Author visits in schools provide an exciting conduit to connect the reader, the book and the creator to create a synergy of excitement and enthusiasm. Jennie Bales provides a context for virtual authors visits and Lian Tanner and Julie Hunt, two of Tasmania’s successful and much-loved authors for young people, provide personal insights into the process. The piece ends with some tips to consider when planning your next virtual event – for authors and schools!
The power of students connecting with authors and illustrators should not be underestimated as a means to engage readers with favourite authors, expand their knowledge and interest in new writers and genres, contribute to their own creative spirits and expand and build an interest in reading for personal enjoyment. OECD (2011) research found that “Reading for enjoyment every day is associated with better performance in PISA.” And, “students who are highly engaged in a wide range of reading activities are more likely than other students to be effective learners and to perform well at school.” Teacher librarians and school libraries provide a vibrant literature collection to support a reading culture and have acknowledged the importance of author/illustrator visits for many years.
As access to technology has increased authors, illustrators, teacher librarians and teachers have looked for ways to connect with their client base – children and teenagers! Chauncey (2017) provides some historical perspectives on the use of Skype in her school library. Virtual meeting software has continued to evolve so that, when COVID 19 closed schools around the world, there were a number of options to continue to inspire young readers by connecting with authors and illustrators. Tapping into visual and audio delivery modes that also supported chat and more relaxed conversations. The ability to share screens allows for images to viewed - works being discussed and artefacts such as drafts and ideas books - demonstrating a process in action along with the more traditional visuals of the faces of the presenters.
The CBCA Tasmanian Workshops in Schools Program (supported through a grant from the Department of Education Tasmania) is testimony to the value of connecting readers to the authors and illustrators that feed their imaginations and fuel their love of reading and creating. stalling in 2020 it was exciting to see some local talent step up to the technology challenge to fulfil presentation commitments in a virtual world. Lian Tanner and Julie Hunt provide insights into the process, the joys, and the challenges, of leading a virtual author visit.
For me, the lack of connection is the hardest thing about online visits. The inability to make eye contact, or to read the room’s energy. The lack of kids coming up to me afterwards for a signature, or to tell me about their favourite book, or to whisper that they really want to be an author, too.
The screen certainly diminishes distance; over the last few months I’ve spoken to children in Western Australia, regional Tasmania, Melbourne and Indonesia without leaving my house. But by its nature it also creates distance, and I’ve been struggling to find ways around that. I have found that I have to work harder to hold students' attention online – it seems to take more energy than an in-person visit. At the same time, given the close-up nature of the screen, I also have to perform a little smaller. (Think acting for TV rather than acting for stage; a conversation rather than grand gestures.)
When students are logging on from home, the chat box is invaluable. I can acknowledge individual comments and use children’s names, which helps with the connection issue. We can brainstorm a topic without too much chaos. And I sense that some of the quieter students might actually find it easier than using their voices.
When students are gathered in a group, however, they look so far away that individual attention is almost impossible. I find that it helps to have someone close to the camera acting as a go-between, to repeat questions from the audience, and hold the group together.
As with in-person visits, the most important thing for a successful online visit seems to be an engaged teacher/coordinator – someone who has prepared the children for the session beforehand, knows the technology, and is present and active during the visit. I have had very engaged teachers and barely-there teachers, and the difference is enormous.
Finally, on a purely technical level, I find that the hotspot on my phone is more reliable than my wifi. And that a test of the technology a day or so beforehand, using the same account that we are going to be using for the presentation, is crucial.
You can find out more about Lian’s virtual visits on her website.
In adapting our face-to-face workshops, illustrator Dale Newman and I began with a sharescreen PowerPoint based around two questions: ‘How do you write a graphic novel?’ and ‘How do you illustrate a graphic novel?’ We introduced the characters in our books, answered questions from the students and, using their suggestions, created a character on the spot, just as we would if we were there in person.
The teacher-facilitator was the earth wire, holding everything together. She chose who would speak, making sure each student came to the front (it’s hard to see individual faces when a whole group is on one camera and easier to hear if the student is close). Some of the kids drew along with Dale and showed their work at the end of the session.
As far as live drawing goes, the document camera is almost better than the ‘real thing’. The picture is larger than life on the big screen in the classroom and the students can see every mark as the character comes into being.
© Dale Newman (2020) drawing from home with the document camera
There is no doubt that virtual author visits provide an important alternative with the potential for more regular occurrences to facilitate access to those in remote locations or smaller schools where face to face costs can be prohibitive. All author visits need careful planning and preparation before the event.
Tips for authors: Maughan (2020) and the Society of Authors (2019) provide suggestions for authors and illustrators and also consider some of the advantages of a virtual, rather than face-to-face visit.
Tips for schools: Planning ahead is vital and should include effective communication with the guest presenter, preparing students and staff, planning for an introduction and conclusion, a structure for involving students in chat or use of audio and a person to manage the chat and questions arising. To get maximum value there should also be a follow up planned in the classroom or library and opportunities to borrow associated books. BookTrust (2019) and Platt (2017) provide suggestions and guidance to ensure that the virtual visit will be highly successful.
Jennie Bales - CBCA Tas social media coordinator, Adjunct Lecturer, School of Information Studies, Charles Sturt University
Lian Tanner – Tasmanian children’s author https://liantanner.com.au/
Julie Hunt - Tasmanian children’s author http://www.juliehunt.com.au/
BookTrust. (2019). Arrange an author or illustrator visit. https://www.booktrust.org.uk/books-and-reading/tips-and-advice/reading-in-schools/how-to-arrange-an-author-visit/
Chauncey, S. (2017). Virtual author visits in your library or classroom. Skype an Author Network. http://skypeanauthor.wikifoundry.com/
Maughan (2020, December 11). The virtual author school visit evolves. Publisher Weekly. https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/85114-the-virtual-author-school-visit-evolves.html
OECD. (2011). PISA in focus: 8. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/do-students-today-read-for-pleasure_5k9h362lhw32-en
Platt, R. (2017, July 26). Bringing authors into your classroom. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/blog/bringing-authors-classroom-rita-platt
Society of Authors. (2019). Guide to virtual author visits. https://www.societyofauthors.org/getattachment/Advice/Guides/Guide-to-Virtual-Author-Visits.pdf.aspx