George Lucas Educational Foundation
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One of the greatest honors I have is the opportunity to work with a talented, creative, hardworking team of educators, people who demonstrate on a daily basis what it takes to prepare students for college success. Teachers, in general, tend to be an awe-inspiring bunch, and Envision teachers and school leaders certainly do inspire me.

Mark Isero

In this post, I'd like to introduce you to one such amazing educator: Mark Isero, who is our director of instructional development. In that capacity, Mark coaches teachers and designs exceptional professional development experiences for our network of high schools in the bay area of San Francisco. We were lucky enough to have Mark teaching English and social studies in our classrooms for 15 years. (You'll hear more about his teaching background in the interview below.) With his particular focus on literacy, equity, and professionalism, Mark is a true asset.

Edutopia: Mark, tell us how you came to the teaching profession.

Mark Isero: My family taught me that education led to power and freedom. So in college, I signed up for a summer program called Summerbridge, where high school and college students taught middle school students who would be the first in their families to go to college. It was also the first summer of Americorps, and I got to go to New Orleans for an Americorps gathering where then-Vice President Al Gore spoke. There, I met 400 people from across the country working to help middle schoolers in New Orleans. This got me instantly hooked not only on the really important reasons to be a teacher -- social justice and equity -- but also on the idea that teaching made me feel truly alive.

What are your professional goals?

Just about five years ago, while I was teaching English and social studies, I had this big epiphany that everything is related to reading. How well do my students like school? That's related to reading. How much do they feel ownership of their education, their academics? Reading-related. Can they sit still in their chairs, or do they go crazy? That's reading, too -- the mindfulness of reading. How about how well can they have empathy and see other people's worlds? Reading, too. The more I taught, the more I realized that really I should focus on reading.

Since then, and now more than ever, my professional goal has been to work to promote more reading in high schools, particularly for young people of color. When there is a lot of reading, there is academic rigor and independence. No, I don't want students to be introverts and just read in silence. But I do believe that reading leads students to build background knowledge about their worlds and to be able to think more deeply and more critically.

You have your own blog, called Iserotope. Where did that come from? And can you tell us what your blog feature "Teacher Voices" is all about?

I started my own blog a few years back when I was a teacher and wanted a place to catch my reflections about my work. It became a small community of like-minded, experienced teachers who shared best practices about teaching English in urban schools. Since then, it has also become a place to share ideas for integrating technology into the classroom, and most recently, to honor and promote the voices of teachers.

"Teacher Voices" is a new feature of my blog this year. Ever since leaving the classroom, I felt like something was missing from my blog. When I was a teacher, I would write quick reflections about my work. The posts described my successes and failures, my roller-coaster emotions, my incessant attempts to figure things out, and, from time to time, my minor epiphanies. The reason those posts were popular, I think, is that teacher voice is essential and illuminating. Teacher voice cuts deeply through the educational debate rhetoric that too often obfuscates what's really happening in our classrooms.

So I started "Teacher Voices" to feature and honor what teachers are doing, to offer them a place for their voice, their perspectives, to get their opinions and experiences out there -- even if it's on a small scale, like my blog. Too frequently, teachers are not asked what they think. And even when they are, it's sporadic.

Tell us about your Kindle Classroom Project.

Before coming to Envision, I taught at a charter school in San Francisco that was similar to (most) charter schools in that there wasn't a huge budget for books. But obviously I wanted my students to read independently, and voluminously, because we know that reading identity and reading skills come through reading a lot of text. But what I found was that it was impossible to fundraise enough money to get enough books, plus some reluctant readers didn't think reading physical books was cool.

One day, out of exasperation, I loaned my personal Kindle to a student who was a reluctant reader; he loved it. So I thought it might be a good idea to ask other people for their used digital reading devices and to see what would happen. For the first year, there were on five to eight devices, and I loaned them out. I noticed that really skilled readers liked the devices and so did really struggling readers, particularly boys. In particular, struggling readers liked the coolness of the tech, that you can make the text bigger, that you can look up words, that you can have text to speech, and that you can hide what you're reading.

And because I already had a blog, I started writing about this effort to put digital reading devices in students' hands. As time went by, more people found my little project, and more people donated.? I recently received my 200th donated Kindle, which is great. We have over 1,200 students enrolled in three high schools, so the demand is still very much there.

I think the Kindle project increases reading interest and skills in many ways. First, students have 500 plus, high-interest books to choose from. These are not boring books. When students request a book, I buy it, and then it's available to everyone. This obviously can't happen with physical books because there is only one copy of a physical book at a time. Students who are re-emerging readers don't have the consistent habit or interest to read, and that has to be built, so being loaned a reading device means that an entire library is in their backpack at all times.

They don't have to worry about stepping foot in a public library or dealing with old fines, or being talked-to by a librarian. They don't have to check anything out. They don't have to get a library card, or return a book, or take care of it, or worry about losing it. All they have to do is keep their reading devices nice and safe. When they want a new book, they just type it in, and it's either on the Kindle, which means they can download it immediately, or they send me an email, and I buy the title and deliver it to them.

As far as increasing reading skills, my most recent "scientific" study came two years ago when I compared reading gains at our school in Oakland, Envision Academy.  Students with digital reading devices increased their reading skills an entire grade level more than students who did not use a digital device. 

Right now, my goal is to acquire 300 devices so that all our schools can offer them to every single student in one grade level. My bigger idea is that in the future, students would receive a device in ninth grade that they could keep, at least for the duration of their high school career, and perhaps permanently.

You can read more about Mark's Kindle Project on his blog website, Iserotope.

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Karen H.W's picture

In addition to subbing K-12 I also tutor reading. I've debated whether to use devices during my sessions instead of books that I have checked out of the library. I have a 7th grade boy who is struggling with reading comprehension. I meet with him once a week at the San Leandro Main Library where he is surrounded by silent readers and hundreds of books. Am I being " old school" in believing that being surrounded by readers as an incentive trumps the advantages that gadgetry can bring.? I'm willing to find out for myself. Using the Kindle Project as a model .

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

The kids were basically voting with the mouse, and they were voting for digital. I realized that this is the medium for their generation. It's the medium of the future. I have noticed as a teacher that digital reading products can personalize learning for struggling students and help interest young readers in nonfiction books, an excellent form of personalized learning because students have their own choice of content and access to a library of thousands of books anytime, anywhere. In my class boys are reading more than ever. From the science of basketball to the workings of the human body, young boys have been choosing nonfiction books that spark their interest.

Beverly Choltco-Devlin's picture

Your bashing of libraries and librarians is completely uncalled for, unprofessional, and exhibits an unfounded bias based on decades old stereotypes. School librarians ARE teachers (and your colleagues!-would you say the same about the science classroom or teacher? ) and public librarians play an extremely important role in developing readers, establishing a lifelong love a reading and helping students with reader's advisory. In fact we are trained to do just that. You do a huge disservice to students by dissing libraries and librarians. In fact, in most schools and public libraries, librarians ARE the access point for teaching people how to download e-books and select materials of interest to all patrons. School librarians TEACH information literacy and often provide a safe haven where students can ask about topics they may be afraid to ask their parents or how to evaluate what they find on the web. In addition today's libraries provide a center and safe haven for many students. I would suggest you check your biases and stereotypes at the door before posting such patent untruths and actually visit a dynamic school or public library.

Ayyoub's picture

Dear Mark Isero; I'm not sure when was the last time you visited a library but your comments about libraries and librarians are just false and offensive.
Your students can benefit a lot more from their public libraries than you may think. While-readers are great and perhaps the future as you describe it, there is still place for everything and remember they are just a tool to access knowledge.

Amy Young-Buckler's picture
Amy Young-Buckler
Librarian, Meade Heights ES, Anne Arundel County Public Schools

"They don't have to worry about stepping foot in a public library or dealing with old fines, or being talked-to by a librarian. They don't have to check anything out. They don't have to get a library card, or return a book, or take care of it, or worry about losing it."
As a librarian in public schools for the past 18 years, I don't appreciate this bashing of the valuable role that a librarian plays in a school. Libraries give students access to a fuller world than a device. Not all books are available in electronic format. Depending upon the device, they also don't get to see all of the great features that traditional text can provide - illustrations, photographs, design choices that make some books great. I would rather have a student lose a $12 dollar book than a $200 device.

Mark Isero's picture

I am sorry for my comments about librarians and should have chosen my words more carefully. In fact, I value librarians very much and appreciate their role in promoting independent reading.

Here is what I meant to say: My students -- from a few schools in the Bay Area, nearly all of them African American and Latino, nearly all of them the first in their families to go to college -- have told me over and over again that they do not feel comfortable in most libraries. They have felt judged. They have felt fear. They have felt unwelcome. Many libraries, my students have told me, are white spaces for white people.

Therefore, there is a gap between the hard work that librarians do and the lived experiences of some teenagers of color. My ill-chosen words have widened that gap, and for that I apologize. There is more work to do to bridge the divide, and I look forward to contributing to that effort.

Peter's picture

Mark, thank you for this valuable work that you're doing to get kids to read more!! As an urban educator for the past 13 years, I have also heard from my students about how library space is perceived. That is a perspective that is real and while it's also important to shift that narrative, this conversation shouldn't create an issue that really isn't there. Bashing is done deliberately and with ill-will, which is definitely not what is happening here. It's obvious from your Kindle project and the impact that it has had, you have tremendous passion for reading. Thank you for your work and keep it up.

Michele's picture

I thought your words were great.

I am a school librarian at a school with predominately Black and Latino kids. I check books out, ask kids to return books, charge fines when they lose books, check in with kids about what kinds of books they like - things librarians do. Some kids avoid seeing me by staying away from the library. That bums me out, because I think I'm pretty nice and I would enjoy talking to me if I were them. But some of them stay away, for whatever reason.

I don't read your description as vilifying librarians. Not at all! I read your description as understanding that, for some students, there are hurdles to walking into certain institutions that some of us (maybe white folks?) just can not understand. Institutions have always served me well; I'm 100% comfortable walking into a library and asking for help, or looking for a book I need, or looking for something new that might pique my interest. I know how to communicate with people who work at libraries, I have strong reading skills, and I have enough money to pay for something if I lose it or damage it. Other institutions have served me well, too: when I've had to walk into a police station, I've been treated with the respect; when I have attended public school, my administrators and teachers made it clear that they were there for my success.

Your work is helping get young people reap the benefits of reading, without having to clear some hurdles I've never experienced. I'm grateful that someone is looking out for those kids who don't make it to the library. You keep doing your work and I'll keep doing mine, we can continue to help spread the joys of reading.

Beverly Choltco-Devlin's picture

Thank you, Mark, for your reply. I understand that perhaps in your specific situation students may feel uncomfortable in a specific library, but their perceived treatment is an issue for that library and the correlation should not be drawn, as was done here, that all libraries are like that. I am the manager of the Main Library of the Tacoma Public Library in Washington. It is an urban library and we are very welcoming to people of all ages and ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. To paint all libraries with such a broad stroke is actually doing exactly what you are chastising libraries for doing. If a library is not welcoming to everyone, that specific library is not doing its job. I encourage those students to contact the library manager and the library board of the specific library. I encourage you to seek examples of how the majority of public and school libraries are having a positive impact on young people regardless of background. There are countless examples. You can start by checking out our StoryLab at the Tacoma Public Library on YouTube. Here is a link to our website and our YouTube channel. (Scroll down on the website page) and I do understand how easy it is though to make inferences based on local situations and project those as being universal.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Mark, thanks for the clarification. Growing up, I lived in walking distance of two public libraries, and they were both second homes to me. You've opened a window for me into the lives of your students.

I wonder if maybe the Kindles in your classroom can be a bridge to the libraries in your community. If your students learn to love books and learn to love learning, then they'll want to know about the tremendous resources available through their local library.

Folks interested in the future of libraries may find this post interesting:

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