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Marshall, MN – The 2016-17 school year has been a year of firsts for West Side Elementary, which serves about 350 third and fourth grade students in Marshall Public Schools. It’s the first year the school has been 1:1, and educators put those devices to good use by starting their first year with Big Universe. “We did a trial run of Big Universe last year,” explains Reading Specialist Elizabeth Ritter. “Our teachers really liked it, so from there we applied for a district grant to purchase it. One-hundred percent of teachers were using Big Universe at the start of the school year.”

Most of the teachers at West Side Elementary utilize Big Universe for yet another school first. “The majority of teachers are using Big Universe when students have the opportunity to read independently,” says Ms. Ritter. “Most of this independent reading takes place during the 40-Book Challenge.” Inspired by “The Book Whisperer” by Donalyn Miller, Ms. Ritter introduced the Challenge to students at the beginning of the year.

The anticipated outcome is for every student at West Side Elementary to read 40 books from different genres by the end of the school year. This benefits both students who are strong readers and those who are struggling. Children may be great readers, but might stick only within genres they’re comfortable with. The Challenge coaxes them out of that comfort zone. On the other hand, students who don’t love reading are given incentive to do so and are encouraged to explore genres until they find one they enjoy.

With its filtering tool, Big Universe makes it easy for students to sort through the digital library’s more than 10,000 eBooks to find books in specific genres that are at their reading level. A popular genre at West Side Elementary is biographies. Ms. Ritter says students enjoy accessing stories about modern figures who are of interest to them, such as professional wrestler John Cena and country superstar Carrie Underwood.

Big Universe usage data indicates that West Side Elementary is well on its way to achieving its 40-Book Challenge. (Students read an average of 4.67 eBooks per month.) In fact, some students have already surpassed it. “We’ve found that we’ve already had many students meet that goal, so now they’re on to the 80-Book Challenge,” says Ms. Ritter. At that point, students make reading selections from each of Big Universe’s book categories, and popular choices include sports and recreation and graphic novels.

eBooks also are used to facilitate guided reading in some classrooms, and Big Universe’s leveled text allows students of similar reading levels to access content simultaneously on their individual devices. Many teachers also utilize the Accelerated Reader quizzes that accompany some texts. West Side Elementary has a high minority population of 35 percent, and 18.7 percent receive EL services. Features like Spanish translation and animated listening help these students engage with and enjoy text.

This year of firsts has proven to be an exciting time for the students at West Side Elementary. Allowing students to access engaging content on a platform the digital generation is comfortable with, and combining that access with an incentive to read, has stimulated new interest in reading. “I have seen a huge increase in the number of students who are excited to and encouraged to read.” says Ms. Ritter.

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