Monday, 10 March 2014

VirtualAuthors.co.uk - a new web site for free virtual author visits for UK schools.

It was World Book Day last week and like many authors I visited a school to read my books and talk to the children. School visits are a great way for authors and illustrators to connect directly with young readers and are usually inspiring experiences for both.

Like most authors I charge a fee for my school visits that covers the time spent preparing my sessions as well as the time spent at the school. Unfortunately, with budgets being tight in most state schools, such fees deter many schools from booking author visits. The problem is particularly acute for small schools in rural communities where the cost of the visit on a per child basis can be three or four times that for a child attending a larger urban school.

My own school visits have been further restricted in recent years by my decision to limit them to schools in my local East Midlands area. My family have kept a household carbon budget since 2005, set slightly below the national household average. As well as forgoing air travel for our family holidays, we try to curb our long-distance travel generally which has meant me declining invitations to visit schools that are further afield.

You might think that with this tightening of both schools’ financial budgets and my own carbon budget, the number of school visits I do must be dwindling. In fact, I've visited more schools and in more far flung places in the last year than I have in any previous year, thanks to the internet.

Eighteen months ago, two US school children emailed me to ask if I’d Skype with their elementary class in North Carolina to read my picture book The Princess and the Pig and answer some of the class's questions about it. I was aware that many US authors offered Skype visits and had already been considering offering them myself, so I said I'd be happy to give it a go. The visit went so well that I've been virtually visiting schools, mostly in the US, ever since. Some of the schools I've visited have not had an author visit of any kind before and every school has been very appreciative. Teachers often follow up with classroom activities and schools have sent me letters, drawings and even an ebook the children created in response to my visit.

My virtual visits to schools in Vermont and Atlanta

The growth of virtual author visits in the US has been helped by the “Authors who Skype” page set up by Kate Messner and the Skype an Author site run by Mona Kerby and Sarah Chauncy, which include directories of authors and illustrators available to Skype with US schools. So I’ve decided to set up a similar directory site for authors and illustrators willing to Skype with UK schools at virtualauthors.co.uk.

For the time being, I’m following Kate Messner’s example and only listing authors that offer free 15-20 minute visits (although listed authors and illustrators might also offer longer, paid-for visits in addition to these). While I’m generally wary of the notion that authors and illustrators should work for free, virtual visits need little or no preparation, the overheads are minimal (providing you already have a computer with a broadband connection) and there are no travel or accommodation expenses. In practice, it can take no more time to virtually visit a whole class of children than it takes to respond to a letter or email from a single child - and I don’t charge a fee to do that! Nevertheless, I still need to earn a living, so I limit my virtual visits to one a week and I only do them on Wednesdays. Even if an author or illustrator can only spare the time to do one free virtual visit a month during term time, that's still 10 schools a year, some of which may never have been visited by an author or illustrator before.

If you’re an author or illustrator that would like to be listed in the directory you can fill out the form on the "Authors and Illustrators" page of the site. If you've never done a Skype visit, there is some advice on getting started and some graphics you can download on the same page. There is no charge for being listed in the directory.

At present I’m restricting the directory to authors and illustrators who currently have at least one traditionally published book in print in the UK (not at the author or illustrator's expense and not only as print-on-demand/ebook). However I’m happy to list authors and illustrators from outside the UK providing they are able to offer free visits to UK schools during regular school hours.

So far, most of my virtual visits have been to US schools, but I have visited a couple of schools in the UK. Here’s what they had to say about the experience.

"The skype session was fantastic and the children really enjoyed it. It was great to be able to get the children to write questions and then have answers to them. I would certainly recommend it to other teachers. The parents all heard about it when their children got home from school and it certainly impressed them." 
Cossington C of E Primary School, Leicestershire, UK

“We thought the session was fantastic - just what we needed, a real life author to give out the messages we continually say … It is a brilliant opportunity to speak with you virtually and move into the 21st century! … The session was very clear and just the right time for year 3.” 
Corrie Primary School, Manchester, UK 

I’m hoping that virtualauthors.co.uk will encourage more schools to invite authors and illustrators into their classrooms. And who knows, once they’ve seen the benefits of a brief virtual visit, they might book a few more actual author and illustrator visits too!




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