Monday, 2 November 2020

Virtual Reality

As a children’s author, I have been visiting schools for well over a decade. When I first ventured into a school, I didn’t understand what was expected of me, but over the years I’ve come to love them and now I find school visits inspirational, uplifting and joyous. 

Being a school visiting author is something you learn on the job. You can spend all the time you like getting your PowerPoint presentation looking snazzy, but there is nothing like standing in front of a whole school assembly to really focus your mind. Fielding random questions, retaining the interest of a distracted child or getting a teacher to look up from their marking are all things you learn to deal with by doing them. 

And then 2020 happened. Things are different now. I haven’t stood in front a school assembly since March. I’ve seen that some authors are still managing to physically go into schools but all of my events have now been put online and so I have had to relearn how to do my job. So, in no particular order, here are some things I’ve learned about doing virtual events.

Sitting in your own room, drinking your own coffee from your own mug, you might not feel like you are actually there ‘in the school’ but it’s worth remembering that’s exactly where you are. I watched a clip of a recent class visit that and was taken aback by how it looked from their point of view. As detached as you feel, try not to acknowledge it. This week, when I begin my events I will say, “Thank you for having me in your classroom. It’s lovely to be here.” If I can, I remark on the work I can see on the walls. Don’t draw their attention to the technology that is making it possible. Don’t sell it as a less good version of an actual visit. Act like you are there… and you will be.  


I never appreciated the value of being able to point at a child and say, “Yes?” until I could no longer do it. With virtual events, there is no point pointing. It’s pointless. This threw me to begin with as my events are basically hour-long Q&A sessions with songs, games and readings thrown in along the way, but I have discovered the solution can actually be quite a positive thing. I now have a teacher in the room, choosing who should speak next. This means more work for the teacher (sorry teachers), but it also ensures they are fully immersed in the session and an engaged teacher will get more of the sessions and ensure that their pupils do too. 


Sometimes a school or library will request a pre-recorded session. My preference is for these to be much shorter. We all know from our own online habits that people have a very short attention span, but sometimes schools or libraries want something longer. Recording these are likely to make you feel like you’re going crazy as you prattle on and on, without any audience to react. I have wondered if it might be a good idea to record a generic event, then add on a bit that specifically mentions the school, but I haven’t done this yet and it would take a bit of editing I suppose. Another useful thing to mention is that if you are doing a long piece, it makes sense to record it in sections because it can be tiresome trying to send it as a massive chunk. 


A couple of weeks ago, on a virtual visit, I read out a short story I had written about Halloween. I couldn’t really gauge how well it went down until, last week, the teacher contacted me to tell me that the pupils had loved the story and all written their own. He shared one with me. It was brilliant and it reminded me that readings work just as well virtually as they do in person. I don’t do a lot of reading with KS2 events but with picture book events it is essential. I am not sure of the best way to do it yet. It might be that from the class’ point of view, sharing a screen so they can see the book works best, but I think I’ll keep trying it as a reading of the actual book at the moment because I think a reading can be as much as about the delivery as the book itself. Keep your reading interactive and remember where your camera is. Hold the book up and show them the details. 


With physical school visits, it is important to give yourself enough down time between events to reset yourself, but also because sometimes you’re dashing between classrooms. It is the same with virtual visits. Just because you aren’t physically dashing anywhere, you still need to schedule your day so that you are ready to give each event your everything. 


There are lots of aspects of virtual visits that I haven’t considered here. I am not an illustrator so haven’t had to investigate the best way of live drawing. And as for many of us, school visits are an important source of book sales for me, and I am yet to work out the best way of encouraging book sales in this new world. I’m sure there are lots of things I will learn over the next few months about the best way to do this stuff. None of us knows how long it will be like this, but while it is, if we can continue to support each other, then we can continue to visit schools and be super spreaders of books and literacy. So, if you have any thoughts on this subject, please do feel free to share them below.

Gareth P Jones is an author of over 40 books for children of all ages. He has two picture books coming out in 2021 (published by Egmont). If you would like to book a virtual visit, he can be booked via Authors Aloud or contacted directly at  


sahelsteve said...

Great advice, Gareth. 'Act like you're there - and you will be' is a motto I will try to remember. And spot on with your comments about teacher engagement - having the teacher choose children to speak is one of the (few) advantages of a virtual visit over a physical one. They know when and how to elicit contributions from the children who *don't* have their hand up.

Too early to tell for sure, but I wonder whether the quality of collaborative writing is better in a virtual visit - with the word processing document writ large on the screen, the focus is more on the words and less on me, and children are able to focus better on the nuts and bolts of writing.

I struggle with my hearing at the best of times, and hearing children at the back of the class via Zoom or Teams is a real challenge for me. I arrange in advance with the teacher that touching my ear is a request for the teacher to repeat what has just been said by a child - this avoids lots of sorry-ing and what-ing.

Anyway, thanks again for posting this, Gareth. Invaluable nuggets of wisdom!

Gareth P Jones said...

Oh, that's a very good point. Yes, having a teacher automatically repeating questions is also very helpful.

Jane Clarke said...

Great advice. I've been doing more reading of picture books, informal chats and Q and A sessions than creative writing sessions. It's absolutely essential for the teacher to decide who is going to speak, and works much better if the teacher has checked what questions each student is going to ask - it's not that I need to know the question beforehand, but being asked what my favourite colour is more than once gets wearing for everyone :-)

simwaveca said...

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