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World Read Aloud Day, One Skype Visit at a Time

Please welcome UK author and guest blogger Sarah Weldon today, who will be discussing her efforts at promoting child literacy around the world. Her story is a fascinating study on how one person can make such a big difference in so many lives – around the world!


Back in mid 2000 I left my job as a hospital medic for young people with acquired brain injuries, to take up a rather unexpected invitation from the then President, to work on an educational reform program in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.  I had no idea that the post would change my life in more ways than one, ultimately ending up with me founding my own UK registered children’s charity and becoming a full time children’s author.

It all happened during one visit to a school where I was carrying out my assessments for the Ministry of Education and Science, and happened upon a class where the students had not had a teacher for the past six months. Upon inquiring why this was, I was told that the students were quite simply ‘unteachable’.

What the head of the school actually meant (but which was lost in translation), was not so much that the children were ‘bad’, but that the teachers had no idea how to connect with the students in a language that they understood, since most were refugees from the war, and lived in IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) settlements. There were no teacher training courses in Georgia back then, and some of the teachers I met were in their 70s and 80s and very Soviet in their teaching style.

The school had no books, no electricity, no heating, and was, to say the least, a bit of a death trap with rubble falling from the ceiling and missing floorboards. Though my own schooling was very different, the situation of the children reminded me of my own education and being discriminated against because of growing up on a council estate and not being one of the richer kids at school. So I decided to do something temporary until I could come up with a better plan.  I pulled out my old laptop, and a DVD that was in my bag, and I left the students watching the DVD on my laptop. That series happened to be the BBC Oceans television series.

What I didn’t know at the time, was that not only had many of these students never seen the ocean before, but that they had never seen beneath the waves, and it surprised me to learn that they thought the scuba divers were diving with animatronic or CGI creatures, not real ones in the wild. As a keen scuba diver myself, and having grown up in Britain, an island nation, and knowing that Georgia was the home to stories of Noah and his Ark, I couldn’t imagine a world where the ocean did not exist.

The teachers in the school thought me mad and a bit too trusting to let something as precious as a laptop out of my sight, but I knew that the students would treat it well. I just hoped that the battery would last long enough for them to watch the DVD since it was very old and there was no way of charging it in the school. At the end of the day, I was greeted outside the staff room by a group of smiling students, who asked if they might be able to watch the DVD again because they still had all the other episodes in the series to watch. That was the start of our little after school club – ‘Oceans Project’.
Image courtesy Pixabay
Soon, word had got around to students at other schools, cousins, friends, family members, and our club was getting too large for the classroom. But we started to use a USB internet connection on my laptop, to speak with presenters from the BBC Oceans series, and friends of mine who were scientists and researchers out in the field in places such as Antarctica, and before long we were connecting with schools in places like Greenland. To bring the outside world in to a country that had been isolated for so long and where students had no opportunity to get visas or funds to travel, was a magical experience, and one which changed the way I looked at my own country and my identity as a Brit. The experience quite literally turned my world and my direction upside down.

Today, Skype now has its own free platform called ‘Skype in the Classroom’, and though I am no longer in Georgia, I continue to connect with schools all over the world, reaching over 100,000 students each year, some in better equipped schools such as the USA and the UK, and others in mud huts with just the headmaster’s mobile phone for access. It is one of my favourite parts of the day, and I regularly get up at 3am, 4am, or 11pm to connect with a school on the opposite side of the planet.

But best of all, it provides students and teachers with the opportunity to invite authors into their classroom, to share the process of writing, editing, publishing, and promoting a book, and having students discuss their favourite characters, or to practice reading aloud. This happens all year, but there is a dedicated ‘Literacy Month’ where there is a special focus on literacy, starting on the 1st February 2018 with World Read Aloud Day, and ending on the 1st March 2018 with World Book Day.
Graphic courtesy

It’s very simple to get involved. An an author or guest speaker, you just need an internet connection so that you can use Skype. If you’re a teacher, you just need some speakers for students to hear the guest speaker properly, and possibly a video screen or a microphone if you have a lot of students. It is free to sign up, and there are many authors to choose from. Simply schedule a session for a time that suits you.

In my case, I’ll show students around my home; where I work at my desk, or the books I have on my bookshelf, or I might take them for a virtual walk along the River Thames where my Bertram and Molly stories are set, or I will give a virtual tour of places such as Ingram Spark where robots print the books before they are shipped around the world. Students often read their own stories to me, ask me any question they like, and sometimes they might even write their own Bertram and Molly story, or share their ideas for how to kill off one of the characters in my stories (most of my stories are based on folklore and fairytales and include travel through time, so there are ample opportunities for students to provide me with death consultations!). Sometimes students speak with the lady who narrates my audio books, or with the ladies who digitally trace the drawings for my colouring books of Britain. Other times we might play a game of Mystery Skype, where students ask me a series of questions, using Google Earth and iPads or books to work out where I am in the world at that moment.

I don’t think I could ever have imagined a more fulfilling life. Books helped me through some tough times as a kid, Roald Dahl being my go-to author for the darkest of days, and I love writing a new Bertram Bile story each day and sharing the process through a Skype in the Classroom session before it’s even published, getting direct feedback from students.

I upload each new book myself to Amazon, and make each book free for the first five days and well as putting it into Kindle Unlimited. Who knew that free books could bring in royalties that could be used by charity to provide free education to students around the world who have no access to any form of formal education? Those books help me to provide technology such as phones, to children living on the streets in places like India, so they can access education on their phone at a time that suits them best. But more than that, I can offer scholarships for university courses for students who might otherwise miss out, and students aged 12-18 can join me in my work as an explorer. I take them virtually to in places like Belize where we carry out research on shark conservation, or along the Amazon River collecting water samples and data on the health of the ecosystem. I feel that I am not only promoting literacy, but also science, technology, engineering, maths, and most importantly life skills. Books really do change lives, they certainly did for me!

My Skype in the Classroom lesson:

Literacy month and list of authors to invite through Skype Classroom:

Skype Literacy month video:

My Bertram and Molly series:

Books by Sarah Weldon
Here is the latest, Book 6, in my Steampunk for kids Bertram and Molly series, based along the River Thames.

Bertram Bile: Dead Man’s Rest
What could possibly go wrong on a school field trip with your favourite geography teacher?

Appropriate for ages 8+
Available in Kindle and paperback

You might also enjoy my Rydal Water 2018 Diary and adult colouring book.

February is Literacy Month. Please help Sarah Weldon’s efforts by promoting World Read Aloud Day on social media, in classrooms and homes, on the 1st of February 2018. You can follow it up by sharing World Book Day on the 1st of March. And teachers, please visit the Skype link above to consider bringing an author to your classrooms!
~Shana Gorian

All photos used in this post are courtesy Royalty-Free Pixabay or Sarah Weldon, as noted.

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