Do 4th Graders and Kindles Mix?

Guest Blog by Andrew from Match Next

 

Last spring, my colleague, Ray, started a reading club at our middle school. He wanted to see if you could generate a spike in the amount a kid read for fun by a) giving them each their own e-reader, b) helping them find great books, and c) creating some peer competition around reading volume. You can read about it here. (Spoiler – it worked)

We’re trying a similar approach with 4th graders here at Match Next, our blended learning pilot. My job is to try out how technology can help our kids learn. So far it’s been a mixed bag. I’ve written about a few things we’re using already, like the Chromebooks we have (love ‘em), some online quiz tools we’ve tried (like ‘em), and a digital flashcard program we’re working on (meh).

Today I want to tell you about how the Kindles have been working for us. Last fall, Ray gave about 20 of them out to a group of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. They worked great. This year, each of our 49 4th graders has one. Like the Chromebooks, we love ‘em. I’d rate them an 8/10. If you’re trying to inject some major life into your school’s reading program, you should get these.

The Kindles are part of a larger effort to generate a big uptick in reading consumption by our students. Today I’ll focus in on how we use the Kindle devices themselves. Next week I’ll describe the way teachers and tutors try to increase reading.

 

So What is a Kindle?
It’s an e-reader created by Amazon that allows you to download and read books, newspapers, magazines etc. There are a bunch of versions these days. You’ve probably heard of the Kindle Fire - their version of an iPad. We passed on that and went with the most basic version. Here’s what they look like:

If you’ve seen these, the ‘screens’ are pretty amazing. They look just like a book, not at all like a backlit computer screen. So no seared-retina computer-zombie kids.

Cost
The devices are pretty cheap considering how many books they can hold (>1000). They cost $69 if you let them leave a book advertisement on the screen when the device is turned off. $20 more each if you don’t want the ads. We went for the cheaper option.

The books aren’t too expensive either. At about $5-6 each for 4th grade level books, they’re typically about half of the cost of a paper copy. We’ve been building our Kindle library since the beginning of September and have accumulated roughly 200 books. Amazon allows the books to be on 5 different devices at one time, so by being deliberate about book sharing we’ve saved ourselves huge amounts of money and pretty much eliminated any wait time for books.

The Kindles are also small, thin and light. This makes them delicate. They’re more durable than a tablet, but they still break. We got all our students these soft cover cases to pad any drops. Found them for about $10 each.

But 4th graders still break them. The most common problem is kids shoving them into their bags and having other books press and crack the screens. Since September 2nd, 8 out of 49 of the screens have been damaged. Not bad, but not great when you consider that our Chromebooks have had 0 drop-related breaks through November.

Amazon is great about replacing a broken Kindle so long as its still under warranty. They’ll send you a new one, then you just sent back the broken one using the same box.

**Tip: To exchange the Kindle you have to know the account info and/or serial number. If the screen’s broken, you can’t get to it. We learned pretty fast that you should physically label the serial number on each Kindle when you first get it.

How to Keep Kids Off Games
Even these basic Kindles can download games and have a basic web browser. Imagine MG as a 4th grader. Glasses are probably the same size, but his head’s a bit smaller. I’ll bet the first thing he figures out how to do is download Scrabble.

To avoid sleep-deprived, non-reading children, we had to master the Parental Controls. After locking everything but the books feature, the only thing a kid can do now is read.

Some Annoying Things

1. Not all books are compatible with our Kindles. Especially graphic novels. Lots of our boys are really into them. For kids who are really reluctant readers, we’ll just buy the paper versions of books we can’t get on the device. The younger the book (and the more pictures), the less likely it is to have a Kindle version.

2. A few of our students figured out how to set a password for their own device. These are different from the parental control passwords (which we set and don’t tell them). This one pops up when you turn on the device. We couldn’t find a way to turn this off. And actually, after some of our students explained that their younger siblings were playing around with them at home, I was fine if they wanted to lock people out. Except when they forget the password.

We found an easy fix, but not a quick one. If you forget the device password, you can reset the whole thing by simply entering ‘resetmykindle.’ This will return the Kindle to its original factory settings. I probably have to do this about once every other week.

3. We found that about 20% of our students would jump around from book to book without ever finishing one. They had access to the library of books we’d purchased and would constantly download new books from the Archive. So we have selectively locked some out of the library and only put one book on their device at a time. Takes more attention from us and tutors, but for a few of our kids it’s gotten them to actually read through a whole book.

4. Recharging the Kindles was a hassle for a while. The batteries are very good - they last around a 1.5 weeks on average. But every so often, there’ll be a student whose device is so drained that it needs to charge for ~5 minutes before it even comes back to life while plugged in. We had to scramble around to find something else for them to read while they waited.

We did two things. We sent home a charger with every kid. They were pretty cheap, about $8 each. Then I got a few more cables, wall mounts and some charging stations so that our tutors can charge them during their tutorials. So far it’s worked pretty well and the charging hasn’t posed much an issue anymore.

Next Time - The Humans

Ok, that’s the deal with the Kindles themselves. Next week I’ll describe how we’ve organized our independent reading hour. Just like with paper books, simply getting Kindles into the hands of kids is only half the battle.