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November 20, 2011

Author Skypes Middlebury third-graders

MIDDLEBURY — It was definitely too expensive to fly 30 students to Denver to meet one of their favorite authors and it was still too expensive to fly one very popular writer to Orchardview Elementary in Middlebury.

However, Principal Brian Sloan figured out how to make the meeting happen.

Through the Internet, phone calls, a Promethean board and Skype, Sloan brought author Avi to Orchardview for an hour. It was the school’s first foray into distance learning.

The idea came to Sloan several months earlier.

“I like to get into the classroom as much as possible,” Sloan said. “I asked some of the third-grade teachers if I could come into their classrooms and read aloud.”

One of Sloan’s favorite authors is Avi. The author of more than 60 books, winner of the Newberry Award, two Newberry Honor books, three Boston Globe-Horn Book awards and several other awards and honors, Avi’s works have been read by thousands of children and adults around the world.

But Sloan didn’t read one of the more popular books to the students.

“I chose a book he wrote called ‘Something Upstairs,’” Sloan said. “I got turned on to it by an English professor when I was at Ball State (University).”

Sloan wanted to get them hooked, not just on this author, but on reading in general.

The results were exciting for any teacher, principal or librarian.

“They liked the book so much, they were going to the library and taking out every book from Avi that we had,” Sloan said.

Sloan wanted to expand on that excitement. He helped the students in discussions about the book, feeling it had some very teachable issues. But he wanted to take it a step further.

“I visited the author’s website last year and I found out that he did Skype visits,” Sloan said. “I contacted the intermediary and found out he only Skyped to fourth grades and above.”

He didn’t let his idea go.

“I said, ‘Look, here’s the story we are reading. It’s one of his older stories and I don’t think it’s one he gets asked to talk about much,’” Sloan said. “I shared with them why and what we were doing and the caliber of students we have here and how very excited they were.”

Avi agreed to go one grade level lower. Less than a month ago, Avi arrived via technology.

The students had carefully prepared questions in advance.

“They got to stand up and ask a question and he got to see them and the students could see him, of course,” Sloan said.

Some of the third-graders asked Avi specific questions about the book. They wanted to know about the house where the setting took place.

“I Google-mapped it from street view,” Sloan said. “The house was in Rhode Island.”

The class found out that Avi had lived in the house where “Something Upstairs” takes place.

Other questions were more general. Students wanted to know how he became a good writer and how they could become good writers.

Nine-year-old Terry Bloss found out that Avi takes about one year to write a book, making 60 or 70 drafts before the finished work.

Abigail Checkley wanted to know what medium he used to write.

“He told me he used to use a typewriter and paper and pencil,” she said. “Now he works on a computer — but he still uses a pencil and paper.”

Third-grader Elsa Fretz loves to write and said she was inspired by some of Avi works.

“They gave me ideas for my books,” Fretz said. “I have one fantasy that’s 11 pages long.”

Quite a few students wanted to know if “Avi” was the author’s real name. It turns out that his twin sister gave Edward Irving Wortis his nickname when just a year old.

Even Principal Sloan had a question for the author.

“I asked him he was ever approached for a movie deal,” Sloan said. “He told me, ‘frequently.’ However he said he tells them he wants no part of it. …he wants to be writing books.”

 So far no one has followed up after he tells them that.”

Sloan and the students found that the hour went by very quickly.

“He was gracious and open to any question,” Sloan said. “I would definitely like to do this again in the spring. But this time I would like to give all the third-graders that same opportunity.”

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