Fordham Notes: RETC Partners with Charter School to 'Kindle' Children’s Interest in Reading

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

RETC Partners with Charter School to 'Kindle' Children’s Interest in Reading

Children today have an affinity for techno-gadgets that adults simply can’t match.

Youngsters surf the Internet faster, send text messages more often and create videos and blogs on just about anything. Now, a partnership between Fordham and a local charter school is set to find out if technology can make students more interested in reading.

The Amazon Kindle—a popular electronic book reader from online media retailer—is at the heart of the program. Amazon recently told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that it is selling 48 Kindles for every 100 physical books.

So why shouldn’t it be used in schools?

That was the question that prompted the partnership between Fordham’s RETC—Center for Professional Development and the Carl C. Icahn Charter School. Using a $670,000 federal Department of Energy grant awarded to Fordham last year, Amazon Kindles were purchased for use by students at the South Bronx school.

“We started thinking about the educational applications of this device and wondering if it would have some noticeable affect on the students’ reading habits, comprehension, or motivation to read,” said Steven D’Agustino, Ph.D., director of the RETC.

“So far, they’ve turned out to be a perfect fit for the Icahn School, which already had a longstanding emphasis on the integration of technology,” D’Agustino said.

The sleek electronic tablets are being used to foster reading among seventh and eighth graders in English language arts (ELA), one of the classes offered during the school’s special-interest period. Other special-interest courses include foreign language, algebra, history, and robotics.

Principal Daniel Garcia admits that robotics and ELA are the popular classes right now because of the technology.

“We’re looking at making the other areas equally exciting,” he said.

Icahn, which opened in 2001, saw 99 percent of its third- through eighth-graders ace this year’s state math exams, and 94 percent do the same in reading. It’s something to be proud of at a school where 90 percent of children come from low-income households.

“There was a successful formula already in place when I came here some years ago. I didn’t need to fix anything,” Garcia said of Icahn’s recipe for success—class sizes that are capped at 18 students and an enriched curriculum known as Core Knowledge.

“To continue the good results, we had to offer students something different. We need to keep pushing the envelope all the time,” he said.

Technology works, Garcia added, because, in most cases, it fosters immediate student engagement.

“If each kid at this school had a Kindle, they would all be engaged,” he said. “I can’t say that would happen if they all had a book in front of them.”

The Kindle uses a display technology called electronic ink, meant to mimic the experience of reading a book. It is easier to read in bright light and uses less electricity than displays on laptop computers and cell phones. It also has a built-in dictionary that defines words on command, as well as a highlighting feature.

“They can even flip back and forth between two books if they are comparing two pieces of literature,” Garcia said. “It’s wonderful.”

Eleven-year-old Isani Castro agrees.

“It’s cool,” said the seventh-grader, who, along with a small group, chose to read a Shakespeare comedy.

Eighth-grader Joshua Irizarry, 13, also reading Shakespeare, initially didn’t know what to make of the Kindle.

“I thought it was a mini-laptop. I didn’t know it was actually something you can read,” he said. “It’s really good and holds a lot of books and is very high-tech.”

ELA teacher Dana Halber said the trick was in the technology.

“They say, ‘I’m so much more interested. It’s so exciting,’” Halber said. “Their level of engagement is up because they are part of a much more technological generation. They go home and play video games and hop on the computer to use the Internet. So this is another piece of technology that fits into their lifestyle.”

The grant that helped fund this project was obtained with the help of Congressman José E. Serrano, D-NY, said Leslie Massiah, assistant vice president for government relations at Fordham.

“The purpose of the grant is to provide science and mathematics expansion not only at the University, but within area middle and high schools,” Massiah said of the grant, which has helped to fund robotics programs at other area schools.

“We wanted to expose students and teachers to new technology and be able to bring students up academically and to help them in terms of developing pedagogy.”

-Gina Vergel

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