I started scrolling through, looking for authors who wrote books for my students' age group and who were available during my class times. There's an embarrassment of riches, so it was surprisingly easy to find people willing to chat with every single one of my five classes. I hadn't used Skype in the classroom before (or even at all, really), but it was pretty intuitive and went well.
The first author we connected with turned out to be the only one we actually talked with on World Read-Aloud Day specifically. Mike Grosso is a teacher whose first book, I Am Drums, came out recently. He read a section of the book to the class, then played drums. The kids had prepared a set of questions to ask, and handled their part well. I was glad to have found a male author, as the list is overwhelmingly female. Mike is also a teacher, which seemed to be a common factor amongst many of the authors. I'm not sure if working with kids leads directly to writing for kids, or if teacher/authors are especially willing to donate their time to connect with classrooms.
The next day we got to talk twice to Jennifer Maraschi, whose most recent book is The Wonderful Adventure of Charlie Price. In the morning, she read us her first chapter, gave us a look at one of her dogs, and answered a bunch of questions. One kid insisted on asking the question he'd come up with the day before, "Do you like donuts?' She burst into laughter, told us she'd NEVER been asked that one before, and rhapsodized for a bit about glazed donuts and her favorite donut shop. In the afternoon, while talking with another class, she let us know that she's now considering adding something about donuts in her next book. How awesome would that be?
The morning of WRAD, our hallways were empty, as 35% of our school (and 42% of my classes specifically) took part in the #DayWithoutImmigrants. I fired emails off to the authors we'd scheduled for the day explaining the situation and asking if there was any way to reschedule. I 100% support my students' right to protest, and didn't want them to miss out because of it. Mike couldn't, but as it turned out, that class had very few kids gone. The other two agreed to. Well, it was actually better than that. This is what Cynthia Levinson, author of The Youngest Marcher and We've Got a Job posted to Twitter after I'd contacted her
I showed that to kids the next day and they cheered. This happened to be the class where 2/3 of them chose to participate in the boycott, so it was so appropriate that they got to talk with her. And when we did, the next Monday, it was probably the most dynamic conversation we had. She read to them bits of both books about Audrey Faye Hendricks, who was nine when she chose to get arrested as part of the march on Birmingham. She engaged my kids in a conversation about why they had stayed home and whether they would protest if they knew they'd be arrested. They veered off-book and asked questions that came up organically from the conversation. (Each class had brainstormed possible questions to ask, and I had them printed out by the computer to support kids who felt compelled to interact but who were too overwhelmed to think of a good question.) The conversation continued after our session had ended, and they argued over our copy of We've Got a Job and demanded that I buy The Youngest Marcher ASAP.
Finally, yesterday the last remaining class got to talk with Jennifer Brown, author of 16 books for varying ages, including The Hate List. This conversation was a bit more challenging, through no fault of the author's. The class consists of eight boys and one girl, and they are all reading far below grade level. A few of the kids are motivated, but most of them are not engaged in school. My lowest level class actually does better, because they combine a lack of skill with an engagingly open interest in the world. This class, slightly more savvy, affects a weary disdain. So it was the only class I wanted to hiss, "Knock it off!" at mid-Skype. To make matters worse, our connection dropped while Jennifer was reading aloud, and the kids lost focus while I worked to bring it back. They were willing and eager to ask questions, but did not listen to the answers, as was evidenced by several of them asking questions that had JUST been answered.
Let's break it down with a few bullet points for any teachers out there who are interested in this.
- Check out Kate Messner's blog in the fall--the information for this year's event went up in September of 2016.
- I started by looking first for authors who wrote for my age group, narrowed that down by people who were free during my class times, and started emailing. I did also check out their websites to preview their books and tried to request authors I thought my students might be interested in reading. I had only heard of one of the authors before I contacted them, but I am excited about all of them.
- I got a bit confused about Skype Classroom, which is part of the program. I signed up with them and followed the authors I'd scheduled with, but it turned out that all I really needed was to sign up with Skype, get the authors' usernames, and contact them at the pre-arranged date and time.
- I made myself a little spreadsheet to track authors, their website, their contact info, the time we'd agreed on, and which class that lined up with. Since I started the process months ago, this was a good way to keep track of the plan, and then in the days leading up to the event, I referred back frequently as I got myself organized.
- I'm glad I had classes brainstorm questions in advance. It helped them with stage fright on the day of, and it built interest and excitement for the event.
- Next time I will spend some more time talking about the etiquette of the event. After the first author responded to a smart-aleck comment someone on the side made, I started telling all the classes that they could be heard anywhere in the room, which helped. I also should have told kids that the little box in the corner that showed our class was the BIG screen on the author's screen. Some kids thought they could be goofy as long as they were quiet.
- I bought at least one book by each author. I initially considered trying to do some pre-reading, but since the authors were going to be reading their books, I decided instead to let the enthusiasm generated lead to kids want to check out the book afterwards. I figure it's the least I can do to support their work.
- I tried to tweet and email thank yous, and I am going to have kids send thank you cards as a group. If I were a language arts teacher, I'd probably have them write their own notes, but given our time constraints, they're just all going to sign a card per class.
- I should have taken pictures.