Today the library held our first “virtual” author visit via Skype. One of our sophomore English classes, accompanied by teacher Kristy Robins, interviewed children’s and ya author Cynthia Leitich Smith (author of Tantalize and Rain is Not My Indian Name), by means of the text-based chat feature of Skype.
The engagement level of the students really illustrated the power of bringing an expert into the classroom. Smith shared insights on how she writes, inspiration for characters in her most recent novel, clues that were embedded in her novels, and her varied career choices.
As for logistics, I set up four generic Skype accounts, and temporarily installed the software on several student stations in our computer lab (since Skype is still being piloted in our district due to chat policies). Students brainstormed a few questions in class the day prior to the Skype chat, and then we used four scribes along with a teacher account to ask the questions. We also projected the chat, so students could either gather around their scribe or view the chat on the “big” screen.
Students were able to add more questions as the chat progressed, and as it went on, it became more spontaneous. It was difficult for the author to keep up because the students were so eager to ask their questions, but she systematically responded to every student’s question, (and even continued responding after the students left so all their questions would be answered) and you could see students light up as their question was answered, even the humorous ones. (like do you eat garlic?–she does by the way.)
Hearing directly from an author(whose book is actually set in Austin) how she selected characters, how she named them, and how she got started writing was really powerful, and started conversations outside of the chat window as well. For example, when students asked which character was her favorite character in Tantalize, for example, and she selected what they considered one of the minor characters(Clyde), there was much discussion in the room about it “offline.”
One of the best parts of the chat was that students were so engaged. The room was filled with students (and a group of teachers who had come to watch) talking, laughing, exploring how Skype worked, giggling when Smith answered their question, and figuring out what to ask next.
The chat turned her books into living things for the students(no pun intended) because by interviewing her, they could see the act of creation, the choices she made, the intentionality behind the writing. All in all, it was a success–at the end several students asked, “When can we do that again?” How often do we hear that about a learning activity in our libraries?