Books vs. e-books

Sep 11 2017 | 02:22 AM

How do today’s children learn best?

Books build a reading community

I teach English in a school that is obsessed with reading. All teachers, regardless of subject, have signs on their doors with what they are reading, the principal hosts near-weekly book club lunches, and 30 minutes of my double block class are devoted to kids reading absolutely anything they want independently.

It seems to be working. What many visitors to my school comment on is how infatuated kids are with books. The library is the beating heart of our school, almost as popular as the cafeteria at lunch time and even the spot where kids cutting class often eventually turn up. When I help my students clean out their backpacks, I see more books than notebooks or anything else, extras stashed away “just in case” they finish whatever they are currently reading.

During reading time, some students use Kindles or enjoy books on tape. We read some nonfiction online, learning about news the way most adults do today. But hard copies help transform classrooms of readers into a reading community. One of the big skills my students learn is annotation, which is invaluable in helping them synthesize ideas. My students go through thousands of sticky notes; a classroom photo features reading partners, with their annotations from one book spread out and completely covering three desks. As they are planning a literary essay, students are eager to bring me back to the page where they realized something important. During classroom discussions, they flip wildly through their flagged pages to find the perfect quote.

My classroom library makes the process of choosing a book organic and student-centered. It’s organized into bins from genre (“Horror”) to whim (“In the mood for something quick and wacky?”) to audience (“If you loved The Lightning Thief”) that are inspired and rearranged by the students. Students who find that simply shelving a book in the favorites bin won’t do might put sticky note recommendations on the back cover right along with the professional reviewers. I particularly enjoy the rare treat of younger siblings finding old annotations from siblings in years past.

The magical draw to well-worn spines or shiny covers is just as powerful now in the age of smartphones and tablets as it was when I was a kid. I’ve almost started a riot when opening a brand new box of books halfway through the year. I’ve watched kids hug and kiss old favorites when they discover them on my shelves. When the latest book of a hot series is released, the physical hand-off from one reader to the next is filled with suspense and promise. And I’ve caught as many kids sneaking “just one more chapter!” inside their desks as I have texting or snapchatting.

At year’s end, my students complete a survey, the final question of which is, “What is one thing you learned this year that you will carry with you in the future?” My favorite answer from this year? “I figured out how to balance any book perfectly on the desk so it stays open and I don’t even have to hold it!” At times like these, I wish the surveys weren’t anonymous so I could learn the secret to what is surely one of life’s great mysteries.

Nicole Dixon, 7th grade English teacher in New York City



Tech opens your world

Students today arrive tech ready. Kindergartners walk in knowing how to use a touch screen and often carrying one. The oldest form of technology that five-year-olds will remember is the iPhone8! They’ll look back at today’s tech like most of us do the finger dialing phone.

As in the vast majority of homes, the utilization of technology has become a way of life in many schools. We have a plethora of iPads in our classrooms and Media Center (formerly known as the library), and in many schools each student is assigned a Chromebook. Many older students work off their own smartphones. You and I might consider it nontraditional but for today’s students, it’s the way they learn. They don’t want to sit in a classroom and listen to someone drone on. It’s about keeping students engaged, which is the key to unlocking effective learning.

Twenty-first century learning no longer takes place in isolated contexts. Learning management systems like Google Classroom, Google Docs, Schoology, My Big Campus and Edmodo facilitate the cross-curricular approach that’s now considered best practice (think STEAM, the use of science, technology, engineering, math and the arts as access points for guiding student inquiry).

In addition to always being current, e-books enable lots of today’s learning to happen outside the classroom. In a textbook, you might stick on a post-it, but you can’t underline, can’t send it to a friend and say, “Hey, this quote or this map would be really cool to use on a project for social studies.” The ability to work with others who are not in the same room is a very important workplace readiness skill.

E-books are a gateway, encouraging students to not just research information but also serve in the role of producers of information. Students who want to dig deeper are motivated to explore on their own, according to their own learning style and literacy level. Students are becoming more and more responsible for their own learning.

E-books can be leveled up or down, or listened to, which supports students who struggle with reading. Text colors and fonts can change; a font with a heavy bottom can help students with dyslexia. E-books come with resources like parent tutorials, so parents can understand a particular methodology to support their child at home.

Using e-books helps performance on standardized tests, which often require students to manipulate text, interact with diagrams, access videos, etc. Familiarity with these skills via e-books promotes higher levels of achievement.

Books are in all of our homes, and there’s nothing better than sharing a good book with your child. But using e-books and technology opens a world to students, enabling them to dive into their interests, satisfying their natural intellectual curiosity by connecting students to topics that might not be found in any single book.

Rosemary Gebhardt, primary school principal in Vernon, NJ