Category Archives: Stories Connect Us

Bringing literature to life with Skype

London. It has its iconic buildings, red buses, and afternoon teas. Sounds great.  And it is…to an adult.

To a child, though, there is only one thing they’re interested in when it comes to London:  Harry Potter.  And there is one place that stands out, a spot that’ll determine if she is a witch or he a wizard: Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station

Both are real places – a fact lost on me when I first read the books.  And lucky me: I got to share them via Skype with a class of 2nd graders who read and compared US and UK editions of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone earlier this school year.  This group, I thought, would love to “see” the platform and the real King’s Cross.  Technology – Skype – could help make it happen.

I sent a query email to their teacher Ms. A, asking if she was interested in a virtual field trip.  (Note: this was quite deliberate –  I know that Ms. A loves England & London.)  A Skype rookie, she was willing to try something new because London! England! HARRY POTTER!  Making literature come alive!!  It was the tech that could be tricky.  Because while my former school is Microsoft school, few teachers use Skype (or any other platform) to connect to the world and expand the classroom walls.  It was a goal of mine, once in London, to help change that. 🙂

Ms. A was great at sorting it out (a very English phrase): securing a wide-angle camera and a better mic from the district, asking for help from the tech folk when needed, setting up a Skype account.  I was ready with the Skype app on my phone and wifi.  And together, we made some magic.

I “toured” King’s Cross with the class – it’s enormous, with trains and a tube (subway) station, dozens of restaurants and people everywhere – then made our way to the platform.  Along the way, I answered questions, showed them the official Platform 9 3/4 shop, and asked them questions about HP.

Skype was a perfect tool for our virtual field trip, though I imagine Google Hangouts would also work well.  Some helpful tips (learned in “The School of Trial and Error”) for hosting a Skype literature field trip:

  • Do a practice call in advance!  Make sure the mic/camera/connection/usernames work.
  • Make sure the whole class has heard the book & knows about the location to be shared.
  • Have students submit questions in advance in the event of tech troubles.  Ms. A emailed hers to me.  They were partially about HP, partially about London, but all from their heart.
  • Use a mic and headset for the single presenter.  This is a MUST!  My mic/headset earbuds were vital to the success.
  • Know your “tour” and literature. Don’t start at the main event…lead up to it.
  • Plan for 20 minutes.  Much more and people get restless.

And some reflection:

  • Have some student interaction/movement.  I asked students to share their Hogwarts house and which was their favorite character, but I should have done more with this.  Maybe a  “who said this line?” quiz?
  • Come up with questions to ask the class that require everyone to participate.  Again, I could have done better…
  • Ask the students if there is anything they would like to see more of.  I feel like I went way too fast through the train station and that it was a blur.  I should have slowed down!
  • Find someone to interview?  Maybe the people at the HP store, maybe someone waiting in the Platform 9 3/4 line…

Thanks, Skype, for making our world a bit smaller AND bigger.  Technology allowed us to expand the walls of learning outside of a suburban Seattle school and connect to a city thousands of miles away.  It also allowed this homesick librarian to see and interact with her students in a way not possible a decade ago.  Win-win, all around.

a reflective moment

The move to London is imminent. Less than two weeks, and we’ll be there.  And not just visiting…living life.

People often ask how I’m doing. If we’re packing. Cleaning. Ready.

To be real: the answers change depending on the day, the hour, the moment.

There are many days when I’m like Piggie in Mo Willems’s I Am Going! Excited. Joyful. Effervescent. Thrilled for the adventure.

But not always. There are times when Bernard Waber’s Courage gives me strength when feeling overwhelmed.  That I *can* do this.

Some evenings though, with thoughts swirling, I’ve felt like Katie Woo in A Nervous Night: unsure and afraid.

Todd Parr’s cheerful illustrations and messages help me face my nerves. I’m Not Scared…usually.

Ultimately, though, it’s Kat Yeh’s The Friend Ship that keeps me afloat.

Knowing that friends near and far are cheering, supporting, and hoping for the best for me and my family has made the stress of the transition bearable. If this life change has taught me anything, it is that our friendships are vital. They sustain us when life becomes overwhelming. They provide reassurance.  And that no matter how big the world seems, the bonds of friendship can stretch and grow.

So thanks, friends. Every sidewalk talk, phone call, email, text, hallway & office chat, Facebook message, Instagram comment, Tweet, and moment you’ve taken to be a friend has mattered. It’s helped. And I only hope to one day repay it.


With gratitude, arika

Squirrels: the darlings of children’s lit

Step aside, dogs and cats, bunnies and ponies.  Meet the new “it” animal in children’s lit: the squirrel.  These bushy-tailed tree acrobats seem to be taking over the world.  Not only do my children yell “Squirrel!” as they survey the treed backyard over dinner, but I can’t walk through a bookstore or library without being knocked over by the sheer numbers of squirrel-centric stories.  So why, exactly, is the squirrel getting such attention? And is it deserved? Let’s take a look at some standout tales (tails?), and explore why squirrels are so popular in children’s literature.

My backyard.  Can  you spot the squirrel?  J-girl and my boy H can!

My backyard. Can you spot the squirrel? J-girl and my boy H can!

Over one hundred years ago, Beatrix Potter gave a unique voice to the furry woodland creature in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, thus kicking off the squirrel revolution.  It took time for the awesomeness that is the squirrel to catch on, but it has.  Today, there is the protective squirrel (Ol’ Mama Squirrel), the gangster/baseball squirrel (The Mayor of Central Park), the problem-solving squirrel (Saving Mister Nibbles!), and the planning squirrel (Squirrel’s New Year’s Resolution).  Those Darn Squirrels cause mayhem when trying to get into Mr. Fookwire’s birdfeeders, showcasing the attitudes of diligence and resolve that STEM-focused educators so admire.  Ulysses, that award-winning squirrel of Newbery fame, gains superpowers of strength and language after getting sucked into a vacuum cleaner, something that Scaredy Squirrel would have observed from the safety of his tree (while adding vacuums to his list of things to avoid).  The newest squirrel on the block, Jeb from Lynne Rae Perkins’s Nuts to You, tells the adventuresome tale of escaping the grasp of a hawk and saving his entire community from demise with brave ingenuity.

What do these many fuzzy-tailed creatures have in common?  Energy.  Creativity.  Tenacity.  The squirrels of children’s literature delight in a challenge and never give up, attitudes and demeanors that parents and educators strive to highlight and incorporate.  With virtues programs and STEM initiatives in schools across the country, the squirrel has made it easier to showcase desired skills and behaviors using highly engaging stories.  If As it turns out, these literary squirrels really aren’t so different from the squirrels in my backyard that race across fences and dangle precariously in apple trees, never giving up in the all-consuming quest for food.

Stories Connect Us: Jenny Hubbard

So a few weeks ago, I read and reviewed Jenny Hubbard’s new novel And We Stay.  Later, I wrote about an exchange with my husband, who swears that Jennifer Hubbard was his English teacher freshman year of college.  Read the post if you like.

Right before I hit the publish button, I had the idea to email Jenny.  Not only did I want to give her a heads-up that I was publishing something with her name all over it, but I wanted to let her know that she was remembered as a teacher.  As a fellow educator, not much is better knowing you had an impact on a student.  Bonus points for being remembered after two decades.

So I emailed her.  I tweaked the original blog post, made it into a letter, and hoped for the best (translation: Let this be the person we think it is.  And please, no major grammar mistakes!).

Within a day, I got this in my inbox:


As Flora would say, Holy Bagumba!  My husband was right!  Jenny Hubbard was his teacher, and she remembers him from 20 years ago (he is memorable, in the best of ways).   And she thinks I can write!  Coming from an esteemed YA author, this is the highest of praise.

Takeaways from this experience:

  1. Reading the About the Author page in books may spark something amazing.
  2. Telling former teachers that you remember them and that they had an impact on your life is time well spent.
  3. Writing to authors and sharing the Stories Connect Us moment can have unexpectedly awesome results.

Read this to learn more about why I’m writing about Stories Connect Us.   And next time: Mac Barnett and Extra Yarn.