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This week I was happy to find out that high schoolers still think that Skyping with an author is cool. Of course I thought it was cool to have a virtual author visit, but I didn’t think it would be something that would catch the attention of even some of my most apathetic students. Ironically, this highlight wasn’t even part of the planned curriculum.
During our literature circle unit, one of the book choices was a book that, full disclosure here, I randomly found online. It was a Pura Belpré Honor award winner and the plot fit perfectly with our immigration unit, so I knew I had to get it. El único destino (The Only Road in English) tells the story of two cousins, Jaime and Angela, who are forced to leave Guatemala and go to New Mexico after being threatened by members of a local gang. Since we had just finished a unit on gangs, and were doing one about immigration, this was perfect!
As students were reading the book one of the class activities we did was looking at the author’s life and how it influenced their writing. Students couldn’t find very much about the author, Alexandra Díaz, other that what her website mentioned. Her email was listed on the site, so I told them if they emailed her and asked her the missing questions I’d consider their assignment complete. I figured getting a response while we were still reading her book was a long shot, but if nothing else students were learning problem-solving and real life language skills as they practiced using the formal Usted in the email they constructed.
By the next class, the student who had sent the email informed me the minute he got to my class that he had gotten a response! In the email Ms. Díaz responded to the students’ questions and also mentioned that she did classroom visits, and students said that they’d definitely like to do a virtual visit.
Since we were doing Lit Circles and not everyone had read the book, I had students read more about the author in an article from a Spanish language newspaper in the US, Al Día. It’s always nice to have a reason to read authentic sources!
Before the call, students wrote questions for Ms. Díaz. This made it a lot easier when the actual call came and my always chatty class suddenly lost their voices. In addition to general questions about the book, I encouraged students to ask questions about the writing process and publishing a book. One of the things that really interested me was the fact that the author wrote the book first in English and later went back and, with the help of her mother, wrote it in Spanish.
This virtual visit was a great way for my students to see a Latina role model, learn about a potential career where they could use their bilingual skills, and discover more about the writing process that author’s use. I hope to be able to do more virtual author visits in the future now that I have one under my belt.
Tips for doing a virtual author visit in your classroom
- If possible, all students should have read at least one book by the author before the call. Students can still get a lot out of this activity if they haven’t, but obviously it’s more engaging if they’ve read the book.
- Give students background information about the author or have students research their life so they can ask questions beyond the book.
- Brainstorm questions as a class beforehand and compile a list they can refer to during the call. Alternatively, have students jot down questions on a notecard, collect the cards to prevent those “I lost it” excuses, and pass them out right before the call.
- Communicate with the guest ahead of time to decide on the estimated length of the call, what you’d like them to touch on, and if the call will be in English, Spanish or bilingual.
- Make sure you’re familiar with the technology to be used, whether it’s Skype, Facetime, Zoom, etc. Nothing is worse than going to log in five minutes before the call and realizing you’ve forgotten your password!
- Think about setting up a microphone. We could hear Ms. Diaz perfectly but she couldn’t hear students sitting 5 feet away from the computer who were trying to ask questions.
- Go over behavior expectations with students before the call and let them know proper virtual etiquette.
- Ideally have some sort of follow-up after the call. Students could share their biggest take away or jot down a new question they have or make a personal connection.
- Finally, highlight other books by the author in your classroom library and encourage students to read them.