Latest From the Front
This week I am in Bloomington, Illinois, courtesy of University High School. This is the third year in which they’ve asked the incoming 9th graders to read a book of mine (Race), we communicated about it as they read it (by Blackboard last year, Shelfari this year), and now as they set out to write their own first research papers, I’m here to help them. This mix of book reading, digital exchanges and personal contact is working quite well. There were parts of the book that disturbed some students — this year and last year the most thoughtful came from deeply religious students who at first thought I was attacking their faith, and then went on to do their own serious research and to realize why I wrote what I did. Because we had been in touch, and I assured them that it is fine to question, debate, disagree with me, they are much more at ease.
Anita Beaman, the wonderful librarian here, tells me that they have also just had their first Skype author visit — two new authors who had written a Sci Fi book. While there were a few technical glitches, the call dropped at one moment, sound quality was an issue, it all worked. So what if we add Skype to the mix I described above — kids reading print, being in touch with authors digitally, meeting the author(s) by Skype, then working together in person — there is real potential in that mix. And next year every kid in the school will be given a net book — a marvelous gift and not something that happens at every school, but also not so unusual these days. Now this is the third year of the program here, the teachers have learned what is required to make it work. Technology by itself does not create a good experience. Choosing what the students read, guiding the author to what s/he has to offer, defining the goals for the interaction are crucial to its success. Indeed managing the process, keeping in touch with students, teachers, and authors all along, troubleshooting, adjusting challenges and expectations, is necessary. In a sense this is one big class trip. But instead of taking the 9th graders to a historical site, a historian is visiting them.
I am thrilled that I get to be part of this once again, and to see it grow and develop — perhaps as a model for other schools and other authors.