How I boosted reading at a math and science magnet

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By Ashley Norbut           

As a teacher in a math and science magnet school, it’s probably predictable that I’d be excited about a technology that’s changing the way my students are learning. It’s perhaps less predictable that the teaching resource I’m talking about helps students expand their depth in and passion for reading – not math or science.

If you’re not familiar with it, EPIC! is an online reading library, stocked with more than 20,000 titles that’s free for teachers and librarians to use with their students. But it’s more than that. EPIC! leverages student interests, makes engaging suggestions and has features such as “read to me” which can help students with skills including pronunciation and spelling. But most of all, it’s a gateway to self-directed reading, exploration and learning.

In short, it’s the game-changing classroom technology we were always promised.

I’m an early education teacher and in my classes, we use EPIC! every day as part of our reading workshops, as a supplement my collection of books. Students also use it for their own research during our non-fiction inquiry units – which dovetail nicely into the types of learning they’ll experience in more advanced subjects.

But it’s not just an in-class research instrument. I also like that it has chapter books that I can use for my after-school book club for my higher readers. And that I can use its library to engage and sustain reading habits at home, with families and care givers.

All that is great. But it works because – if you’re an educator, you’ll understand – my students actually like it. The platform uses game-based features like earned badges to reward achievement. And it pushes students to read about new and diverse subjects in ways they genuinely enjoy. Even in class.

You should hear the cheer that occurs in my classroom when I tell my students they can read “whatever they want” from EPIC! When left to explore on their own, the next 20 minutes are filled with kids sharing all the fun facts that they’ve learned from their reading. “Mrs. N, did you know this?” they ask. Or say, “Can you believe” something else.  As a teacher, I love it. Teaching is seldom more authentic.

I’ve spent nine years in the classroom and I’m willing to wager that, another nine years from now, we will see clearly that igniting the passion of discovery with the early learners in my classroom has made a significant difference.

That’s because, as every teacher and parent knows, the learning and academic habits students learn early are likely to become lifetime ones. If a child is excited by the internal rewards of self-directed reading and learning, everything we know about education tells us that they will be stronger students, engineers or scientists – or whatever they choose to do.

In fact, learning those skills and values will probably be even more important for those students who don’t grow to wear lab coats or build our next great buildings or super computers. Studies, such as those in this Department of Education summary from 1999, show that early reading is liked to lifetime earnings overall, regardless of occupation.

To tell the truth, I’m not sure whether the debates about classroom technology are ongoing or have been settled. And I’ll be among the first to say that tech won’t cure every ill in teaching or learning.

But I am sure that in my classroom, EPIC! technology is helping me teach my students to be better scientists and mathematicians – as well as stronger, more curious, and likely more successful people – by making them deeper readers and intellectual explorers. That’s awfully important for every teacher in every school – even at, or maybe especially at, a school focused on math and science.