March 2, 2012
Dorothy, Jason and I are going to talk with Vicki and her audience at the NYSCATE regional conference in Wappanger Falls, NY, later this afternoon. I know what I want to tell people. This experience really surprised me.

I expected a remote connection with an author would be…well, remote. A bobbing head on a big screen, not nearly as engaging as a real person in real time. Boy, was I wrong. You see, the way these sessions are designed, you get to know the author you’re working with.
Let me explain. Jason and I met Dorothy for the first time in a Skype session that we had set up through postings on the wicki in order to plan our initial classroom meeting. We talked, face to face, got a feel for who we were talking to, and began to share ideas about what we wanted to focus on. As it turns out, after asking Dorothy what she was like when she was ten and eleven years old, we decided that we wanted her to tell some of the stories she shared with us to our students. Dorothy was a pretty curious kid, and it wasn’t surprising that she ended up writing books about things she noticed--everyday things that a lot of us would pass by without giving a second thought. She was living a writerly life as a kid. In The Art of Teaching Writing, Lucy Caulkins tells us that the writer, Vicki Vinton said, “It is an illusion that writers live more significant lives than non-writers; the truth is, writers are just more in the habit of finding the significance that is in their lives.” Jason and I are working hard to establish habits like that in our classrooms. We had a plan.
That session made a big difference. We didn’t tell Dorothy what we wanted to do; she didn’t tell us what she wanted to do; we collaborated in a virtual face to face meeting and arrived at something that none of us had imagined before we met. It happened because we got to know each other a bit while we Skyped.
In the days after that first meeting, we were emailing and posting ideas on the wicki, revising and refining, back and forth. We talked about the way we would set up the room, and the best way to handle a question/answer session. While we were moving closer to our first classroom visit, I began filling my class in on our online conversations. “Dorothy, Mr. P, and I were talking about…Dorothy was thinking…Dorothy said..” Dorothy had become a remote member of our classroom community; she was having an impact on our writing even before our students met her.
We were really pleased with the first Skype session. Some powerful energy had been transmitted and as we began working on a nonfiction writing project, Dorothy had become a mentor. I overheard one of my students, who was working on a hook for his feature article, say to another, “Let’s see how Dorothy does that,” and they picked up one of her books to check out her opening.
Dorothy was in Hawaii during that first session, and afterwards, she and her husband had traveled to Mexico. We received pictures of interesting rock formations she found there, along with the story of how she supposed the rocks had formed, as well as the truth she discovered while talking to a local geologist. Dorothy also sent us a brief video she had come across online that she thought we might enjoy. In between the two thirty minute connections we signed up for a lot of communication was still going on.
We have quite a few of Dorothy’s books in our library and we began using them last week in an author study (Let’s get to know Dorothy even better.) Reading/Writing groups chose a book and read the first chapter, or the initial section of the book. They just read to see what the books were like and did a brief reporting to the rest of the class on their first impressions. In the second meeting, the groups went back to the books, and this time, they used their notebooks to jot down things they noticed and to answer the following questions:
What is Dorothy trying to teach in this book?
What was the most interesting thing your group found in the book?
Could the chapter, or part of the book you read stand alone, like a magazine article?
Were there any interviews?
Were there fact boxes outside of the main text?
What role did the pictures play?
(And because a student came to show me a dedication) Hey, record the dedication in your notebooks! Do you think it’s a clue to the angle she’s writing from? Let’s think about where the dedication came from.
Now the class is looking at Dorothy’s work from the perspective of nonfiction writers. We’re not going to publish our feature articles until after our next (and last) meeting with Dorothy. We’ve decided that session will focus on conducting interviews and how to evaluate internet resources.
The day after our first meeting, I asked the class to write their impressions down. One of the students wrote, “It’s exciting to know an author who can give us tips…I can’t wait to get tips from a real pro.” They think they know you, Dorothy. There’s nothing remote about our relationship.

December 9,2011
Dorothy met with our class on Wednesday. Wow.

Why skype with an author? Peers, take a peek.

The first thing you’ll notice is the intimacy.

Most author visits are well-rehearsed presentations. Authors are paid to present for a period of time, and then to answer random questions. I’ll bet they’ve been fielding the same questions for years (What’s your favorite…What inspires you…Do you have a pet?)

The audience is always too large. Our building houses grades three, four, and five. Third graders are up front. Our fifth grade students sit in the back of the auditorium because they are the oldest. The distance makes a difference.

Focus is often an issue. How does an artist please an audience of third, fourth, and fifth grade students? At the same time? We have no chandeliers to swing from. It must be tough for an artist to try to keep everyone focused. Sometimes kids walk away asking, “Who was that masked man?”

Skyping is different. There’s something about face to face meetings. People use more than language to communicate. Face to face communication develops gradually. You test, you joke, you play, and you get to know each other. Jason and I met with Dorothy online in a planning session and talked about what we wanted to accomplish. We were able to think about ways we could work together. By the time we introduced our students to Dorothy we knew each other, and had fashioned a plan together; that was the key to our success on Wednesday.

On Thursday, I asked my class to write down their impressions about the session. The class spoke about Dorothy as someone they knew. Here are some of their comments:

…it wasn’t just about books, science, or being an author. We got to learn a lot about you.

I think you are not like other writers. You are unique and you have a lot to write about.

I enjoyed that story about when you and your friend set off the firecracker and set the grass on fire. I would feel embarrassed just like you did. Who wouldn’t?

I realized that nature is a very important and fun thing to explore. You’ve also inspired me to do my best and to work hard.

I think your life is really interesting and exciting.

You are the best non fiction author I’ve ever read.

I had a great time talking and spending time with you.

I can’t wait until our next session.

I can’t wait to talk to you again.
Now when we read your book, we can

hear your voice say every little word—no matter who is reading.

It seemed like you were right in the room with us.

It’s exciting to know an author who can give us tips…I can’t wait to get tips from a real pro.

Thanks, Dorothy. Thanks, Vicki.
What we’re doing isn’t ordinary. We’re playing with something that has extraordinary potential. Wow.

Why did I sign up for this project?

Why not? Who could refuse an invitation to collaborate with award winning authors? I think the whole idea is thrilling.
My first experience with a video conference was at the Apple Headquarters in Manhattan years ago, and I was surprised to discover that once we began to interact, converse, joke around, I completely forgot that the person I was talking to was sitting at a desk in California. That we were on opposite ends of the country seemed impossible; we were in the same room. And we were having fun.
I have twenty two students in my class this year. When I mentioned the Authors on Call project, and the fact that we would be using Skype, the majority of my class was already familiar with the experience:
I talk to my aunt in Israel.
I use Skype all the time, since my cousins moved to Ohio.
I Skype my Nana usually. She lives in Spain and France. I only visit her once a year, but my mom talks to her every two weeks.
I've never used Skype, but if I had it, I'd talk to my dad when he's on business trips.
I can see anyone I want to see. I can see my friends in Russia, the Ukraine, anywhere. It's like you get to someone's house by pressing a button.
When I went to Hebrew school my teacher set up an account and we talked to another Hebrew school in Israel.
When we moved from Germany I was sad to leave my friends, but I didn't lose my friendships with them. We can still talk and see each other.

Do I have any reservations?

Well, It's a bit like being on a blind date, isn't it? I don't know the author I'll be connecting with.

Timing is a concern I have. If the connections we make are to have a maximum effect on our school experience then they have to occur at just the right time. I want the experiences we offer our students to fit into our curriculum.

But my final thought is that we are experimenting with something that seems to have great value. Let's just do it and do it again, until we get it right.

Chris K