Author Visits: Pandemic Edition

It is no secret that the 2020-2021 school year was painful. Teachers, students, parents, everyone was in a survival daze. Just get through this year. I have seen a lot of discussions about the many safety procedures and protocols that we hope to never need again. I don’t plan to add to this growing list but as we end summer 2021 and head into this next school year, I would like to offer some of the positives that came out of the response to the pandemic, specifically our virtual author visits.

Our school year had both on-campus and remote students in 5th grade through 12th grades. We had limited movement between the grade levels and no large in-person group gatherings such as assemblies. Our campus also restricted visitors for the year. The inability to host a visiting author this past year as we do annually was initially frustrating. Yet the frustration gave way to excitement once I realized that our budget for visiting authors, which covers the visit stipend, hotel, food, and travel fees, could now be split between multiple virtual visit fees.

Our first virtual visit of the school year was with graphic novelist Grace Ellis. This visit was hosted over Zoom as a webinar for our whole middle school. In preparation for this visit, I asked students to make short videos (Tiktok-like) to share with Grace of their questions; unfortunately, I didn’t garner any excitement to make such videos. The day of the visit was conducted just like our in-person presentations except now on a virtual platform; I introduced Grace and she spoke to the students. Her presentation was wonderful and the students filled the chat feature Q&A during the visit. Reflecting on the visit, Grace and I found the webinar platform was awkward for a school author visit as I was the only audience she had to interact with. While Grace’s visit was loved by my middle and upper school students, I wanted more connection between the author and students.

Our next visit was with Supriya Kelkar. For this visit, I changed the format from a presentation to an interview, which was conducted mainly by a panel of my middle school students. Based on students’ reading interests I selected and invited specific students to be on the panel. They were given the opportunity to read the author’s books and then we met to practice on Zoom. Using Google Docs, one student wrote the introduction, each student wrote two questions, and together we created a script that included time for other students to type into the Q&A. Before the actual Zoom visit, we met again on Zoom to practice interview manners, Zoom manners, and even facial reactions as the student panel would act as interviewer and audience. We had a mix of remote and on-campus students so I also coordinate separate safe spaces for on-campus students to remove their masks if they wanted. While I wasn’t sure how this format would work, I should have never doubted my students; these middle school interviewers hit the mark and did an amazing job! Each student took pride in their spot on the interview panel. One student panelist said of the experience, “It was amazing to learn how she made all of her dreams come true.”

Adapting our second visit and moving away from the traditional presentation was a huge success for the participation and interest of our students. The third virtual visit was with author and founder of We Need Diverse Books Ellen Oh. With the success of our middle school interview panel, I kept the format and preparation similar inviting new middle school students and adding an upper school panel for a second Zoom presentation. During the practice sessions, the students suggested that while one student would write the introduction, they would split the speaking roles between the panel so it was more equal. These students again impressed me with their professionalism and pride in being part of the interview.

For this visit, I also coordinated with Ellen to allow the student panelists to stay on the Zoom call with the author after the group interview. The students enjoyed this personal time with Ellen to talk candidly with her.

Before our final virtual author visit of the school year, I asked for feedback from the homeroom teachers about student audience engagement during the visit. The idea to reimagine our author visits again emerged. With our students not on-campus full-time, I believed creating a One Book One Grade activity with this visit would be a wonderful community builder. While our assemblies remain, now virtually, the absence of community is noticeable and dearly missed. Creating a One Book One Grade activity allowed our school to reimagine the important value of community building during assemblies in addition to the student interview panels.

In coordination with our parent association, we purchased every student in 5-12th grades a book by author Nnedi Okorafor before her visit. Her middle-grade novel Ikenga was gifted to the fifth and sixth grades. The young adult award-winning novel Akata Witch was read by the seventh and eighth graders, as well as the freshmen. The first book in the novella Binti was purchased for the tenth graders. The eleventh grade received the novel Who Fears Death, which was awarded the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, as well as the 2010 Carl Brandon Kindred Award for an outstanding work of speculative fiction dealing with race and ethnicity. Finally, her 2021 newly release novella Remote Control was gifted to the twelfth grade. Connecting each grade with a single book and both divisions with a single author created a significant bond for our students during this time apart. As a result, students were able to create new connections with each other through virtual book clubs and conversations hosted by the library that allowed for space to share and create community.

Some students read before the visit, some decided to start once they “met” the author, some took the book home for their TBR shelf. I loved that each student had a physical connection to the virtual author. Nnedi’s visit was wonderful! The student panelists were wonderful in their presentation of their questions and the teachers reported that the student audience was engaged throughout the conversation and the Q&A. I also tried my audio editing skills at our first author visit podcast. I whittled the two 40 minute presentations into one 30 minute podcast with permission from the author’s agent to be posted to our school Spotify account.

The unfortunate situation of remote school was a difficult one, and it forced us to pivot, reimagine, and create a new normal. I’m excited to bring over some of these new ideas into our future in-person author visits.

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