When I started teaching 20 years ago, this was something that was even more difficult to do. You had to find someone local, for one thing, and one that had considerable enough talent to make it worth your students’ time. The options for secondary teachers were pretty limited, unless you were able to get a grant to pay for an author visit.
Fortunately times have changed, and technology allows us to bring authors into our classroom without worry about the logistics of getting them to the school and making the effort worth their while. Apps such as Google Hangouts allow authors to virtually visit the classroom from their home.
My classes had the opportunity to chat with Clare Beams, the author of the excellent short story collection “We Show What We Have Learned.” The kids took advantage of the opportunity to interact with a living author who was willing to discuss her work and give us some insight into the process of creating stories. And which author wouldn’t want to chat with a group of students that had read their stories?
So how did I pull this off? Not without a great deal of anxiety, but I managed to do it. Here are some things to consider if you’d like to give this a try.
How do I find an author that will do this?
JK Rowling will not agree to talk to your class. Neither will Stephen King. You have to find an author that’s not going to demand that you pay them to appear or are just too busy to entertain the notion.
You might want to look for emerging authors (like Beams), those who are on their first book and haven’t received widespread acclaim yet. I know teachers that have had good luck bringing in poets, whose work may be highly regarded, yet keep a pretty low profile teaching at colleges. Beams had received some noteworthy reviews and her work had appeared in well-known literary journals, so she was a good fit for my college prep English class.
I also chose Beams because she wrote short stories and I knew I didn’t have to invest the amount of time that reading an entire novel would require. Of course, it’s important that you find an author that students will like as well as well as one whose work is grade level appropriate. Beams’ stories remind me a lot of Shirley Jackson’s work, and I assumed (correctly as it turns out) that the students would be drawn in by her weirdness. Plus, her stories were available for free online so we didn’t have to purchase the book.
However, if you’re picking an author that’s fairly well known, it never hurts to ask! My first choice was Hillary St. John Mandel, who wrote “Station Eleven.” It turns out that, according to her publisher she was too busy to make this work, but you never know.
Fortunately the kids really enjoyed her stories and were eager to talk about them.
How do you have students develop questions?
I’m going to admit that I probably micromanaged this part of the process more than I needed to, but I wanted to make sure I had a good grasp of how the chat was going to go. My biggest fear was a lack of questions and lots of awkward silence. Therefore, we had to have a good supply of questions before we started.
To start, we read two short stories by Beams and did a whole class discussion with one and small group discussions with the other. In each case students were required to bring a discussion question to class for this.
However, good discussion questions don’t necessarily make good questions for authors, so at the end of each period we brainstormed questions about each story that we wanted to ask. Along the way we also kept track of general questions about writing as well, such as: Do you have a routine? Would you ever like to write a novel?
Since I had two classes I was doing this with, I compiled all the questions together from each class, eliminating the duplicates in the process. I estimated that each question and answer would take about two minutes, so the students prioritized which questions they wanted to ask and I removed the duds.
I then shared the questions with them on Google Docs and assigned questions to those who wanted to speak, thereby creating an order for the questions that would be asked. How did we decide the order? The students determined that they wanted to ask general questions before moving on to the questions about the short stories, and we also chose a good final question in case we ran out of time.
How did you set up the technology?
I used Google Hangouts because I was familiar with it and it worked great for what I had done with it in the past. Fortunately I had a technology teachers working with me to test everything out. I used my laptop and a Blue Yeti microphone I had purchased for another project (although the school had technology that I could have used.) We ran the laptop through the projector so we could see Beams on the big screen.
Trial runs are important. We did two trial runs on Thursday. We tested out the equipment by doing a Hangout with our tech teacher in the morning to make sure everything was running correctly and quickly with Beams in the afternoon to make sure everything was working on her end.
How did it go?
It went awesome! We were able to ask all the questions and we were even able to ask a few spontaneous ones. Clare was a great sport and the kids were very engaged with the conversation. It was fun for them to peel back the layers of story creation with someone that could answer all their questions about thins like ambiguous endings and symbolism. I’ll definitely be looking for more opportunities to do this in the future.
I have to give a shout out to Susan Barber and Karla Hilliard who inspired me to give this a try and answered some of my questions along the way. Check out their post above in which they did the same thing.
And don’t forget to check out Clare Beams’ book! It’s terrific.
David Rickert is a high school English teacher in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. He has been teaching for over 20 years and has taught virtually every grade and every subject. David is passionate about developing lessons that make difficult language arts subjects fun and engaging. He is also an author on Teachers Pay Teachers.