Fourth-graders go digital in Danville

Fourth-graders go digital in Danville

DANVILLE -- At a school where cellphones, iPods and hand-held video games are banned, one teacher actually is encouraging her students to power on one of the hottest new electronic gadgets during class.

Southwest Elementary School teacher Wendy Heeren recently introduced Kobo wireless e-readers in her classroom to boost literacy among her 19 fourth-graders.

"These kids are part of the digital generation, so I knew they would be a big hit. I just didn't realize how big. The kids can't put them down," she said.

Danville schools Superintendent Mark Denman said Heeren is the first teacher in the district to use e-readers in the classroom.

"I look at what she's doing as not only an exciting way to engage students and motivate them in their learning," Denman said. "But it will also allow us to learn more about this technology and how it can be used in the classroom. We'll be watching that with interest."

More teachers are embracing e-readers and tablet computers, such as iPads, in the classroom, said Evangeline Pianfetti, the assistant dean for learning technologies at the University of Illinois College of Education. She has worked with the Danville school district on grant-funded projects for more than five years.

"They haven't taken over," she said, adding the cost is prohibitive for some schools. "We have classrooms that can't afford new textbooks."

But, Pianfetti said, that upward trend is expected to continue as more teachers use the Internet "to take learning beyond the four walls of the classroom," and textbook publishing companies make more materials available in an electronic format.

"I do think that ultimately, some form of electronic textbook will replace the regular textbook," she said, adding that version may be a more efficient and affordable way of getting the most up-to-date materials in the hands of teachers and students.

As far as how effective e-readers are in increasing student performance, it's too early to tell, Pianfetti said. "We're still in the very early stages of some of these new technologies. They haven't been around long enough to get sustained evidence," she said, adding that she admires educators who are experimenting with the technology and "creating opportunities where we can continue our research efforts."

Still, she added, "you can walk into the classroom and see the engagement and the motivation. There's a lot of qualitative evidence that will show you that if the student is engaged, they're going to be learning."

Pianfetti said as society moves further into the digital age, it's important to be equitable with new technologies. "We have to make sure we're providing access to all of our students and not disadvantaging any school or district," she said.

Heeren was able to buy 13 e-readers thanks to a $1,500 grant from the Danville Public Schools Foundation. It was funded by Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 157.

She said she was inspired to write the grant request late last year after seeing that e-readers were one of the top 10 gifts that children were requesting for Christmas.

"I thought, 'I need to jump on this,'" Heeren said, adding that the technology just speaks to the children, and they feel comfortable using it.

"And I'm always looking for ways to motivate my students and help them improve their reading," continued the teacher, whose class showed an overall reading improvement rate of 29 percent earlier this year.

Though she originally planned to buy Kindles, Heeren changed her mind after getting her students involved. As a class project, they spent three days researching different products on the Internet. Then they wrote reports on the pros and cons of each product before recommending the Kobo.

Heeren said the students liked its features, including a no-glare screen, a built-in dictionary and a function that allows them to change the font size. She also said the Kobos come with 100 free e-books, and she can download other titles, as well as newspapers and magazines, from many sources, including a lot free ones.

As an added bonus, she said, the Kobo price dropped from $139 to $99 when the class was shopping around.

"Being part of the decision-making process just made them more invested in them," Heeren said. "They're on board with how we handle them. They make sure they're charged. They know to share since we only have 13, and they're very respectful of them."

Since getting the e-readers about three weeks ago, many students have read a dozen or more books including classics such as "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," "Call of the Wild," "Great Expectations" and "Frankenstein," all written at the seventh-grade level.

"My favorite was 'Moby Dick,'" said 10-year-old Cameron Warrick, who last week was taking turns reading "White Fang" with 10-year-old Nolen Speagle.

The two boys said reading out of a traditional book is "kind of boring."

"These are just a blast," Nolen said, who, along with Cameron, explained how to turn pages, bookmark a page and look up "big words" in the dictionary with a push of a button. "I love to read now."

"I like video games, and this is like a video game, only you're reading," added 10-year-old Jeremy Erving, who was reading with 10-year-old Alia Hamilton.

Heeren said students use the e-readers as a class 45 minutes a day, and independently another 30 minutes. They also use them to read with a partner in the 15 minutes before school starts.

But while the e-readers are helping to improve students' reading, writing and critical thinking skills, Heeren said she doesn't plan to stop using textbooks, Accelerated Reader books, language games and other learning materials.

"They're new. They're exciting," Heeren said. "Do I think they're the only reading tool we should use? No. You need all different kinds of learning sources to get students to learn and to keep them interested. This is just another tool I can use to reach them."