Technology Integration

The E-Book’s The Thing

Edutopia blogger Suzie Boss shares how a new generation of e-books give opportunities for students to engage with texts and the additional resources they often offer.

January 31, 2014
Photo credit: Thinkstock

Sixth-grade teacher Diane Gilbert was curious about introducing Shakespeare to her gifted and talented class at Kelly Mill Middle School in Blythewood, South Carolina. Many of her students read well above grade level, but would they be able to understand the Bard's plays? "Most hadn't had much exposure to Shakespeare," Gilbert says, beyond the sonnets they had read in class.

So she loaded a class set of iPads with an enhanced e-book version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Students were surprised to discover that the digital edition included -- right alongside the text -- video clips of professional actors playing out every scene. "My students just jumped right in," Gilbert says, and were undaunted by the complex language and plot turns of the comedy. "They thought it was the best thing ever."

A new generation of e-books is creating opportunities for students to engage with challenging texts, and also to make their own meaning from curated resources. Here are just two examples of what's on the horizon.

Shakespeare, without Whiz or Bang

Leveraging digital media to make Shakespeare more understandable and less intimidating is the goal of WordPlay Shakespeare, a project of the New Book Press Along with A Midsummer Night's Dream, WordPlay has released Macbeth. Romeo and Juliet is in the pipeline.

Publisher Alexander Parker is an educational technologist and alumnus of Harvard Graduate School of Education. Watching the evolution of digital publishing, he's been curious whether, as he says, "visual representation could aid textual understanding. What's the opportunity of mixing sound, movement, and other media into text?"

Parker also recalls grappling with Shakespeare during his own school days. "It was tough," he admits, and he suspects reading the Bard hasn't gotten any easier for today's adolescent readers.

While Parker leaves the acting, directing, and photography to professionals, he pays close attention to pedagogical decisions in WordPlay productions. The plays are performed by classically trained actors against a blank background, with no fancy sets or special effects. The intent is not to produce plays with "whiz and bang. We're not going for spectacle," Parker says. Instead, the goal of these productions "is to help students in middle school and high school come to grips with the language. The set is not key. The costuming is not key. What is key is that we have actors who are awfully good at delivering the lines in a way that makes them as understandable as possible."

No scenes are omitted. "We include every last word," Parker emphasizes.

Extra features are incorporated to enhance the reading experience and open new learning opportunities. For example, students can annotate the text and email their notes to a teacher, or share their reflections or plot summaries with peers in a Tweet or on Facebook. A translation pop-up tool turns Elizabethan prose into modern English, but only if a reader chooses to use it. There's also a built-in dictionary. "We want this to be unobtrusive as possible," Parker says. "If the text is understandable, leave it alone. But when it gets really dense, a little help is available. We're constantly thinking about, what else can we do to scaffold students as they read?"

Gilbert, who was part of the pilot test for WordPlay, says her students regularly referred to the synopsis at the beginning of each scene. "It helped them focus on what's to come and made it more comprehensible." They used the translation feature "all the time," she says, and also searched for key phrases in the script to explore themes.

For Gilbert's sixth-graders, interacting with the e-book was just one part of a larger exploration of Shakespeare. Her students also made plot charts, enacted key scenes, and investigated the many ways that the plays have been interpreted over the centuries. With digital support to aid initial reading of the text, Parker expects students to "get on their feet faster," and then embark on deeper learning experiences "with greater confidence."

Gilbert's students also leveraged their new understanding of Shakespeare as part of an entrepreneurship project. In keeping with their school's business magnet theme, they designed their own digital textbooks about Shakespeare and pitched their publishing ideas. As part of their research, they wanted to learn more about launching start-up ventures. That was the perfect cue for Parker to pay the class a guest visit, sharing his own tale about the risks and rewards of entrepreneurship in the digital age.

Bringing History to Life

To see how e-books can be used in a history or social studies context, take a look at recent publishing efforts by veteran educator Peter Pappas (@edteck). He's the author of a series of iBooks that immerse readers in inquiry experiences about World War II. He has curated a wide range of digital content-videos, audios, posters, and what Pappas calls "long-lost ephemera" -- about topics such as recruiting women to join the war effort (Recruiting Rosie) or PR efforts to "sell" the war to the American public (Why We Fight). Along with primary source material, Pappas provides "stop-and-think prompts" to encourage analysis and critical thinking.

Recently, Pappas taught a class of future social studies teachers at the University of Portland how to become iBook authors themselves. They collaborated on the production of Exploring History, which features 10 samples of curated documents and prompts for inquiry.In a post on his Copy/Paste blog, Pappas describes some of the decisions that go into iBook authoring. He's a big fan of peer review to improve publications, but advises caution when it comes to adding multi-touch widgets. ("Fun, but do they help tell the story?")

His suggestions offer a helpful roadmap if you're thinking about becoming an iBook author yourself or, better yet, having your students produce their own digital books.

What's your experience with e-books, as a reader or as a publisher? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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