Kindles for Everybody at Washington Middle School, Seattle – a lesson in educational equity

Recently I was privileged to meet School Librarian Elaine Harger from Washington Middle School. She was talking about her library and mentioned the roll out of a technology one  to one program, and how the ways in which it didn’t do as planned. In libraries we rarely talk about what didn’t work, so I asked her if she would be so kind as to share with YALSA blog readers so that you can learn from her experience.

Below is her response.

First off can you tell us a little about yourself and your school?

About myself…I became a librarian in 1989 and have worked with students kindergarten through graduate school.  I’ve been a public school librarian since 1997 in New York City, and in Snoqualmie, Lynnwood, and Seattle, Washington.  I’m a co-founder of the Progressive Librarians Guild, and was very active in the American Library Association until 2009 when I cut my personal CO2 emissions by 40% and quit traveling by air.  Sometime in 2016, McFarland will publish a book I’ve just completed about debates on ALA Council between the years 1990 and 2015.

About Washington Middle School…it’s a public school of over 1100 students with five academic tracks (advanced, gifted-and-talented, regular, English Language Learners, and special education) located in Seattle’s traditionally African-American neighborhood, which is undergoing gentrification.  Our demographics are as follows:

Student population Washington M.S. % Seattle % Washington state %
Native  0.8  0.7  1.5
African 29.8 16.4  4.5
Asian 18.9 15.8  7.2
Hispanic  8.6 12.4 21.7
Hawaiian/Pacific Is.  0.4  0.5  1.0
European 33.7 45.6 57.0
Mixed descent  7.8  8.5  7.1
Free/reduced lunch 45.7 37.6 45.0
Special Education 10.4 14.5 13.4
English lang. learner 10.7 12.8 10.4

The academic tracking, which begins in the 3rd grade, generally causes racial segregation internally in the schools.  Achievement/opportunity gaps in academic achievement and racial disparities in discipline are problems at WMS, which is one of the reasons why WMS staff and community members were solidly behind our union’s demand for equity teams in all SPS during the recent strike.  Despite these problems, WMS is a great place to be the library teacher.

Can you give a brief description of the project?

When I began working at WMS in 2012/13 school year, I was involved in discussions concerning changing the school’s personal device policy.  Some members on the Instructional Council advocated for allowing personal devices, others, myself included, were concerned that, given our demographics, the digital divide would only be exacerbated.  In the fall of 2014, our new principal, an ardent advocate of educational technology, was determined to allow personal devices and, through connections of a parent, procured a donation from Amazon of 1150 KindleFireHD7s, which were sitting unsold in a warehouse.  Thus, every WMS student could be given a personal device.  The thinking was that this would eliminate the digital divide.

Every [Language Arts] class in the school came through the library for a one-lesson overview of digital citizenship, and then again in January 2015 to check-out a KindleFire for the remainder of the school year.  Teachers decided which apps should be loaded on the Kindles, and a staff person was put in charge of managing content.  Parent volunteers came in to assist me in entering serial numbers into our Destiny catalog.

How did the program impact your students?

Our reading teacher, who supports struggling readers, reported that the Kindles’ cool factor gave some students extra motivation.  Additionally, they loved the dictionary and thesaurus’s pronunciation feature for unfamiliar words, liked reading Read180 books on their Kindles, and when accessing NewsELA via the Kindles often selected the more challenging reading level because they were easily able to compare the different versions of the articles and didn’t want the “dumbed down” articles and questions.  She says that 83% of her students last year met their growth goals, which is in keeping with her previous, pre-Kindle experience with struggling students.  But, the cool factor was really important for some students.

How did the project support youth interests and learning?

Students were very excited to get the KindleFires, which they used for academics, games, social media, and to access ebooks both in our library (although a very limited number) and via Seattle Public Libraries.  Some language arts and social studies teachers purchased class sets of ebooks for students to read for class.  Some also made PDFs of readings for their students which were loaded onto the Kindles of students in their classes.

What 3 things did you feel great about the project?

  1. Every WMS student had the opportunity to become familiar with and use a personal device;
  2. Every student was very excited about the Kindles, as were many teachers; and
  3. I received positive feedback about the digital citizenship lesson, especially regarding my inclusion of information about the manufacture and disposal of IT devices.

What 2 things were you the most unhappy with about the project?

  1. The manner in which the project last year was implemented reinforced the digital divide.  Additionally, this year the divide has been maintained (if not broadened) by the way in which the devices have been distributed.  Every 6th and 8th grade student in the upper academic track has been issued a Kindle through their [Language Arts Social Studies] classes.  All other students in the school self-selected the opportunity to check-out a device on their own.  Several teachers checked out class sets of Kindles.  It is too soon to tell how/if the sets have been used.
  2. Teachers were given no training to help them make best academic use of the fact that each student had a device.  Most often the devices proved to be more of a distraction than a helpful tool.

What would you do differently if you have a chance to do it again?

First, I would have checked out class sets to teachers in year one, and provided professional development in the use of the devices.  If every WMS student first had the experience of using the devices in class, I believe every student would have been better prepared to use the Kindle independently for academic purposes when issued one.  Secondly, I tried to have a book selected for installation on every Kindle for an all-school read.  That idea got nixed in favor of teachers selecting different books for their classes on the grounds that not all students were at the same reading level.  As I pointed out, PhD dissertations have been written on Dr. Seuss books.  What matters are the conversations about content, not content itself.   I strongly believe an all-school read could have been used to foster conversations and community, to capitalize on the excitement throughout the school generated by the expectation of Kindles for everyone.

What should library staff know if their school adopts a one device per student model?

In my experience, technophilia too often clouds the ability of educators to think through how best to implement and use new hardware and software.  Be sure to step-back, take a deep breath, don’t be in a rush, and think through what staff and students need to know and experience for successful use of whatever you’re offering.  Listen to colleagues who take a constructively critical approach to technology.  Maybe conduct a small pilot project to find out what kinks you might encounter.  I, for instance, did not anticipate a pesky problem that emerged in how we dealt with fines in the Destiny system.

Every Kindle had a barcode, and a copy of that same barcode was attached to the case.  Also, we established three different fines – one for the Kindle itself ($75), the charger ($15), and the case ($5).  If a student did not return a case, for instance, s/he would be assessed a $5.00 fine.  This year, when checking out Kindles that didn’t have cases, our Destiny circulation system would either delete or refund (!!!) fines assessed from last year, despite the fact that the case had not been returned.  What a headache!

As someone once said, the devil is in the details!

Think, plan, prepare, and…have fun!  You can find and share resources to help you manage the materials in your collection on YALSA’s wiki.

Elaine Harger  

 

About Jami Schwarzwalder

Currently a teen librarian with the Pierce County Library System in Tacoma, WA.She is passionate about technology, making, and learning.

See what I’m up to at https://about.me/jamischwarzwalder

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