By Melanie Conklin, 2021 CCIRA Conference Author and Presenter
In the time of coronavirus, there is a lot of uncertainty about how to preserve the educational traditions that we cherish. Recess. Team sports. Clubs. Library visits. Maker spaces. Read-Alouds. Some of these activities are difficult if not impossible to re-imagine as a virtual activity in a distance learning setting, but technology has made great strides, and when it comes to author visits, there are options!
Author visits are a unique opportunity for students to interact with creators and gain insight into writing. Typically, an author visit involves an author attending your school in person for a portion of the day, during which the author gives various presentations, speeches, or writing workshops. I’ve been fortunate to visit many schools across the country. Young scholars have the best questions, the most enthusiasm, and an almost tangible energy for learning that is inspiring.
Now that it’s no longer possible (or wise) to visit schools in person, I’ve spent a good bit more time doing virtual author visits. Virtual visits have always been part of my work as an author, but now there is a key difference: the students on my screen are no longer in the same place. They are joining from different locations and environments. This can make a virtual visit a bit more challenging, but there are ways to ensure that you get the most out of your time with an author. Here are my tips for having a successful virtual author visit as part of your distance-learning school year.
Finding an Author for a Virtual Visit
One of the questions I hear regularly is: how do you find authors for an author visit? I think this really means how do I connect with authors or find authors who are local to me, but first I’ll address the larger question of how to find authors to invite for a school or library visit.
Start by tracking your reading and classroom reading. I use Goodreads, but you can also use Library Thing or Reader Tracker. This way you have a handy list of authors you would like to connect with. Tracking your reading can also help you identify areas where you are under-read to broaden and diversify your reading life.
Find authors who live in your area by contacting local bookstores or book festivals. There are many booking agencies such as The Booking Biz, Provato Events, and Phil Bidner’s Author Village. Author Kate Messner also maintains a list of authors who Skype for free.
Social media is perhaps the easiest way to find and contact an author. If you read an author’s book, tag them in a tweet or Instagram or FB post. Then, when you reach out to inquire about an virtual author visit, you can introduce yourself by mentioning that you recently tagged them about loving their book.
Most authors provide email or a contact form on their website. It’s okay to write with questions or rate inquiries. Your questions are not a burden. Just remember to be respectful of the author’s time by replying to their communications. No one likes to be left hanging!
Include scheduling details in your message. When reaching out to schedule a virtual visit, be sure to include your time zone, the days and hours that are best for you (several options is good), and any honorarium you may be able to provide. Many authors will provide a short virtual visit for free (15-20mins). Longer visits warrant an honorarium.
Preparing for a Virtual Visit
Once you’ve scheduled your virtual visit, it’s time to prepare. Like everything in school, success depends heavily on the work done in advance.
Be sure to introduce the author and their work to your classroom. This can be done by sharing virtual read-alouds, Youtube videos, and electronic previews. Include information about the virtual visit with parent communications so they can support the connection at home. Direct parents to your local independent bookstore for copies of the author’s books, and be sure to let the bookstore know. They will be thrilled to coordinate, and might even be able to get signed books!
Prepare questions for the author in advance. This can be a fun activity for the classroom. Students can submit questions and even vote on which ones to ask. Author visits have a limited timeframe, so a realistic number of questions is important (around 10 questions in a twenty minute visit). Developing questions as a team can help all students feel included.
Use a pre-visit activity to allow all students to interact with the author. Many authors have printables, writing prompts, or educator guides on their websites. Share a printable activity with students so they can hold them up to share with the author during the virtual visit. This interactivity is key! Even if we can’t read all of their writing, we can cheer them all on!
Test your technology. Whether you are using Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, or another platform to host your virtual visit, make sure you have practiced ahead of time. It’s a shame to lose time in a virtual visit due to technical issues, and familiarity can help with trouble-shooting. Some authors will do a quick technical check, too.
Day of the Virtual Visit
The logistics of a virtual visit are just as important as the logistics of an in-person visit. You want to get the most out of your limited time with the author, so be prepared to start on time and have a clear plan in hand.
Many authors will log in a few minutes early to get set for the visit. This gives you time to confirm any last-minute details and troubleshoot any sound or image quality issues.
Have an arrivals strategy in place. When dozens of students join a video chat from different locations, it can be even harder to wrangle them than in person! Make sure you know how to control volume and mute voices. Give students a Right-Now type of activity to engage in when they arrive to the visit. That can be as simple as holding up a drawing that is related to the author’s work, or showing off their pet, or dancing in their seat to show how excited they are. You can also utilize the comments section as an interaction tool, though it requires moderation to maintain a safe space for all.
Ask questions equitably and clearly. Some authors wish to call on students to ask questions, but that can be tough when only twenty faces fit on your zoom screen! Plan ahead so that all students feel included and utilize your mute button as needed.
Look for opportunities to interact. Some authors are well versed at virtual visits and will get your students engaged easily. Others may be new to this platform, so allow students to interact during the visit by raising their hands to indicate their choice, waving or wiggling fingers to show applause, or holding up pre-prepared signs or pictures.
After a Virtual Visit
Time flies during a virtual author visit, and your students may feel they did not get to interact as much as they would have liked. Give students an opportunity to communicate after the visit via written messages. These don’t have to be delivered on paper. You can collect photos of handwritten letters or compile typed thank-you messages into a follow up email to the author.
The way we connect may have changed during the age of COVID-19, but authors still want to visit schools and libraries. We share a common goal: literacy engagement. If you follow these tips, by the time the author visit arrives, the whole class will be buzzing in anticipation, and afterward the enthusiasm will last for weeks. That is the value of an author visit.
Happy planning to all!
Melanie Conklin grew up in North Carolina and worked as a product designer for ten years before she began her writing career. Her debut middle grade novel, Counting Thyme, is a Bank Street Best Children’s Book, winner of the International Literacy Association Teacher’s Choice Award, and nominated to four state reading lists. Her second novel for young readers, Every Missing Piece, published with Little, Brown in May, 2020. When she’s not writing, Melanie spends her time doodling and dreaming up new ways to be creative. She lives in New Jersey with her family. Connect with her on twitter @MLConklin.