Interacting with the author of a book they’ve read is a powerful way to engage students and gives them deep insight into the writing process.
As a young writer wannabe growing up in rural West Virginia, I never imagined the possibilities for connecting with authors that have been made possible by videoconferencing platforms. I never even imagined that authors would be interested in engaging with me—but I’ve seen firsthand the enthusiasm that writers have for school audiences. At this point, I’ve helped facilitate about 10 virtual visits for authors with K–6 students online, as well as an online author visit with one of my undergraduate classes.
Part of the inspiration for this post is a celebration of the work that teachers have done in creating connections and helping their students see themselves as writers, and part of this is inspired by the helpful work that authors have done in offering visits and read-alouds in online settings during the pandemic.
Author Visits Offer Helping Hands
In a recent interview, author Chris Crutcher talked with me about his work in online visits and their benefits: “In the early days of the pandemic, I recall heroic actions by teachers catching up with this new form of education, which created a distance between them and their students—a distance they didn’t like. I saw tremendous creativity. I also noticed that in any given presentation, I was talking with far fewer students than when I was making in-person appearances. The good news was, more of those students were interested in talking about books and then discussing the writing process. I think they were also more willing to ask serious questions, questions they might not have asked in a crowded auditorium or classroom. It’s easier to be yourself when you’re going to school in your bedroom.”
Inspiration and authorship don’t occur in a vacuum, and there’s great beauty in engaging with authors to establish a clear literacy community for my students. While author studies can give useful background, there’s nothing like talking with an author about the unique inspiration and process they go through in creating. This sense of connection is part of why people tell stories and become authors in the first place—we need to know we aren’t alone. While this connection continues to be true, the truth is a universal one.
How to Make Contact
A range of authors include contact information on their websites, and some also provide contact information specifically for author visits. A quick look online at the official sites for students’ favorite authors may result in some interaction. Additionally, sites like The Author Village operate with the express purpose of connecting teachers and classrooms with authors.
The site includes information about visits from many notable authors, including Ellen Oh, Angela Dominguez, Lauren Castillo, and many more. Some authors may visit for free, while others might require a fee. If a fee is required, author visits can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars. Authors like Jason Reynolds also include cost ranges in their online forms.
Promote Creativity in a Virtual Space
So, why spend the time contacting authors and potentially securing funds through grants and partnerships for this kind of work? For one, having the chance to engage with authors online saves the additional cost that may be involved in travel. Additionally, these visits can open up creative opportunities, depending on the visit details that you work out. Author visits can be a celebration of their work in a virtual setting. They can include moments when authors connect with the original stories that students share, comment on the work that students create, and engage in reading work aloud. Students can show off their drawings and co-write with the author. Some author-illustrators come ready to flip the camera onto their desks and engage in drawing activities.
During online meetings, students can engage and be seen in ways that may be more difficult, intimidating, or even impossible in a face-to-face setting. You can work with your students to have compositions ready to share (if authors want to engage this way) or have questions prepared. Students can also offer questions unmuted or through the chat features, which allow those who aren’t comfortable speaking up to have an opportunity to engage—even across languages.
In terms of coauthoring, you can have students prepare writing in advance or work with them to share their compositions in community with authors online either by unmuting or typing in the chat. Because of the access that online visits can create with chatting and unmuting, you can guide students in practicing on-the-spot composing.
For instance, try using the screen-sharing feature to display an example starter sentence or topic, which leads into a shared writing exercise with the author as reader/commentor or, depending on their comfort level, a participant. If you feel that additional preparation would be involved for students to be comfortable composing, which may well be the case, pieces can be prepared beforehand to share with the author.
Managing an online meeting can depend on the features available on the web conferencing platform. You can explore options for unmuting, asking students to raise their digital hands, or providing an open engagement style with chat. Some of this depends on the size of the group of students and also depends on what authors may or may not typically plan for.
I recommend communicating ideas to authors about read-aloud, coauthoring, and any other steps so that they know what to expect, as well as meeting with authors a few minutes early before the students join the meeting. Some authors have particular ways they engage online, while others have a more flexible approach, and it’s best to know that in advance. A thoughtful approach outweighs on-the-spot improvisation.
Virtual Visits Make the Unreachable Attainable
While many of the practices we’ve engaged in during the pandemic have resulted from the necessity of the moment, I hope to continue conducting virtual author visits and see great purpose in this approach. As I mentioned at the outset of this post, I never imagined I would one day be in touch with authors I love, facilitating online visits and interactions with my students. Students of all ages can see and talk to the person behind their favorite stories, hear details about what inspired particular aspects of work, and even engage with authors and creators, sharing compositions from the classroom and developing comfort and familiarity with the seemingly distant or unreachable world of professional authoring.
The experience of having an author notice a student, say their name, and listen to their experiences around common themes is beautiful. Sometimes one of the best ways to help students make connections to and appreciate literacy is, indeed, to see an author firsthand and talk with them about the reachable, yet sometimes mysterious, world of writing.