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Do you ever wonder how the textbooks make it into EasyBooks? How does THIS:
In the past, only staff, and maybe a very few scattered volunteers, set up books for production. In late 2017, however, Learning Ally created a Pre-Production Community also known as Team TOCTool. Currently, eight dedicated volunteers work on setting up books, using the TOCTool program to transform the information from pdfs into .html files for EasyBooks. TOCToolers serve the community in a very special way, making the recording process easier for the other volunteers, and lightening the load for staff members, who still set up books as well, but now have some relief so they can focus on other tasks.
The requirements of this job are an eye (and love) for detail, some computer ability, regular time to devote to the task, patience, and a PC (sorry, no Macs right now--but we’re working on a new version of the program for the future). Going through the pdf page by page, the TOCTooler types in every heading and its placement within the book, creating files along the way. One TOCTooler says, “It’s a great way to get to know the books very intimately, and to see ahead of time which books I might like to read or QC.”
Caren Snook is one of our most prolific TOCToolers, working steadily to provide the other volunteers with books to work on. Caren first joined the Learning Ally Athens (Georgia) Studio in 1973 and has put in well over 5,000 hours (not including undocumented hours from the “old days”). Over her 46 years with Learning Ally, Caren has served as a TOCTooler, Reader, Checker, bookmarker, local Board President, events tabler--she’s seen it all! Caren says about TOCTool, “The logic is appealing and the attention to detail that is required fits my personality...I really enjoy reading, but my house does not include a good space for that.” TOCTooling fits her schedule, and the house doesn’t have to be quiet for her to do it.
A former teacher, Caren’s love of Learning Ally led her recently to audit classes at the University of Georgia, classes required for the Graduate Certificate in Dyslexia. While attending these classes, Caren had the opportunity to learn more about the needs of our learners, and that knowledge has made her even more focused on excellence in her volunteer work, saying, “...it is incumbent on every volunteer to do his/her best every time...take time to find out the correct pronunciation...to reread the conventions...Recognize that everyone makes occasional errors, and learn from yours...If you aren’t feeling well, give yourself a break and take a day off. Our students are depending on you!”
As a team in the last calendar year, the group set up over 200 books for the Textbook Community! Other current members of TeamTOCTool are:
Jaqui Bradley, a former cloistered Franciscan nun and ongoing kitten rescue volunteer who started at the Upland (California) Studio in 2007 and also currently serves as a volunteer mentor in the VHOC.
Jaci Collins, who joined the Austin (Texas) Studio in 1998 and continues to read and QC as well.
Elizabeth DeLaney Hoffman, who joined the Athens Studio in 2015 and also serves as a Volunteer Coordinator.
Pat Lim, a freelance technical writer in the bio-pharmaceutical field who joined the Menlo Park (California) Studio in 2011.
Jim Siewert, a retired Honeywell engineer who started volunteering at the Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) Studio in 2004 and whose primary TOCTool focus is books for the Math Community.
Susan Wilson, a former corporate lawyer and current law school instructor who joined the Athens Studio in 2016; Susan not only works on TOCTool but is also helping Audrey Santos pilot a program for volunteers to create project sites (no photo available).
Beira Winter, who first joined the Hollywood (California) Studio in 2000, and besides all of her work for Learning Ally, also helped with her community’s float for this year’s Rose Bowl Parade.
Think you have what it takes to become a TOCTooler? Team TOCTool is open to any interested volunteer with the desire to try the task. For more information, contact Stacie Court sCourt@LearningAlly.org, or mention joining us in your STAFF Hangout. We’d love to have you on Team TOCTool!
Let’s talk about audio and selecting the correct recording device! We do have Recommended Equipment lists for each community in the Resources section of this website, but I wanted to talk about some recording and microphone tips.
First of all, I'd like to thank our pro and semi-pro narrators...we really appreciate you lending us your wonderful voices for some pretty awesome juvenile fiction titles that engage our students! One thing we do ask is that you not condition your audio before you send it to us...don’t adjust the volume after recording, normalize, remove noise, etc. We have our own post-production audio processing that will take care of minor audio issues, and if you do anything to it as well, it comes out sounding over-processed and artificial. Be sure to use the correct audio format and sample rate as well. Here's a recent example that sounds over-processed (great narration, but definitely some audio issues):
Your browser does not support the audio element.
Another common issue is not realizing which recording device is selected. This is an easy mistake that can happen in any recording software. When you play back your recording, listen carefully and if it sounds “roomy” or distant, it might be using the wrong recording device. In Audacity, the microphone is selected at the top of the screen:
The place to select the recording device differs in other audio software, of course.
In EasyBooks, look at the bottom of the screen where it says Input:
If it’s blank or doesn't look right, click the settings gear icon on the left and choose a different input device and click OK.
We hope this helps but don't hesitate to ask for assistance if you're not happy with your audio quality...we are here to help!
The Literature team completed 53 Books in January! Thank you for the hours of narrating, listening, teamwork and talent that makes this possible!
Hello all! We've begun the new year with many updates and changes to the volunteer training website, both large and small.
Our most noticeable change is the new Welcome page on the training website. We've made these changes so the site is easier to use for first-time visitors, so they can avoid confusion about how to get set up with a Google account. If you're a returning trainee, you'll still use the link in the top right to sign in.
Once you log in, you'll notice that the new Storyteller Course is now open. If you're interested in recording and editing juvenile fiction and literature, then you can enroll in this course with the links on screen. Not sure which course is for you? There's a link to our Volunteer Fit Quiz to help you decide.
In the Textbook Course, we've replaced the old checking audition with a new project that's a better fit for our current needs and standards. We removed the sample of a novel from the audition since we now have a Storyteller course and will soon have a course for Literature community Listeners.
We think these changes will go a long way to improve your training experience. But it doesn't end there! You can expect to see more updates, upgrades, and improvements in the coming year as we work to bring our old reading training lessons up to our new standards. Stay tuned!
Congratulations Training Graduates!
Textbook course: John K., Jason G., John G., David G., Kevin V., Crismario S., Ripley J., Lauren D., Linda T., and Natalia E.
Storyteller course: Christina F., Leah L., Karen W-G., Kayla A., Shelley C., Andrea P., Sheila N., April S., Lindsey D., David S., Hilda C-G., Nikita N., Robin B., Jeffrey H., John K., Jim C., Amita M., Josie M., and Joseph H.
Our audiobooks at Learning Ally aren’t exactly live performances—such as panel discussions or story telling events—and they aren’t footage captured from out in the field. However, some of the issues that podcasters and public media folks encounter in these instances also apply to the recording process for you, our volunteers in your virtual studio spaces. The issue we’re going to look at today is plosives. Jeff Towne has a terrific article that covers what plosives are, how to avoid creating them in your recordings, some gear recommendations, and techniques for breathing.
See the full article on Transom [ imbed: https://transom.org/2016/p-pops-plosives/]
What exactly are plosives?
Getting close, about 3-6 inches from the microphone, is usually suggested for voice recording. This helps to capture an intimate and warm sound from the “performer,” or narrator in this instance. There are some negative effects that arise in trying to capture that warm sound, however, specifically plosives. Towne describes them as,
“…a bassy, often distorted sound, that results when an air blast from the mouth goes into the microphone. The most common source is the letter P, which is why plosives are sometimes generically referred to as P-Pops.”
It’s best practice to position the microphone off to the side, instead of directly in front of your mouth, to avoid some of the air that occurs when pronouncing those words that start with P, S, B, or F sounds. Towne also mentions the option of positioning the mic slightly above your mouth with the grille pointed towards you. This allows the air from your voice to go underneath instead of directly into the mic.
Right now you can practice breath control that will help eliminate plosives in your recordings. Put your palm up in front of your mouth and pronounce words like popcorn, sister, or friend. Being aware of the air that you expel when pronouncing some of these plosive offenders will help your recording narration. The goal is to get to a point when you pronounce these plosive heavy words with less air. Towne also mentions how some of our exhaling through our nose sends air out in varying directions, and why positioning the mic slightly off center can help avoid capturing plosives in our recordings.
Technical ways to get around plosives.
Wind screens can make a tremendous difference in eliminating plosives. Towne provides several options, and the article includes some test recordings. I encourage you to visit the link to hear the with and without sound bites to learn some of the differences.
Although suggestions for how to edit and EQ audio waves is also included, we strongly suggest that you coordinate with some of our engineers at Learning Ally prior to performing any severe treatment on your audio. Our post-production process is fine-tuned, and we have discovered that getting a wonderful performance from the narrator first and foremost, rather than drastic editing during the recording process, yields the best audiobook product.
What is working in your virtual studio space?
We would love to hear some of the ways you are mitigating plosives in your recordings. Share in the comments some of your own techniques so we can all benefit from shared knowledge.
Raise your hand if you remember Weekly Readers, those wonderful little newspapers we used to get years (and years!) ago in Social Studies class. I don’t know about you, but I absolutely loved them: the content was varied and interesting, presented in language I understood, with plenty of illustrations to pique my interest.
But...what if you can’t read print material? What if your first language is Spanish? Or what if you’re attending a magnet school for Spanish, with all materials in that language? What then?
da-da-da DAH! It’s David Alper to the rescue! David has been reading Spanish language materials for Learning Ally for nearly eleven years, first with the Athens (Georgia) Studio, and now with the Foreign Language Community. Over the past year, David read 192 (!) of these gems, all in Spanish, spending hours and hours (over 200!) making sure every detail was executed perfectly.
The Weekly Readers, along with many other projects Learning Ally records, are part of our contract with the Texas Education Agency (TEA), which supervises primary and secondary public education in the State of Texas. According to Ed Bray, National Director of Government Relations and State Initiatives for Learning Ally, volunteers (maybe you?) who work on these projects “help us provide a comprehensive collection of Texas-adopted educational materials, including these Weekly Readers. The collection ensures students can access this broad set of curriculum materials.”
David, who has a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, works long hours each week, traveling across three counties to serve as a School Psychologist for multiple schools. He first heard of Learning Ally through an ad in a local paper. He found that he really enjoyed combining reading aloud with helping others improve their reading comprehension and reach their educational and life goals. Volunteering with Learning Ally gives David a great deal of satisfaction, and being able to use his Spanish skills to help others, either through reading or quality control work, gives him a sense of purpose--and, he says, helps him maintain and even improve his Spanish through consistent practice--a great bonus!
David’s message to other volunteers: Work on what gives you pleasure and is a priority in the studio. Be positive and show appreciation toward your fellow volunteers. Attend live and online volunteer events as you’re able, and participate in the Hangout chats. Spread the word far and wide about Learning Ally!
In 2019, we all know how important one’s time is. There are always errands to run, calls to join or meetings to attend and a seemingly long workweek has passed by in a flash. Yet there is something so special about the feeling we get when we set aside time and donate to a mission we believe in. Truly, there is no better feeling than when we can see the impact of our donated time and efforts in real, life-changing situations.
We have seen in many cases that our time spent volunteering is often more appreciated and recognized than our regular work. This satisfaction and sense of positive impact, that come from volunteering is hard to get doing other activities. At Learning Ally, our volunteers are influencing the lives of individuals who struggle to learn every day. After experiencing the benefits of our solutions, our students feel part of their learning community again and gain the confidence and skills to lead a successful and normal life.
As you all may know, Learning Ally’s Volunteer Nation is virtual. We are proud of this unique virtual volunteer model with its amazing Volunteer Nation Portal that will guarantee all resources needed by volunteers are in just one place.
Here are some benefits of virtual volunteering:
Considering our busy lives, long days at work, family commitments and all the responsibilities and different activities we have to complete every week, we sometimes feel we are not doing enough for society. Having to drive weekly or monthly to a place where you want to volunteer is becoming more and more difficult. Virtual volunteering offers a solution to this problem – you can eliminate transportation time and gain the flexibility of volunteering from the comfort of your home. All our Learning Ally volunteering opportunities are now performed online.
Broader Community of Volunteers
Virtual volunteering empowers a wider group of participants to give back. In person volunteering events will always be limited by space and resources. Our volunteers will not face these restrictions; in most cases, all of the work can be done using technology.
Service is not limited to particular geographies
Our volunteers can contribute skills and service to projects no matter where they are located. A volunteer in Seattle may support an organization’s mission or client in North Carolina, or in any place in the world!
Volunteering is Skill-Based
Most virtual volunteering engagements are skill based and require a level of technical knowledge. An active or retired professional can mentor a client interested in growing his/her business in a similar industry to their own. Similarly, at Learning Ally, an experienced math teacher can record books for struggling learners anywhere in the U.S.
Volunteers are part of a Virtual Community
Your network opportunities in a virtual community of volunteers grow exponentially. When you belong to a private Google Hangout, LinkedIn or even Facebook group of professionals who volunteer, “you can easily connect with hundreds of like-minded people with in-demand skills” (Raber, huffingtonpost.com)
Imagine having something you have created seen by millions of people around the world. That’s what happened for me on January 1, 2019 during the annual Tournament of Roses Parade. Here’s the story.
While the large, elaborate floats are commercially built, there are 6 smaller floats that are “self-built.” That means that all aspects of the float are handled by volunteers. I have friends who are volunteers with the Burbank Tournament of Roses Association. Each year they design, create, build and decorate the Rose Parade float that represents the City of Burbank.
Much as I would love to be part of that, I am a complete disaster when it comes to glue or paint. Not to mention the more skilled tasks like welding, sculpting, animating, and well, you get the idea. But last year, there was something I could do that none of the regular volunteers could do. I can spin fiber into string.
If you saw the Rose Parade on New Year’s Day, you may remember the Burbank float presented cartoon animals who brought their instruments together to jam. It was an eclectic collection with a saxophone playing pig, a bass drum playing skunk, a huge bear with a concertina, and an alligator playing a washboard.
Then there was also a hound dog playing a banjo. A wolf playing a fiddle and a HUGE white rabbit playing a string bass. That’s where my contribution came in. One of my friends who works on the float knew about my spinning, and asked me if I could spin strings from raw cotton for those instruments.
Spinning is easy, but cotton is hard, because the fibers are short and they tend to ball up instead of lying flat. But with patience, I came to a compromise with the cotton and was able to produce custom strings for each instrument. The fiddle strings were thin, the banjo strings were more funky, and the string bass had thick strings. The bass strings took the most time because I had to spin 4 threads then ply them together.
Spinning was something I learned when I was working in a living history center in Maryland. We used antique wheels to demonstrate making wool yarn, therefore, I never learned to use modern tools. That was unfortunate for the float because the rabbit was supposed to be covered completely in cotton “fur.” I had to help the decorators find a woman with the machine that could produce batts (flat plates) of cotton. She prepared over 4 pounds of cotton batts needed to completely cover the 6 foot tall rabbit.
No, I didn’t go to the parade, I watched it on TV. But after the parade, all the floats are parked together to allow people to see them up close. I had seen the pieces while they were being built and decorated, but seeing the completed float with my strings on the instruments was breathtaking. Building a float takes thousands of hours by many talented people. Being a very small part of something as big and amazing as a rose parade float is a memory I will treasure.
From Staff: Beira has been a volunteer since 2006 and has managed to rack up almost 1700 hours of time as a listener for Instructional Text and the Literature team.
I am Paula Restrepo, and I have been working with Virtual Volunteer Communities in the U.S. for more than 13 years. I personally have recruited more than 2,500 volunteers while simultaneously creating a unique model of virtual volunteering for nonprofit organizations.
I am originally from Colombia and have a background in Engineering and Nonprofit Management…I know that could be strange, but the combination of backgrounds and experiences have been essential in my career. This combination allows me to understand different sides of the equation and to think outside the box. I am a “people” person and I love interacting with volunteers - making sure they have a positive experience while accomplishing our important mission.
I have experience with voice recording as my husband and I host a podcast. Our weekly podcast BetterVida is oriented to the skilled Latino immigrant community in the U.S. Through this podcasting experience, I have learned so much about recording, editing and making sure our sound quality improves with every new podcast. I can relate to your challenges when recording or doing quality control of our audiobooks.
Learning Ally represents an amazing professional challenge in my career. I want to build a solid, easy to navigate virtual community. My goal is to shape a community that simply recreates what we feel when we belong to any community that interacts in person. We all know organizations are becoming “more virtual” every day and the solutions that Learning Ally currently offers to struggling learners are based on virtual technology. Our volunteers need to be prepared and equipped for this big change and, most importantly, feel comfortable working virtually.
I want you to be in constant contact with me. I want you to help me better understand your needs and challenges. We want to create processes and community structures that are dynamic and flexible and become more efficient at producing audiobooks that are engaging and useful for struggling learners. Our differentiator is the human voice! Your voices make us unique and engaging. I want to hear your voice not only in our audiobooks, but also telling me how we can do things better. Please keep an eye on things that we can improve and feel free to share your thoughts with me.
My email is firstname.lastname@example.org and my direct line is 609.243.7099
I look forward to working with you all!
Seasons Greetings to Our Volunteers!