Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Special Skype School Visit

How cool to be asked if I could talk to the kids at  Monticello Elementary in Wisconsin about Life in a Farming Community, which focuses on Monticello, WI.

How disappointing for both the teacher and I to realize I couldn't get there on either the school's or my own budget. But then we settled on the possibility of a Skype visit. Jody Indergand was able to get the technology to do it. I had the capability. We agreed to do it! Was I nervous? You bet: I was going to be talking to the kids in the very community I'd written about.

To prepare, I read a lot about what other authors had done with their virtual visits to get a sense of what to do on my end and what the experience would be like. Google "skype author visit" or something like that. There's lots of good info out there. So here's how it went for me.

First I tested my Skype out with a friend to get a feel for it. Then teacher, Jody Indergand, and I set a date and time a few days before the scheduled talk to test how our systems worked together. By turning her camera she showed me where the kids were going to be sitting. We made sure she could see and hear me and that I'd show up on their large screen. We double checked our time zone differences so we knew exactly what time we'd scheduled in local terms.

After that, I needed to tidy my desk, which regularly looks like a disaster. More importantly I needed to tidy what the kids would see behind me (which incidentally also usually looks like a disaster). I used my webcam to see what the kids would see. Saaaay, they can't see the floor! I hid a lot of stuff there. This is what they would see. I lined up a few of my books face out behind me so there'd be an interesting background. I had this weirdly vague feeling that I should clean the rest of my house, like I was having company or something, but quickly canned that idea. That didn't stop me from having to remind myself that they couldn't, afterall, see the crumbs from my lunch left on my kitchen counter.

This is what my desk looked like before the event. I've got water perched precariously close to the keyboard in case I needed a drink during my talk. Next time I think I'll use a container with a lid, like a travel coffee mug or a reusable water bottle. I perched my laptop on my handy dandy Muskoka phone books because what I'd realized from testing the view from my webcam was that I needed to bring the level of my web cam up higher. My notes and props are within reach on the right. Everything was ready and then it was just a matter of waiting for Skype to ring.

Jody and I had decided who would phone whom on the day plus we'd exchanged real phone numbers in case of difficulties. There was the ring! We only had to fix the small glitch that they could see me but I couldn't see them, and then we were all set. It turned out they even had some special guests in the audience so that the people who fact checked and provided photos for the book were there too. I waved to Richard Grahn and Sally Braem. This is the terrific audience of kids I was talking to.

I did a brief presentation on how I wrote the book. The kids found it fascinating to learn how a British book packager contacted a Canadian writer to write about a small village in the US and put together a book that is published in the US, Canada, and Australia. After I talked, some of the kids came up to their computer and web cam individually and asked me some great questions. They wanted to know things like what was my favorite thing I learned about Monticello, if I'd ever written about farming before, and whether writing was a job or a hobby for me. Like I said: great questions!

My overall experience was very positive and I'd definitely do it again. Challenges for me included:
  • not being able to read the audience as well. I could see and hear them obviously, but couldn't make eye contact with individual audience members. 
  • my presentation felt more static to me. Because I wasn't physically there I couldn't walk around and change positions. Maybe that wasn't helped by the fact that I had to stay fairly still in my chair because my chair is annoyingly squeaky and creaky when I move. Next time I'll hunt down the WD-40 first.
  • hanging up was a downer. When it was all done and we'd said goodbye and thank you, you just hang up and presto you're back to your regular life. After a physical school visit you get to do some handshaking or whatever and drive away. There's a more gradual transition or something. 
  • forcing myself to look at my web cam was difficult. Other authors have commented on this too. You have to make yourself look at a small black dot when your brain wants to look at the kids on your computer screen. But if you don't look at the dot, to your audience it will look as if you're looking down whereas if you look at the dot it looks to them as if you're looking at them.
But we were able to exchange some valuable information (like I learned how locals pronounce Monticello) and interact when we otherwise wouldn't have been able to. I think until an author can project a hologram of themselves elsewhere (you know, like in Star Wars!) doing visits this way works very well for short presentations.

Finally, this is a screen shot of my entire computer screen. This is Skype on my desktop background during our call. When I wanted to hold something up for my audience to see, that little window of me showed me what they could see so I could hold things up properly for them.

So a big thank you to Monticello Elementary for inviting me to visit! It was a pleasure, and I hope that one day I will indeed get to visit your beautiful corner of the world--in person!


LMacL said...

Thanks so much for taking time to share all of this information, Lizann! Really helpful.

Lizann Flatt said...

Always glad to help. Thanks for stopping in. :>

Sylvia McNicoll said...

Hey Lizann,

Liz M sent me to read this. Did you show them any images or did you present without.


Lizann Flatt said...

Hi Sylvia,
I showed them a specific page or two from the book when I was talking about it. I'd also printed out short sentences in a large font, each on its own piece of paper, to illustrate how a nonfiction writer goes from reading a fact somewhere, distilling it to its plain fact, then writing her own original sentence/idea about it.

Thanks for stopping in!