I teach high school English for a very special population of teenagers. Some of them have been classified to receive special education services, and many more probably fell so far through cracks that they were never identified back in elementary school. Interestingly enough, many of my students have already officially quit school and some even already have their GEDs. The overwhelming number of my students read at least three grade levels below their actual grade. To make the situation even more desperate, I will teach approximately 600 students this school year.
And I don’t have a single text book in my classroom.
I am not suffering from the effects of an underfunded school system or even fighting a losing battle against dissenting ideologies behind textbook material. In fact, not only do I have more funding than I can spend in one school year, I am the sole source of English curricular decisions for the entire school.
I teach in a juvenile correctional facility, an educational nirvana where I snap my fingers and the latest technology appears. My classroom has fifteen computers, an interactive whiteboard, a teacher desktop, a laptop for running the whiteboard, as well as a netbook for me to carry home at the end of the day. But the greatest tool at my disposal is a Kindle.
Make that ten Kindles, each loaded with about two hundred books, with everything from the complete works of Shakespeare to A Clockwork Orange to the Twilight saga.
I applied for a grant for these ereaders without even realizing how I would use them. At the time, a grant became available with an impossibly close application deadline. I looked around my classroom and thought, “What don’t I already have?” I submitted a proposal for the ereaders and didn’t give it much more thought.
Until a check for $3000 arrived, that is, along with the documentation paperwork that demanded that I prove how I was using this money to further the educations of disadvantaged children. Cashing that check was going to mean taking on the awesome responsibility of demonstrating that I was worthy of the job.
I spent several days figuring out how the Kindles worked and how I could best use them in class. I got my feet wet by using them right away as a time-filler. Instead of letting students spend the last five minutes of class playing solitaire on their computers, they would read an ebook. After the first two week period, when I found myself having to gently pry their fingers off the Kindles because they wanted to keep reading, I knew I had to do a better job of incorporating them into my lesson plans.
Now, I use them for whole class readings of great works of literature. I use them to have the students compare the writing style of their favorite authors (pre-loaded into the Kindles) with a required text. I use them for independent study projects, readers’ theatre, open-ended projects, and so much more. I even use them for the occasional downtime day, when they can simply choose any book they like and read for one hour. All without cracking a book.
Most importantly, when the rest of the class is reading an excerpt from “The Tell-Tale Heart,” no one is throwing paper wads at his neighbor or doodling on the edge of his notebook. No one is looking around the room or staring out the window. I’ve found that these behaviors are often caused by the unwillingness to tolerate the mental exhaustion that comes from trying to read works like this, especially for my low ability-level readers. All of my students have the option to listen to the selection through their headphones using the read-aloud feature and no one is made to feel singled out because of his inability to read or his unfamiliarity with the works.
By not having to purchase student textbooks, the Kindles would have more than paid for themselves during the first school year, even if the grant money had not been available. However, the introduction of Kindles has been so successful and has been one of the factors that led to an overall improvement in our reading scores that the underwriting company provided the grant again the following year in order to purchase additional ereader units and the ebooks to go with them.
The end result will have to be that schools will either head in the direction of ereaders or textbook companies will have to not only lower the costs of textbooks in order to compete, but will also have to find a way to stay current with downloadable supplemental chapters. It will be an absolutely winning situation for the schools and ultimately, for the students, when that finally happens.