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Adventures with Author Skyping: Nuts and Bolts from My Fourth-Grade Classroom

Colby Sharp

When I was in elementary school my favorite time of day was read aloud. I loved hearing about the adventures of Ramona or Fudge, and I couldn't wait to find out what was going to happen with Brian from Hatchet

Yet I never thought about the authors of those books. As far as I was concerned they were not real people. Books just sort of showed up in our school library. 

My fourth graders in Battle Creek, Michigan, don't see things that way. When we start a read aloud, my students know that after we finish the book we are going to be able to talk with the author via Skype chats. Knowing that they are going to get a chance to talk with the person that wrote the book makes it personal. Reading the book becomes about a million times more exciting and more important for them.

Picture reading The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger. A ten-year-old wonders why Mr. Angleberger decided to write the book as a case file. The class has a wonderful discussion, and then we write down the question on a giant piece of chart paper so that later we can ask him during our Skype. Or how about The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z by Kate Messner? My kids were dying to know how Kate came up with the character Bianca. 

Skyping with authors is that it allows students to see these writers as real people. Last year my students got a first hand view of Kate Messner's messy classroom, and a quick peek at Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich's giant stack of books to read. Earlier this year during a Skype chat with Laurel Snyder, my fourth graders got to see her be a mom. She had to leave the Skype for a minute to talk with her son. These things might not seem like a big deal, but they help students to see themselves as writers because they see writers as real people.

Have I convinced you to try an author chat with Skype? I hope so. Here are the simple steps you'll need to take to make author Skyping a reality in your classroom:

1. Gather the hardware and software you need.

To Skype with an author you need a computer with high-speed Internet access, a camera, and a microphone. Most laptops have the camera and microphone built in. I use an external microphone and camera. They cost me a total of $60.

You also need to check and make sure your district allows Skype. At first my school did not, but after a ten-minute conversation they quickly granted me access.

2. Pick an author.

This might seem like a tall order, but Kate Messner has made this task easy. Check out her list of authors that Skype: http://www.katemessner.com/authors-who-skype-with-classes-book-clubs-for-free/.

Lots of authors offer free 20 minute Skype visits. I have found that 15-20 minutes is the perfect amount of time. Just short enough to leave students wanting more, and not so long that they lose interest.

3. Read the book to your class.

Nothing will make your read aloud more special than your students knowing that they will have the chance to discuss the book with the author at the end.

4. Prepare ahead for your Skype chat.

My class spends a lot of time getting ready for Skype visits. We visit the author's webpage and learn everything we can about the author before the Skype call. I want students to value the author's time. If we can learn things about the author from visiting their website, then there is no way we should be asking those questions during the chat.

5. Focus independent reading on the author's other books.

Before Skyping, we read deeply into an author's collection of work. For example, if we are reading Bigger than a Bread Box aloud, then I will encourage students to read Any Which Wall and Penny Dreadful during independent reading time. I will let them know that I need experts on Laurel Snyder's work, so we can have a truly rich conversation with the author. 

6. Prepare a class introduction.

We always write an introduction for our Skype call, so that the author knows a little bit about us before we get into the questions.

7. Plan questions in advance.

It helps to plan ahead. My students and I discuss questions that we want to make sure we get answered, and we also talk about how the best questions often come as a result of the author's responses to other questions. We practice asking questions based on responses. Behind the screen that the kids look at during the Skype call, we have the questions written on the board. The students can see them, but the authors cannot. I cross the questions off as we ask them, so that we don't accidentally ask the same question more than once.

8. Get out of the way.

I try to do as little talking during the Skype chat as possible. I help guide things, but I find if I step aside, my students have no problem taking control and doing a great job in conversations with authors. 

Skyping with authors is something that all students should get a chance to experience. The impact a 15-minute chat can have on young readers and writers is amazing.


Colby Sharp

Colby Sharp teaches fourth grade in Battle Creek, Michigan. His passion in the classroom is building lifelong readers, writers, and thinkers. He is currently a literacy data and instructional coach. You can follow Colby at his blog, Sharpread. He also helps lead the Nerdy Book Club.