really inspiring to them and can help them get excited about their own writing! It's still an amazing thing to me that I can be in my house in Oregon talking with a group of kids clear across the country," she says. Illustrator LeUyen Pham finds virtual visits even have some advantages over in-person visits when it comes to showing kids how she works. "When you do an on-site visit, more often than not you're facing an auditorium and a limited time period, and you've got to draw on an enormous pad so the entire room can see what you're doing. I'm a miniaturist by nature—I draw small! So the technology really worked in my favor—I could do illustration samples right there in front of them, at a size I'm much more accustomed to drawing, and because I could bring the camera right up to my image, the kids literally got a fly-on-the-wall's view of watching me work." Skyping from her home in Massachusetts, middle grade author Erin Dionne visited last fall with a mother/daughter book club that read her novel Models Don't Eat Chocolate Cookies (Dial, 2009). She was impressed by the kinds of quality interactions that were possible. "The moms sat back and let the girls ask questions for the first part of the visit, and the moms asked questions at the end. Then they kind of bounced off each other…. I remember it being a nice balance—I felt that each of the two different groups asked questions that benefited the other." All of the authors interviewed for this feature agree on one point: it's important for teachers and librarians to prepare students for a Skype visit in advance. Reading at least one of the author's books, either together or as a read-aloud, is a must, and kids who prepare questions in advance are generally more comfortable speaking on the day of the visit. Author Katie Davis (The Curse Of Addy Mcmahon, Greenwillow, 2008) says she received a number of Skype requests after SLJ's first feature on the topic last September, and she recommends that teachers and librarians do as much preparation as possible, reading articles about the author, visiting websites and sharing information. And of course, make sure there's technology help available on the day of the visit. "Because you know what they say," Davis says. "Tech happens!" Admittedly, some schools have been quicker than others to embrace the new technology, and not all districts' blocking software and firewalls allow Skype. In those that do, though, teachers are quick to praise this novel tool for connecting kids with authors. Marjorie Podzielinsky, an elementary school librarian for the Coulson Tough School in Woodlands, TX, arranged Skype visits with a number of authors for her students last year. Like many people, her first experience with Skype wasn't for school, it was to connect with family far away. "My daughter had moved to New Mexico and we usually Skype once a week or so. It was a great way for me to connect with my daughter… why not with authors?" As a result of that "why not" attitude, students at Coulson Tough had the chance to talk with Erin Hunter, Laurie Halse Anderson, Shannon Hale, and me this year, all via Skype. Their visit with Anderson happened on Census Day, so Podzielinski took the opportunity to ask Laurie if she'd used any census records in researching her Revolutionary War-era novels Chains and Forge. Skype author visits have made their way into high school as well. Paul Hankins, who teaches English at Silver Creek High School in Indiana, uses Skype author visits to supplement Raw Ink, the online reading and writing community he started for his students. Hankins invites YA authors to join his 11th graders on the Ning social networking site, where he and his students talk reading and writing long after class is over. Hankins's students first Skyped with author Garth Stein after reading The Art Of Racing in the Rain (Harper, 2008). The kids went on to chat with other authors during the school year, including Barry Lane, Jon Skovron, Robert Lipsyte, and Jennifer Brown, whose YA novel Hate List (Little, Brown, 2009) tackles the tough topics of bullying and school shootings. "Jennifer Brown's book was just hitting the shelf when we did our Skype with her," says Hankins. "The interaction was with a smaller class…. These 18 students were reluctant readers for the most part and I knew a difficult book like Hate List might hook a couple of them. Jennifer was super in talking with them, but she also took the conversation deeper to include issues and themes found in the book." Hankins loves the fact that Skype author visits can be interactive. "In our interaction with Barry Lane, we actually took a break in the middle to do some writing," he says. "This worked well as we were able to come back, re-establish the Skype connection, and everybody had something that they could share with the room. As the teacher, I don't necessarily want the Skype to be another ‘video or video simulation' but rather to have our guest be a part of what we're doing in the room." Podzielinski also sees the potential for more interactive elements in future Skype sessions. "I think some authors might even send chapters out or ask for ideas and get feedback from the students." Virtual focus groups? Long-distance writing workshops? Both are possibilities as time-crunched authors and cash-strapped schools look more to virtual visits to connect kids with the people who write for them.
Kate Messner ( is the author of The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. and Sugar and Ice (coming in December 2010), both with Walker/Bloomsbury and a middle school English teacher. Drop her an email at

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