The students in Rob Mahoney’s sixth-grade history class at Melrose Veterans Memorial Middle School are learning about the past with the most modern of tools: Nook e-readers.
The Nooks were donated last year by the Victoria McLaughlin Foundation, and Mahoney uses them to teach his students how to read actively, annotating and highlighting the text—something they couldn’t do in a regular textbook. That active reading then carries over into class discussions and other activities.
The Nooks come pre-loaded with the novels My Brother Sam Is Dead and Jeff Shaara’s Rise to Rebellion, both of which are set during the American Revolution and the time leading up to it, as well as several other young adult books dealing with the Civil War and the Middle East. (There are no other books or apps on the Nooks, and the devices are locked so students can’t add their own.) Mahoney brings in primary sources in class to supplement the Nook material.
The students read a chapter of My Brother Sam Is Dead each evening and annotate and highlight it as they go. Then they develop discussion questions based on the material and split up into groups to discuss the material in class. “Each student has to have three discussion questions, and they have to back up their opinions with material from the Nook that they have highlighted,” Mahoney said.
The groups start out small, with just three members, and get bigger as students get more comfortable talking in front of a group, culminating in a full-class discussion in which every student participates. “Half the kids are in an inner circle, they are the players, and the other half are outside the circle acting as coaches,” Mahoney explained. “They debate about major events in the book. The coaches take notes about what the players are doing well, and we have a two-minute half time so they can get a pep talk from coach. The next day we switch the roles so each kid gets to do both.”
Students make use of the instant dictionary on the Nook, which allows them to look up words immediately; they are required to write down the definitions of five words per chapter using the Nook’s built-in dictionary.
The class also reads a few chapters of Rise to Rebellion and discusses the different genres of historical fiction. “It’s very much aligned with the Common Core standards of reading and writing and analyzing,” Mahoney said.
Mahoney gives the students some time at the beginning of class to familiarize themselves with the Nooks, learning how to bookmark a page, check the battery life, and use the built-in dictionary. “They would not otherwise be doing anything academic with a screen,” he said. “They might be reading, but they would not necessarily be taking notes or annotating. That’s the biggest advantage, becoming more comfortable with using a screen for more than looking up silly things on the internet.”
There is one other advantage, which is that some students find the Nook more appealing than a print book. As one of his students said of a different book, “It’s really boring—but if it was on the Nook, I would have liked it.”