I graduated from college in the mid-nineties and began my first teaching job in a rural Alabama public high school. It wasn’t long before the shine of my diploma wore off and the reality of my students’ lack of academic ability took hold of me. I did my best to help my students improve; sometimes we all enjoyed success and other times it didn’t go as well.
But when I entered the world of the correctional education system, accepting a position as an English teacher at a high school housed inside a juvenile correctional facility, I entered a whole new world of teaching. The holster I strap on each morning and the body alarm I wear each work day are just the beginning. Even my pen is strapped to my belt so one of my inmate students can’t get it from me and stab me for my keys.
The strange work conditions were not the only shock I had to prepare myself for. I arrived in my classroom and looked through my inmates’ academic records only to find that many of them, people who are on the brink of adulthood, were functionally illiterate. My first thought was, “This is 2007, how do we still have so many young people who cannot read?” While it is true that various special education needs are a factor in this low reading rate, in more cases than not there is no diagnosis that is preventing the student from achieving, it is simply a matter of poor educational background. That illiteracy rate is something I struggle with every day as new inmates arrive.
In the state as a whole, literacy rates in some of the counties was as high as forty-four percent in 1992 and statewide dropped from twenty-one percent that year to fifteen percent in 2003, which brought the state closer to the national average of fourteen and a half percent. The rates were published in a 2009 article by the Birmingham News, but unfortunately the desperate situation has not improved much since then.
Then in 2009 I received a Kindle e-reader as a birthday gift. I loved having the latest technology available and proudly sat poolside on my summer break reading virtually anything I wanted with the luxury of wi-fi and without the impediment of a glare-glossed screen. This was certainly the wave of the future, at least for us scholarly types, right?
I was in for a shocking disappointment. On a teacher’s salary, allow to admit that I’m a good customer at our local library. I owned an e-reader, but as someone who was not in the habit of purchasing many new books a year, I quickly tired of reading the free books on my Kindle. Within a few months I sold it to a friend.
Shortly after that I applied for several literacy grants at work, not even sure what materials I could purchase if I was even approved for the funds. I began searching various sources for literacy teaching aids and found that everything I could make available to my students was bordering on insulting and childish. My mind went back to the Kindle e-reader I once had.
If I had a Kindle for every student in my class, each one filled with high-interest reading material that addresses topics that speak to young adults, I could use the read-aloud feature on the Kindle so that the students could “read” books they cared about and enjoyed while the words were displayed for them on the screen. Fortunately, the grant sources I applied to agreed with me.
I now have a classroom set of ten Kindle readers, each filled with almost two hundred books. I have headphones for each one so that my students can choose any title in the machine and listen without disturbing their neighbors. At first I used the Kindles to fill in down time in class or to have them available for independent reading, but my mind raced with the possibilities for a teacher.
One of the greatest features of Kindle readers, and I assume this is true of other branded devices, is that each e-book purchase is licensed to up to six devices, so as a teacher with limited funds I am able to purchase a book one time and install it on six of the machines. If I want all ten devices to have the exact same titles, I simply purchase the title one additional time.
Teaching some of the required high school texts in a typical public school classroom without e-readers requires having the funding available to purchase at least forty copies of each book, if not more. But having e-readers available means standing before my students and telling them to open up the title The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to location 809 on their Kindles. The students who are equipped to read at grade level or higher can begin reading the selection in preparation for our discussion, while the students who cannot read well enough independently are able to listen to the selection while watching the words on their screens. Either way, all of my students are engaged in a powerful book and able to be active participants in charge of their educations.
One of the most useful applications of using e-readers in my classroom is the ability to purchase titles instantly. By keeping my grant funding installed in our school Amazon account through our facility’s credit card, I can literally step over to my desktop computer and purchase any Kindle title, which sends it instantly to each device using the Amazon Whispernet. I have often had students ask me if I had a specific book available and if I do not, I can purchase the title immediately for them. I am demonstrating to my students that their interest in reading is extremely important to me, so important to me that I will provide books they enjoy at the push of a button. It is amazing as an educator to have the power to provide my students with titles that they request. When a student requests a specific book I am able to say to him, “I don’t have that book, but wait…now I do. Look in your Kindle.”
The future of e-readers in the classroom is practically limitless. States with limited funding will be able to purchase text books electronically for the students instead of adopting texts whose costs are prohibitive. Students will no longer carry home bulky textbooks or fail to do homework because the required text was left at school. All of the reading material will be installed in a device that is smaller than an Etch-A-Sketch. With available file upload capabilities, student homework can even be uploaded at home onto the device. With the inception of Kindle for PC, students can begin reading a text in class and pick up exactly where they left off once they arrive at home and power up any computer.
The use of the Kindles in my classroom speaks for itself. Students’ reading levels are tested upon arrival at our facility and then every thirty days after. While the low student-teacher ratio has always resulted in typical but slight improvements, once the use of Kindles was incorporated into my teaching the level of improvement per student increased, which I can only attribute to the fact that the reading material on the Kindle e-readers is age-appropriate and topically sound. With proactive leaders in education who are charged with providing a standard of education that can compete on a global stage while maintaining strict and shameful budget constraints, hopefully the use of e-readers in our classrooms will become more widespread.