Thursday, June 19, 2014

Skeeter Summer Book Club: The Kindle Project

One of the relationships that I have enjoyed cultivating this year is with our campus technology facilitator, Matt Nichols. Matt is a true visionary--an "idea guy" in every sense. He came to me in February and said that he attended a cool presentation at TCEA called "Take My Teacher Home," in which students took home a teacher-created-tech-kit to learn language and vocabulary skills. As we talked about this idea and brainstormed about how we could turn it into a summer reading initiative for a small population of our at-risk students, we used a Popplet to map out our ideas. You can see those here. (I love looking at this to see how the seeds of the idea blossomed into what it has become.)

First, we identified a group of students who needed a unique kind of  reading intervention, so we targeted our English Language Learners (ELLs). This is a perfect group to pilot this initiative, and we decided to target 20 students. As we started brainstorming the needs of this group, we realized that handing books to these kids wasn't enough. They needed help with language acquisition AND comprehension. That's when we thought about giving them a physical book paired with an audio book so that they could read AND hear the words. Research supports the use of audio books with ELL students. You can read more about the research here.

We priced Playaways, which are like MP3 players with one book downloaded on each device so that students can plug in earbuds and listen. The bottom line is that these are expensive. For example, one Divergent Playaway is $99. After pricing Playaways, we realized that they were not cost-effective. This is when I started looking at the features available on the Amazon Kindle Fire.

The Kindle Fire HD possesses the COOLEST feature called Immersion Reading. When you purchase a Kindle book AND the audio book (available on Amazon or, which is the same company), the Kindle book and the audio book will sync, which means the student can SEE the words AND HEAR them simultaneously. But wait--it gets cooler! Not only do they sync, but the words are highlighted on the screen as they are being read! And this is not some droning voice reading the words that will make you want to stab your ears out. These audio books are "professionally narrated," so you are getting a high quality read aloud experience. Here's a quick video to show you how Immersion Reading works:

Hopefully, you can see how this could be a game-changer for a student who is an English language learner, as well as a struggling reader. Honestly, this could be a game-changer for ANY struggling reader. Just to emphasize the key points of this dynamic duo in Amazon: You have to purchase BOTH the Kindle book AND the audio book (Audio format of Divergent is $14.95), and not all Kindle books are available in audio book format. When you click on the Kindle book link, you need to look for the "Whispersync for Voice" box. If you see this, then you know that it has the Immersion Reading feature, and you can purchase the audio book to sync with the Kindle book:

We had a meeting with our principal, our district's ESL coordinator, and our school's ESL teacher at the end of April. Here is the document that I created to guide our meeting. Because of the Immersion Reading feature, we decided that Kindle Fire HDs were the way to go, but this caused some hesitation in our district because we have an abundance of iPads. We really wanted to make the iPads work since we have so many, but Immersion Reading DOES NOT work in the Kindle app, and Apple does not have anything comparable. Immersion Reading is only available on the Kindle Fire HD or Kindle Fire HDX. The tech people were concerned about bringing another device into our district's "ecosystem," which is a valid concern. However, because the Kindle Fire provides this amazing Immersion Reading feature that is not offered on any other device, we decided to go with the Kindle Fire; hence, the Kindle Project was born. With the full support of our campus principal, district ESL coordinator, and district technology department, we were determined to make this a success.

Not only was the Immersion Reading a key component of our project, but we also wanted to make this as FUN and ENGAGING for the students as possible. We wanted to ensure that the students would actually READ these books. Giving them CHOICE in the books that they would read in the summer was the answer.

Because the focus of this project is bigger than just reading, we wanted to give these students the FULL READING EXPERIENCE. That's when we had the brilliant idea of taking them to Barnes and Noble to make a "wish list" of the books that they would have downloaded on their Kindles and get a Starbucks beverage, too. (Once again, we wanted to give them the FULL READING EXPERIENCE!) I went into their ESL Reading class and did a lesson on how to pick a good book and even taught them how to order off the Starbucks menu. We organized the field trip and took them one May morning to the Barnes and Noble at Firewheel in Rowlett, Texas. Our principal, our registrar, our district's ESL coordinator, the two campus librarians, and Matt Nichols took 20 students to spend three hours in B&N.

It was magic.

Not only did they make their wish list, but they also got to choose one physical book to take with them (how could they walk out of a bookstore empty-handed?). The ESL coordinator used Title 3 funds to pay for these books. This was a great experience for all of us because we got to know the kids, and it helped us start building those relationships that will be essential to the success of this project. Plus, this outing made these students feel special and valued. The smiles say it all:

After our trip to Barnes and Noble, the real work began. Matt and I took the kids' wish lists and compiled them into a Google Spreadsheet. (For the sake of student confidentiality, I am not sharing this spreadsheet because it has student names and the books that they chose to read. Using Google Spreadsheet was an easy way to organize this information because Matt and I could both access and change it, as well as share it with our principal. Google Docs ROCKS!) We had to check to see if each book was available in Kindle and audio formats. Not all of them were available in the "Whispersync for Voice" format, so we chose a similar book that was available in Whispersync. We also priced the books and included this information on the spreadsheet. Matt ordered the twenty Kindle Fire HDs (for $139!), which were paid for by Title 3 funds that our wonderful principal approved. Once the Kindles arrived, he worked his tech magic to set up accounts so that the devices could be managed through Amazon's Whispercast.

We bought 20 Amazon gift cards with the total amount for the Kindle and audio books for each student. Because Audible is an Amazon company in which you can buy the audio format from the Amazon website, we ASSUMED that we could use Amazon gift cards to make both purchases. WE WERE WRONG. This is the MAJOR MISTAKE that we made in this project. After we had already purchased the Amazon gift cards, we realized that WE COULD NOT USE AMAZON GIFT CARDS TO BUY AUDIBLE BOOKS (even though Audible is an Amazon company!). We did not find this fine print until a call to Audible confirmed this. Our fantastic principal authorized us to purchase $700 in Visa gift cards to buy the audio books. If you are going to do this project on your campus, you need to buy Amazon girft cards for the Kindle books ONLY or just buy Visa gift cards for the entire purchase (both Kindle and audio books). What would make this REALLY EASY is if Amazon gift cards worked with I think Amazon is working on this, and I anticipate this will happen in the near future (We have talked to the higher-ups at both Amazon and Audible, and they are trying to make this happen.) Our principal's exact words were, "We are too far into this to quit now. Do whatever you have to do to make it work." It is such a blessing to work with such a supportive leader.

The process for loading the Kindle books and audio books was TEDIOUS. It took about 30 minutes per Kindle so a total of approximately 10 hours to just load the Kindle and audio books on the devices. I think this process will be streamlined as Amazon improves this feature for schools to use with students. Matt has made several calls to Amazon, and they are very intrigued by our little project, and they are working on a way to make this process easier.

After much frustration and problem-solving, Matt and I FINALLY had the Kindles ready for distribution to the kids. I created a Facebook page for the kids to join so that we can communicate with them over the Summer. We also had them sign up for Remind 101 so that we can text out reminders about our three summer book club discussions that we have planned. You can read more about these here.

All of the hard work was worth it when we handed the Kindles over to the students:

Now the real fun begins. We are excited to meet with these students over the summer to talk about their reading. We plan to continue this project in the fall and allow these students to keep the Kindles and add books to their personal libraries. We will keep track of their progress by studying data and watching their progress on various assessments. We anticipate GREAT SUCCESS for these kids.

So how much did all of this cost?

20 Kindle Fire HDs              $3000
4 Kindle Books per student    $700
4 audio Books per student      $700
20 Kindle covers                      $240
Barnes & Noble Books           $300
Starbucks                                 $200


Creating Readers for life: PRICELESS 

I'm sad to say that both Matt and my amazing principal, Christy Starrett,  are moving on to other opportunities next year. But I am confident that the Kindle Project will continue under the leadership of our new principal, as well as the staff members who believe in it. I am so thankful for the opportunity to work with Matt and Christy on this special project. It was an honor to work with such amazing visionaries.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

March Madness: Battle of the Books

Thanks to the power of Pinterest, I'm convinced that I will never have to come up with another cute, clever, creative idea in my personal and/or professional life. I am as guilty as the next librarian for going on a pinning streak, but I think the REAL challenge comes in taking someone else's cute, clever, creative idea and actually turning it into a reality. That's why I made it a goal to take a few of my favorite ideas from my Library Display board and try to bring them to life this school year.

When I first saw this idea on Pinterest, I knew I had to try it. Here's the Skeeter Library's version of March Madness: Book Style!

I used two blogs that I stumbled upon via Pinterest as the "primary sources" for this project. First, big props to Cathy Jo Nelson's blog for her detailed steps. I also loved The Brown-Bag Teacher's version of the March Madness display in her classroom.

Here are some specifics that might help you:

  • We ran a report in Workflows to find the top 16 most circulated books in our collection over the past school year. I think the March Madness idea works best when the books are a true reflection of your campus and the reading preferences of your students.

  • Thanks to Cathy Jo's blog, we "seeded" the books according to the NCAA tournament bracket. If you don't know how March Madness works, this is HUGE because it determines which teams (or books, in this case) will face off, and it also creates much of the madness because a higher seed can upset a lower seed, which is known as the "Cinderella Story." This also ensures that your #1 and #2 seeds have a chance to face off in the final "game," unless there's a big upset.

Compliments of Cathy Jo Nelson's blog 

Here's our list of books ranked by popularity in circulation count, which determined the seeding in our bracket:

1. The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins*
2. Divergent series by Veronica Roth*
3. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
4. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
5. Maximum Ride series by James Patterson
6. Romiette and Julio by Sharon Draper
7. The Fault in our Stars by John Green
8. Delirium by Lauren Oliver
9. The Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
10. The Skin I'm In by Sharon G. Flake
11. A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer
12. Dawn of the Arcana by Rei Toma
13. Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick
14. Naruto, Vol. 53 by Masashi Kishimoto
15. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
16. Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Draper

*Cathy Jo Nelson suggested that the entire series be included rather than taking up spots with each book in the series. So even though Divergent and Insurgent were #2 and #3 in our circ count, we just grouped the series together.

  • The most labor-intensive part of this project was constructing the bracket display. First, I printed off the book covers for each of the books using Our library does not have much wall space, so I actually covered three sections of our reference shelves, since they aren't used. (This is why the display looks lumpy since it's not flush against the wall. This drove me CrAzY.) I also printed off signs for "Elite 8," "Final 4," "The Big Game," and "2014 Book Champ." After I already had these printed off, I found them pre-made on The Brown-Bag Teacher's blog. They are much more ADORBS than mine, so here's the direct link so you won't make the same mistake that I did.  The Brown-Bag Teacher's blog does a great job of talking you through the making of the bracket. Honestly, I'm an "eye-baller" rather than a "precise measurer" so I just took a deep breath and went for it. "Don't overthink it," became my mantra. Using duck tape to make the bracket lines works great! I built the bracket from the outside in (covers to CHAMP sign), whereas she started from the inside out (CHAMP sign to the covers). 
  • I then made a paper copy of the bracket for students to fill out to predict the overall winner. Students have filled out and turned in close to 100 paper brackets in two days! I've publicized this on our school Facebook page and on Twitter to draw interest. I admit that I have harassed students into filling out brackets when they come into the library to chill in the morning (I'm always nice, but I think they do it to make the nerdy librarian go away.) I don't have a copy of the bracket to share because I printed the one from the Brown-Bag Teacher blog (included in the direct link above), whited out her books, and wrote our books in the slots. Janky, but it works.   
  • The books will "play" each other through voting via Google Form, and the books with the most votes will advance on to the next round. Here's the link for our "Sweet Sixteen." Voting will continue for this round until next Monday, when we will announce the books that made the "Elite 8." We will vote next week on the "Final 4" and then narrow it down to the "Big Game" and finally, announce the "2014 Book Champ" on Monday, April 7th, when the real NCAA Basketball Championship will be played in Arlington. Prizes will be given at each round of voting, and I will go into more detail about that in my next post (because I honestly haven't figured that out yet). 
This is a lot of work, my friends; I'm not gonna lie. But it has already been so worth it. Kids are having conversations about books. Many of them have not read the books but are still voting for them and talking about them and arguing about who the big winner will be and isn't that our goal--to get kids talking about books because that might be the first step to getting them to actually read one? I've been telling them that it's okay that they've never heard of a book in the bracket; they can still vote. It's okay that they've never read the book; they can still vote. I purposely don't watch any college basketball until March so that I know nothing about the teams until I fill out my own bracket; my lack of knowledge makes it more fun. (I don't know anything about Dayton, but I picked them to beat Syracuse, and they did.) Of course, my beloved book nerds are ALL OVER this and are voting with a passion because they are experts. But that's the beauty of this contest, you can be a book novice or a book lover and still participate, much like the real March Madness. You don't have to be basketball expert to register a bracket on   

MHS students filling out brackets on Monday morning in the library. 

My adoration of this time of year goes way back to my childhood, when my Dad instilled in me a love for the Madness of March. I have vivid memories of him teaching me how a bracket works and us watching the games and always cheering for Duke. He is a HUGE fan of the classy Coach K, so like father like daughter. Mercer played the role of Cinderella this year in the first round and upset Duke, which destroyed my bracket since I had them going to the Final 4. (Do you see my love for the Madness? Books and brackets coming together--I am SO there!)

I distinctly remember "the shot" that made my crush on Christian Laettner grow exponentially. In fact, you can't talk about March Madness until you relive "That One Shining Moment" from 1992: 

That's why they call it MaDnEsS.

I will let you know which book is named the CHAMP once it is determined. My bet is that Hunger Games will take it all, but I will be cheering for The Fault in our Stars, which just so happens to be the underdog since not as many kids are familiar with it (well, until the movie comes out).

Maybe it will be a Cinderella Story.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Another Blog

Just because I have not been posting my lessons on this blog does not mean that I have not been teaching. I've got another blog brewing with Marnie Cushing, the librarian at Poteet High School and former English teacher and elementary librarian. We started LOL: Librarian on Loan at the beginning of the school year to document the picture book lessons that we do with high school students on our campuses. If you are an elementary librarian/teacher who still follows Red Reading Chair, thank you for the support, and I want to make sure that you know about LOL because I think you can take our ideas and adapt them to your classroom at whatever grade level you teach.

We have been blogging up a storm on LOL (Really, Marnie has. I'm trying to catch up.); please take a gander. If you are at the TLA Conference in San Antonio, we will be presenting our picture book ideas on Wednesday afternoon, April 9th. We would love to see you there!

Here's the link to LOL: Let us know what you think!

4th Six Weeks Happenings

You can watch this quick Animoto video to get a feel for the happenings in the Skeeter Library during the 4th Six Weeks:

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Second Six Weeks Stats

I used to make a flyer of our stats for the 2nd six weeks. We emailed the link to our staff and tweeted it. Not only are flyers super-easy to make on Smore, but you can also see the number of views that your flyer has.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

SSR: Successful Skeeters Read

The main reason I became a librarian is because I was tired of feeling like a hypocrite. As a high school English teacher, I often felt like I was doing more harm than good in cultivating a reading habit in my students. Forcing them to read "required" books was not turning them into lifelong readers. In fact, it was doing the opposite. In my humble OPINION, our educational system has turned reading into a chore rather than a treasure and writing into a restriction rather than a release. Maybe this topic should be covered in another blog post, and I am not criticizing my school district or my fellow English teacher heroes for these woes. I think this is a systemic problem exasperated by the fact that educational laws and policy are created by politicians who know nothing about how to teach children or how the brain learns.  As I talk with hard-working, passionate teachers, many feel like their hands are tied by confining curriculum created by the mandates of a high-stakes-test-crazed culture; what they WANT to do and what they CAN do in the classroom are often two different things--unfortunately.

This dilemma still eats at me--how to get kids (especially teens) to love reading more. Feeding teens a steady diet of "boring" classics that they can't relate to and short, dull passages stifled by multiple-choice questions is NOT the answer. If anything, it magnifies the problem. I have spent years researching this topic, and the works of Gallagher, Krashen, Miller, Trelease, Kittle, and Layne all support the same solution: To turn students into lifelong readers, they need:
  • ACCESS to high-interest books 
  • EXPOSURE to quality writing through read-alouds as mentor texts
  • CHOICE in reading what they WANT to read (not what we think they should be reading)
  • TIME to read
The TIME part is what I keep coming back to...

In high school, when do we give students TIME to read books of their choice? We don't. The fact of the matter is that there is too much other "stuff" out there vying for the attention of our kids. If we don't give them time in school to hook them on reading, how can we expect them to choose it on their own? 

When I was the librarian at Shaw Elementary, we initiated a school-wide DEAR time, when all 796 students and 55 staff members Dropped Everything And Read. We did this four days a week, right after the morning announcements. For the most part, it was a beautiful experience. The students LOVED it, and we noticed a significant increase in interest in reading (and a gradual increase in test scores). 

When I came to Mesquite High School this year, I admit that I was skeptical about bringing DEAR time with me. How would it work on a high school campus of 2800 kids? Would the staff "buy in?" Maybe DEAR time was only an elementary thing? I thought I'd wait a year or so to get a feel for the place before I proposed this crazy idea of giving students TIME to read. 

But it seems that others on the MHS campus were ready to try this. One of our assistant principals, a former English teacher who did DEAR time at another high school campus, and my librarian partner had been discussing a school-wide DEAR time plan last year, and they were ready to make it work. With the support and blessing of our incredible principal, we began meeting in the summer to discuss the logistics of how to make this work for our campus. Here is how SSR (Successful Skeeters Read) came to fruition. It's a tale told in parts:

Part I: Teacher Buy-In

We did not want SSR to be "one more thing" thrown at our teachers at the beginning of the school year, so we decided to take a different approach. Rather than rush into implementation, we wanted to introduce the idea to our teachers and give it time to simmer in their minds for a six weeks; therefore, we decided to begin SSR during the second six weeks. Our hope was that this would allow the teachers time to process the idea, establish their classroom procedures, and get to know their students.  It also bought us valuable time to lay a strong foundation to make this successful (more on that later). 

We presented the idea to our teachers during our staff development the week before school started. The overall goal of this presentation was to persuade them of the benefits of SSR by using research and showing them how EASY this was going to be. 

Here is a link to our Prezi; we found one already created on the website, and it contained permission to edit it. Feel free to use our's as a starting point and then adapt it to meet the needs of your campus. 

Part II: Building Classroom Libraries 

We realized the key to SSR was students bringing reading material to their 3rd period class each day. In a perfect world, our students would march down to our fabulous Skeeter Library to checkout a book or magazine or download something from our district's nationally recognized digital library. But we knew this would not happen with many of our students. If we really wanted SSR to work, we would have to bring the books to them, and they needed to be ones that they would actually read. Enter Half-Price Books of Mesquite...our angels. After a phone call to some of the people in upper management at HPB, they threw their support behind us and donated over 800 books and 10 boxes of magazines! Our principal gave us $2500 to purchase books for the classroom libraries, as well. My partner and I got to spend a blissful morning at HPB in Mesquite selecting books! (Best. Day. Ever.) It took us exactly two hours to spend the amount to the penny (we are THAT good). We hauled it all back to the Skeeter Library in our mini van and SUV.

We spent about three weeks weeding through the books, sorting them on carts, and putting "Property of MHS" stickers on them. It was a huge undertaking but worth the time and effort. 

Part III: The Plan

At the end of September, we had a staff development day and presented our plan of action for SSR to the staff. We did this in a rotation, in which each department came into the library, so we presented six times that day. This worked well because it allowed for small groups so that teachers could ask specific questions. We even had a SSR "simulation" where we gave the teachers time to read so that they could see how it looked and felt.

Here is a link to our presentation for THE PLAN. This will give you the specifics of how we envisioned SSR working on our campus and how to tackle certain issues that we felt might arise once SSR got started. After we presented the plan to the teachers, they had a week to come down to the library and choose books and magazines for their classroom libraries. Teachers were able to select 15-20 books and 10-20 magazines for their classrooms. Many teachers had already started building their classroom libraries with their own materials. I believe that building strong classroom libraries is a KEY component to any SSR program. We still have some work to do in this, but we could not have laid this foundation without the generous donations of Half-Price Books or the help of our principal.

Part IV: Just Do It

Our first day to start SSR was October 7th, which was the first day of the second six weeks. Teachers chose the time that they did SSR during third period because of the conflict with lunches; most teachers use SSR time to re-focus their classes after lunch. We asked each teacher to complete a form  in Google Docs so that we would know when each class was doing SSR. Our district created a video feature on SSR. Watching it will give you a feel for how it works in our classrooms:

Keeping it Going: 

To borrow the title of Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point, I believe that's where we are with SSR--at a tipping point. Now that we have implemented it, it's time to sustain it, and that might be the hardest part.

We have sent out teacher surveys to collect feedback about how it's going so that we can evaluate and change in order to keep SSR going strong. We have created several ways to collect data and feedback for evaluation:

  • Reading Consultation Form--This is for teachers to submit the names of students who are refusing to participate in SSR time. My librarian partner and I will meet with the students to help them find a book that they will enjoy reading (hopefully). 
  • SurveyMonkey--This is the survey that we sent to teachers for feedback after the first six weeks of implementation.  
  • SSR Success Stories--Teachers can submit the names of students and share the stories of how SSR has changed them as readers. 
Here are a couple of recent blog posts from the Nerdy Book Club about giving teens time to read in school. Click here and here to read them. 

One of the biggest complaints against SSR that I hear is that it is "a waste of instructional time." I strongly disagree. Giving teens time to read what they choose is NOT a waste of time. To be lifelong critical thinkers, they must be readers. To build them as readers, we must give them time to read. Research shows that it doesn't have to be boring informational texts to improve reading; it doesn't matter WHAT they are reading, as long as they are READING! 

I am proud that I work at a school that is willing to do whatever it takes to turn teens into lifelong readers. If SSR can work at Mesquite High School, it can work ANYWHERE.