Startup Aims to Customize Classroom Book Selections

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After 22 years of teaching middle school in a Chicago suburb, Mindi Rench switched to an elementary school this year. So, in order to build a top-notch classroom library for her new class of 3rd graders, the self-proclaimed bibliophile found herself having to swap out her young-adult novels for picture books.

Rench sought book suggestions from fellow teachers. She raided used bookstores and asked friends and family for donations.

Then, from a friend's Facebook post, she read about an online book-subscription service and app called Readocity that aims to tailor books to children's interests or a teacher's particular needs. Rench signed up. Each month, she gets three brand-new books chosen by the company's reading coaches for $25 per month. (The subscription price has since been raised to $35.)

"You get reading experts helping you to figure out which books are good for your particular grade level, or which books will keep your particular students, with their wide range of interests, with their noses in a book," Rench said.

While it deals primarily in print books, Readocity presents yet another example of how digital technology is changing literacy instruction in schools.

The startup, which launched in mid-September and so far has about 60 subscribers, was co-founded by a product developer and a former high school English teacher with the goal of leveraging technology to help parents and teachers make more-customized book selections for students and classrooms and share information about students' reading progress and interests.

"Imagine a first-year teacher and everything she is up against," said Meenoo Rami, the former teacher who co-founded the company. "She is learning how to teach while juggling classroom management and navigating the systems of a school. On top of it, she has outdated books that don't reflect the diversity of her classroom or maybe she has no books at all. We want to help that teacher build her classroom library."

Teachers who sign up for Readocity fill out a questionnaire about reading needs and interests of their classes. Then, every month, they receive "a personalized bundle" of books selected by the company's curators, an all-volunteer team of teachers and librarians. The company buys the books through wholesalers to cut costs. Educators often think of technology as taking power away from teachers, said David Rose, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who specializes in new learning technologies. But programs like Readocity, he said, can make teachers more powerful.

"Interest-driven reading is a very powerful way to get kids to do a lot of reading," he said. "The key is to have kids reading high-interest texts at demanding levels that will build comprehension and vocabulary."

But Rose cautions against relying exclusively on services like Readocity. "Technology can get smarter and smarter about kids, but we also need kids to get smarter about themselves," he said. "We don't want computers or apps to drive student interest. Students need to know what they want and how to find it."

'Interest-Driven Reading'

To fill holes in her classroom library, Rench wanted lots of different types of books. And she wanted books representing diverse characters: ethnic and racial diversity, students with disabilities, and children from many different backgrounds.

She appreciated that, in the first shipment from Readocity, the company sent two picture books and one early-reader chapter book, demonstrating that Readocity understands her 3rd graders will be making a gradual change to more sophisticated books.

And the books in the two shipments Rench has received so far represent diversity in many senses of the term. There were books by diverse authors, including a Korean-American and an African-American. There were books of poetry and picture books featuring characters whose lives were different from her students'.

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Rench plans to let parents know about the Readocity app so book talks can continue at home. Parents who download the app get a notification when a book has been shared in class, and they are able to see the teacher's talking points.

The app also allows parents to share individual children's interests and grade levels and get book recommendations. Parents can then share with teachers what their children are reading at home.

"We know that accessibility to high-quality books has a direct correlation to improved reading ability," Rench said. "Anything we can do to further that process is a step in the right direction."

Vol. 36, Issue 12, Page 22

Published in Print: November 9, 2016, as Startup Aims to Customize Classroom Book Selections
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