Education Week - November 9, 2016 - 22
Startup Aims to Customize
Classroom Book Selections
> By Brenda Iasevoli
fter 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 On top of it, she has outdated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 questionaire 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 allvolunteer team of teachers and librarians. The company
buys the books through wholesalers to cut costs.
| Education Week * November 9, 2016
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."
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'.
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."