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Thursday, December 4, 2008

My First Virtual School Visit!

     Tuesday I experienced my very first Virtual Visit with Austin Middle School in Dawsonville, Georgia. And can I just say - Technology ROCKS!!
     It’s a known fact that students are inspired when they can meet a working author or illustrator. They get to talk to a real person who has struggled to achieve a goal and succeeded - proving that they too can reach their own dreams if they are willing to work hard and focus. You can’t get that kind of real-world inspiration from a text book.
     But times are tough and many schools don’t have the budget to hire an author or illustrator to visit their school. And sometimes it's just not possible to easily fly somebody to a more rural location. So, what can those schools do for their students? Well, in this digital age we can take advantage of technology in new ways that can truly benefit our kids and maybe change their lives.
     I know there's been a lot of talk about Virtual Visits, but I haven't heard much from anybody who's actually done them - so here's the round-up of our experience!
     How it worked...
     I advertised the option for a Virtual School Visit on my website and my newsletter and offered my first one free to a school willing to experiment with me. Meredith Lowe, Art Education Teacher at Austin Middle School, contacted me and we went from there.
     She ordered my books, read them with her students and they started gathering questions. About three weeks before our date I sent a package containing giveaways, postcards, bookmarks and activity pages for the kids to use.
     The day before our visit, Meredith and I did a trial run using Skype's video option (free). Because it was something new, there were a few hiccups. For instance, there was some resistance to setting up a Skype account from the school, but we got past that and I shared my account name so we could connect. (At first it's intimidating to use, but once you're in there it's amazingly easy.) We also realized the need for external speakers and a webcam on her end so that I could see and react to the students. We got the speakers, but not the webcam. They could hear and see me, however, so we felt confident the visit would work.
     On the day of our visit, we connected online that morning to make sure we were ready to go. When we signed back on at 8:45, the kids had been gathered and we were off and running!
     Here’s what the kids saw:

     Meredith set up two projection screens and two lap tops. On one computer we connected using Skype so I could talk to the kids. On the other computer, she connected to my online presentation via the internet. I had created a home page to work from for our visit and she clicked to my online slide show (created through my .mac account), my picture book The Prince’s Diary on Lookybook.com, Paco and the Giant Chile Plant online, and a work in progress - my first picture book as author/illustrator, "Soap, soap, soap ~ Jabón, jabón, jabón." I'm looking into having an online white board in the future so we can do a demonstration drawing as well.
     Here’s Meredith's control center:

     Here’s what it looked like on my end:

     This looks like computer overload, but it’s really not that complicated. I am due an upgrade on my main computer - so the only webcam I have is on our laptop. But while I talked to the kids on my laptop, I scrolled through my slideshow, etc. on my main screens behind it. I just asked Meredith to forward a slide when we were ready to move on.
     The great thing about this visit is it offered a new angle. It wasn’t just about me and what I do as an illustrator, it was also an exercise in technology, so held special appeal to these gifted middle-school students. It also meant I didn’t lose an entire day to traveling which means I can physically do more of these while dealing with my tight illustration deadlines.
     What did I miss? Well, I hope to be able to see the kids via webcam during future visits. I really do react to and feed off a crowd, although they shouted and cheered for me which was fantastic! And I couldn’t sign books, although I hope to work out a signing arrangement if books are pre-ordered through my local independent book store. Most of all, I wish I could have hugged these guys for creating such wonderful greetings:

     But all said, our visit was a huge success. Meredith said, “The kids talked about your "visit" all day and were really amazed! The teachers wouldn't stop bragging either! Even our principal joined us! Thank you so much for your well organized slides and your excitement!”
     Best of all, a Virtual Visit is an affordable option for schools who otherwise wouldn’t be able to invite an author or illustrator to visit their students. I’m offering them at $300 per session and look forward to doing more!

Update: I'm not the only one doing these now! Check out author, Arthur Slade's recent virtual visit here!

Laurie Halse Anderson recently did a Virtual Visit. Teacher and author, Kate Messner, did a write up at Virtual Author Visits: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, & the Awesome. Laurie gave her side of the visit too at: "Skype Visit with Readers".

Katia Novet Saint-Lot did a Virtual Visit from India to Dubai! Read about it here.

Find other authors and illustrators doing Virtual School Visits at Skype An Author!

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Blogger Tricia said...

This is such a fabulous idea. I'm going to share your post with my technology instructor as one option for videoconferencing in schools!

12:01 PM  
Blogger Sarah Campbell said...

Thanks for taking the time to document this experience. You are certainly thinking creatively about getting your work out there to kids. I think we'll all have to learn how to do this.

12:08 PM  
Blogger John Nez said...


That looks very cool.
I wonder if Skype works with iMovie...


12:53 PM  
Blogger Gregory K. said...

That is great! And thanks, indeed, for taking the time to document and share it.

1:10 PM  
Blogger Stephen Aitken said...

Awesome 'e'! Thanks for sharing the details of your visit. SKYPE's video conferencing is pretty amazing and nice that they had a large screen to view your art on. Well done and inspiring.

1:52 PM  
Anonymous Mary Peterson said...

Truly amazing and totally inspiring, E! Thanks for sharing.

2:11 PM  
Blogger Shelli said...

awesome job-from one marketer to another :)

2:20 PM  
Blogger Stephanie Reed said...

Wow, that is just awesome! Great ideas all around, and how kind of you to walk us through it. Fantastic!

Stef from Blue Boards

2:45 PM  
Blogger Lynn E. Hazen said...

Cool. I'd like to try offering similar author visits. I appreciate the technical details. Sounds and looks like the kids got a lot out of it. How long was the session? Once it was all set up, did you do more than one class? Was it in their classroom or library. Thanks for sharing your experience.

2:55 PM  
Blogger The Book Chook said...

I know I would have been daunted, and so admire you for having a go. Congratulations on your success! I bet it will be a visit those kids will remember!

3:43 PM  
Blogger Paula Pertile said...

Well that's just freakin' awesome!

8:50 PM  
Anonymous edna said...

You are such a brave soul, e! Thank you for sharing. I'd like to try something like that...sometime. I'm not hip to Power Point yet and just learning about Skype so we'll see how close I am to that time.


8:51 PM  
Blogger Donna J. Shepherd said...

Thanks so much for sharing your experience. I'm so glad it worked out for you and the students. You can travel all over the world this way. Amazing.

8:26 AM  
Anonymous Pascale Mackey said...

I really enjoyed reading your post Elizabeth. You nailed it on the head when you said "It wasn’t just about me and what I do as an illustrator, it was also an exercise in technology, so held special appeal to these gifted middle-school students."
Video conferencing in schools will become more common, how smart of you to be ahead of the curve, and offer this service now!

8:27 AM  
Anonymous Kelly Milner Halls said...

Small world, Elizabeth. Chris did his first Skype conference this morning too. He's done more formal, video studio conference for years, but this was his first Skype event. It's so fun, isn't it? Very, very cool! Wish I could have watched you demonstrate for them. Bet you were great.


1:02 AM  
Blogger Terry P. said...

Fabulous idea, Elizabeth! Thank you so much for sharing the details of how this works. As you say, with budget cuts, this could be a great option for schools.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Jessica Burkhart said...

So cool! Thanks for sharing! :)

6:08 PM  
Blogger kathleen duey said...

Thanks!!! Elizabeth!!! I have been wondering how we can keep going to schools in the tight $ times. The next generation of authors will do holograms...


10:33 PM  
Blogger Linda Aksomitis said...

Thanks so much for sharing your experience! I drew from your material to set up my own virtual classroom visits, even though we're using different technology. In the future these visits will likely be standard fare, but certainly now you're a pioneer paving the way for a new era of interaction between readers and authors.

10:23 AM  
Blogger elysabeth said...

I've been using Google Talk with my virtual class room visits, no video as the teacher wants to protect everyone, which is understandable. I've been doing visits since September with a 6th grade class in Utah. They have all read my book and are anxiously awaiting the second book. I've been sitting in during their "writing workshop" time period. We started out at three times a week and then when the holidays came upon us, our schedules got messed up and so now we are down to just once a week. I write while the kids are doing their writing exercise and then we share sometimes. The teacher sends me the files he'll be using for the week and we just kind of go from there. Your setup is very extensive and all, but you may find that not all schools can be as accommodating as the one you did. I wish you luck - E :)

10:51 PM  
Blogger Arthur Slade said...

This was such a great inspiration. Thanks! I did my own Skype school visit at: http://arthurslade.livejournal.com/

It was a carbon copy of yours, so I appreciate you testing everything out beforehand.


3:37 PM  
Blogger e said...

Thanks everybody! I truly hope these catch on!
Arthur - you had the cameras working on the classroom end - fantastic! (I didn't have those in my set-up.) Hope you don't mind - I've added a link to your blog post too. Glad your virtual visit went so well!

9:03 AM  
Blogger Leanne said...

Thanks for documenting that Elizabeth! This post answers so many questions I had. You are lightyears ahead of me on the preparation front, but I can see such huge possibilities, and I can also see it as a way for me to entertain doing school visits, whereas before I could never justify the time away from my studio (as you say, a day or more travelling). Thanks again for passing this on to us!
Leanne Franson

10:20 PM  
Anonymous Chris Eboch said...

Hi Elizabeth -- I'm preparing a talk on a virtual school visits for a writing conference, and I'd like to use your photo of the students looking at the two screens. I'm happy to place your name and web site under the photo during my presentation. If this is all right, please contact me at chriseboch (at) blarg.net. Thanks -
Chris Eboch

8:31 PM  

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