Delayed Post of My Column About Gigi Whiteside’s Astounding Success with Kindles in the Classroom

Note: The following column was inadvertently overlooked and never made it into a post at Kindle Nation Daily. I’m posting it here as written two weeks ago, to catch up with my observations about Gigi’s work with Kindles in the classroom.    –Len

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This is a story about Kindles and non-readers from central Georgia. Or at least they used to be non-readers, in the official parlance of public education.

Gigi Whiteside, a creative and motivated technology specialist in the Fulton County school district, obtained a mini-grant to purchase 15 Kindles for her high school class in November of 2009. When the eReaders arrived, the kids delightedly tore open the boxes and quickly figured out how to charge them and get them running.

It was the first time in Gigi’s career of teaching special-education classes that she had ever been able to let her students enjoy a full class period of reading quietly.

“My general-ed counterparts could always have a reading day and let the kids catch up on their outside novels,” she told me in a Skype interview on August 15th. “I could never do that, because my students couldn’t sustain the interest in reading that long.”

After evaluating eReader options, Gigi had chosen the Kindle mainly because of its text-to-speech capability. Not all of her students used it, but for many of them the ability to hear words spoken as they followed along on the page made reading possible, and even fun.

“They weren’t listening just with their heads down,” she recalled. “They were following along, holding the device in front of them, pausing and going back. It was so empowering to hear them laughing out loud when they had earbuds in.”

This led to requests from her students to have two reading days each week instead of one, and spontaneous literary circles arose in which kids would tell each other which books they should read next.

“I’d never had that kind of conversation going on in my class,” Gigi told me.

In addition to fun, there were documented results from the experiment, which she detailed in an article titled “Kindling a Passion for Literature” in the May, 2012, issue of Learning and Leading with Technology, published by the International Society for Technology in Education. Excerpts from the column were highlighted recently at the Amazon.com landing page.

Her small-group resource class the prior year had a collective passing rate of 20 percent, which was typical for students reading two years below grade level.

“This year,” she wrote, “after seven months with the Kindles, my resource students earned a collective passing rate of 70 percent on their tests. In my 19 years of teaching exceptional learners, I have never encountered such dramatic results.”

I found it instructive to hear Gigi’s analysis of why the Kindles helped these kids overcome deep obstacles to reading.

For example, her Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) students were always turned off and intimidated by a traditional book because of the sheer size of it. Not so with the Kindle version, even though there is a progress bar, and you can find out how far you have to go if you know where to look.

I can relate to this one, because I doubt I ever would have picked up War and Peace again if I’d been confronted by the heft of all 958 pages. As it is, I am 32 percent through the novel, contentedly picking it up from time to time when I need help falling asleep.

The ADD kids also helped Gigi understand another feature of eBooks that those of us who have switched to them usually appreciate.

“By having the screen just on the text,” she said, “they weren’t distracted by the picture on the cover, or flipping to the back to see what had happened, or just the feel or the weight of the book in their hand—all those extraneous things would distract them from getting their task done.”

A third advantage of eBooks for these students struck me as poignant and powerful: the benefits of reading in privacy.

“My students that are in high school are not going to want their peers or anybody else in the class to see them reading Where the Red Fern Grows, because they know that’s a middle-school book,” Gigi said.

“As they’ve struggled all their lives through school, they’ve been so conscious and conspicuous about being identified as struggling, and the materials that they used were the first clue that they weren’t on level.”

Gigi Whiteside, who was thrilled when she got approval for the first 15 Kindles, is now charging 85 Kindles in her office, getting ready for the upcoming school year. This year the Kindles are slated for use in general-education classes, as well as in special ed.

The whole initiative got started three years ago when Gigi noticed a student making great strides in reading through a computer program on a laptop that provided audio the student could listen to as she read. That led to her investigation of eReaders that offered more convenience than laptops, and eventually to the Kindle.

She has referred to that first student as Bella, after a character in the student’s now-favorite vampire trilogy. When Bella entered high school, she was considered a non-reader by her teachers. She was told it would probably take five to six years for her to graduate.

Instead, with the benefits of reading on Kindles, Bella has passed her state End of Course Test in literature and, as an 11th grader, this former non-reader is on track to graduate with the rest of her class.

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Comments 2

  1. Julie wrote:

    After listening to this podcast many moons ago, I shared the podcast, and website info with my new graduate teacher daughter, who shared the information with her principal, who was quite impressed with the usage of TTS to help students with reading disabilities. Upon hearing that the new Kindles released today do not have TTS, I am extremely disappointed. I assume this is why Amazon will continue to sell the Kindle Keyboard. I use TTS myself, can’t listen to it for an extremely long period of time, but I enjoy it for my 40 minute ride to work. Progress isn’t always progress, I guess. :(

    Posted 06 Sep 2012 at 8:27 pm
  2. Len Edgerly wrote:

    Julie, I think the new Touch does have text to speech, but I will look into this.

    Posted 06 Sep 2012 at 10:11 pm

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