How to get an author visit to your school, whenever you want
Behind the bookshelf is 'a new way to bring authors into your classroom'. Richard Kavanagh explains Behind the Bookshelf (BtB) is a brand new service; the website went live in November 2011. But BtB is also new in the sense that it is bringing a different type of service to the market. One look at the website, and you will see that it is different. Of course there are excellent sites where you can get educational support streamed to your computer. Even social sites such as Youtube are providing content which can be valuable in the classroom or in the library. So what is different about BtB?To answer that we'll need to go back to the beginning. Mary Byrne has been working with authors for many years. In addition to bookshop signings and literary festival talks, most authors also visit schools. School visits are an important way to reach and build an audience, but the best authors can also engage, inspire and motivate young people to read widely, to have a go at writing themselves and to keep trying. Writers are passionate about books and reading, and this passion can be really contagious. After such visits, school after school reported an increase in library borrowing and in the level of engagement with books and writing during English lessons.
But what also became noticeable was that such enthusiasm tailed off. As one teacher put it: 'We always notice a difference in student attitude and application after an author has visited in person and regaled the joys of reading and writing, but this enthusiasm is hard to maintain as our author visits are sadly too few.'
This got Mary thinking. How can we get so few authors to more schools and how can we maintain the level of enthusiasm? And so the ideal of specific and specially recorded video which would be easily accessed by schools was born. The key thing was it had to be easy to use and very targeted: just authors talking about their experiences of the creative writing process. We needed the best authors to help us. They needed to be good, really good - not just in their writing, but also in their ability to get across the essence of what being a writer means. We drew up a list of which authors we felt would fit the bill and we approached each one. They all agreed to be part of our new project. We will always be grateful for their involvement. They were lending their names to an untested idea, but their enthusiasm for the vision was encouraging - so thank you David Almond, Sophie McKenzie, Morris Gleitzman, Melvin Burgess, Malorie Blackman and Marcus Sedgwick.
Capturing it all on video
We had already heard of Laurence Lennard (Yada Yada Productions) as a fine cameraman and editor, and within minutes of meeting we knew we had the man for the job. Laurence very quickly got what we wanted and set about capturing that on film: 'We wanted to make sure each author interviewed was captured in a different setting, to avoid the formal atmosphere of studio filming. We also wanted the locations to feel relevant, hence filming in libraries, authors' writing spaces and even with a bookshelf behind them... '
The key to producing the videos was getting the authors to provide us with concise yet detailed responses, encapsulating their passion for literature in a series of roughly two-minute videos.
All of the authors featured have been very generous with their time. Filming each author took one to two hours, allowing us to gather enough material to produce about 20 videos per author, covering a wide range of topics from their early works and getting published to what they're working on next.
Each author also provided us with a reading from one of his or her books, favourite poems and other talking points, providing teachers and pupils with jumping-off points for classroom discussion and debate.
The footage was edited into individual videos, each one given the filename of the author and the subject under discussion, such as 'MarcusSedgwick_WritingDiscipline'. This meant that the files were easy to catalogue and add to the Behind the Bookshelf website database, making it simple for users of the site to search for specific terms.
We and Laurence were delighted with the results. 'It has been a joy to listen to the authors speak. They have all been incredibly passionate, articulate and entertaining on their subjects, very willing to let us into their thought processes and honest about the challenges of writing professionally.'
The authors have all provided us with fantastic interviews, pitched squarely at their target audience. The interviews are informative and inspiring, hopefully providing the viewers with thoughts on how to produce their own written work.
We needed to test the material, and for that we turned to Val Rutt. We wanted to see if the video clips did what we hoped they would: hold students' attention, make them think about the writing process, and get them as a group to discuss how their stories could be developed. And they appeared to do just that: the videos were given a thumbs up by the pupils and we, as their creators were happy.
But then we started getting reports from the library at that school. The videos seemed to have a secondary, and in time a more powerful effect. Pupils were looking for the books written by the authors in the videos. The demand outstripped supply, and a waiting list was created: our videos had inspired reading and motivated the group to take action on their own.
So our thanks to those young readers in north London. They gave us the confidence to believe in our idea. They motivated and inspired us, and now hopefully through BtB we can all go on to motivate and inspire young readers and writers everywhere.
Bringing it to life
All of this video would have been wasted without an easy to use mechanism for delivery. So we needed a web development company that had a track record in both the education sector and in innovation. With e-bloc in Brighton we found our people.
Arran Lowe, e-bloc's creative director, was excited by the challenge. 'When Richard and Mary came to us with the proposal we saw a chance to introduce something new.'
The education sector needed an injection of innovation and BtB could provide that - but we had to get it right. What we needed to achieve at the end of several months of design and development was a simple interface for teachers to log in, see where where they left off last time as well as quickly access their lessons, plans and video content. From there they can, within minutes, search the site based on learning objectives and topics to compile a single lesson or full-term course before saving to their account.'
It was important that we took into account the disparate nature of the IT infrastructure of schools around the UK in order to make sure of maximum accessibility.
As Aaron noted: 'The natural urge with a brand new project like this is to deliver the finest bells and whistles money can buy. However, this would immediately close the door to a quarter of the target audience due to their web browsers being several years out of date with no immediate plans to upgrade so lowest common denominator (within reason) needed to be catered for.'
The user interface was also custom-built to allow teachers to drag and drop videos into their lesson plans as well as quickly search for related clips without leaving the page they were on.
The site allows easy search by topic, age, author and genre. It also allows a keyword search to find your ideal video clips. It uses drag and drop to build playlists and lessons, which can be saved for playing later. Some have said that it is like a cross between BBC's iPlayer and You Tube, but in addition allows you to save your work in your own account. We call this the 'My BtB' section, designed to become the central point for all users.
So what have we got? Behind the Bookshelf has captured top children's and young adult authors in conversation. Their passion for writing is apparent in every clip. They speak about what motivates them, what tricks and tips they use, and how they tackle location, point of view and character development. And they do this while all the time making it relevant and real to the viewer.
Behind the Bookshelf brings you over 150 videos featuring seven authors. All the videos are individually categorised, and each keeps top a specific topic or point. Our search facilities on the website allow you to build a playlist of videos that meet your needs exactly, no matter what the class size, age or educational requirement. Remarkably this source of inspiration is available to anyone in your school all year round, and all for the typical cost of one author visiting your school once.
If you would like a peek at BtB go here and check out a small selection of our videos. If that whets your appetitive you can register for a free no commitment trial. If you register quoting promotional code BB1, you will be in with a chance of winning one of three yearly subscriptions to Behind the Bookshelf.