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Grand Junction, CO – Typically, if students start throwing pies at a teacher they’ll end up in detention pretty quickly. That wasn’t the case for 10 students at Independence Academy in Mesa County Valley School District 51 at the start of the 2016-17 school year. These students had each read 50 or more books during the school’s summer reading challenge. Their reward was a certificate of recognition and the opportunity to throw pies at the school’s librarian, Lacey Weber, and to see the principal throw one at Ms. Weber, too. “I’m notorious for a ‘go big or go home’ mentality,” says Ms. Weber. “The students were totally motivated by the challenge and the chance to toss a pie at me.”

Offering Incentives for Summer Reading

The summer reading challenge was conceived by Ms. Weber and principal Britni Westbrook as a way to encourage students to read more over the summer and to get them to start using a new digital literacy solution the school purchased just two weeks before summer break. “When we purchased Big Universe we were so excited that we suddenly had all of these books available for our kids,” shares Ms. Weber. “I didn’t want to wait until we started the new school year for students to start using it. We knew we had to come up with something really good to launch Big Universe to the school.” Pie throwing proved to be a big draw for the school’s K-8 students. The challenge had two components. First, students had to read 5,000 books in order for Ms. Westbrook to throw a pie at Ms. Weber. Additionally, those students who read 50 or more books each got to throw a pie at Ms. Weber. 354 students registered for the summer reading challenge. When teachers headed back to school at the end of the summer students were 700 books short of the goal so Ms. Weber sent out an update to encourage students to spend as much time as possible reading during their last remaining week of summer break. The students did just that, reading 1,200 books in just one week! By August 10 when school started back the total books read over the summer was an astounding 7,294!

Keeping Momentum Into the School Year

Thanks to the summer reading challenge Independence Academy students started the new school year with a lot of experience using Big Universe. Teachers were excited to use Big Universe’s 10,000+ leveled eBooks in their reading centers and as part of the curriculum. Fourth grade teachers created digital bookshelves full of fairy tales for their fall unit while second grade classes are using Big Universe books and hard copy books from the library to practice comparing and contrasting nonfiction. “Our fifth grade teachers are especially grateful for Big Universe,” explains Ms. Weber. “They’re preparing for the poetry unit but over the years students have already read most of the poetry books in our physical library so Big Universe is giving them lots of new material to use. That’s one of the best things about Big Universe. It really balances our collection. About 75% of our books are fiction. Big Universe is about 70% nonfiction so it’s the perfect complement.”

Between August and November 2016 the school’s students read 7,183 books. The primary users are K-5 students who each average 8.86 books per month. According to Ms. Weber, “during our choice days, 70% of students select to spend their time using Big Universe. The kids just love it. They love being able to choose what to read and really enjoy the real life photographs that so many of the books have.”

Independence Academy also has a pre-K program onsite. Ms. Weber is working with those teachers to use Big Universe’s animated eBooks in their whole group instruction. Across the school, teachers are using Big Universe in many ways from read-alouds and guided reading to individual reading. “We can have a whole grade or the whole school reading the same book thanks to Big Universe,” says Ms. Weber. “And teachers can easily find another book on the same topic at a different level for struggling readers so that all students can participate.”

Making an Impression

As a Charter School, Independence Academy has to set itself apart to attract parents and students to enroll. According to Ms. Weber, “Big Universe elevates us and makes us stand out from other schools in the valley.” In fact, a teacher at another school in Mesa County whose daughter attends Independence Academy told Ms. Weber that she is envious of that her daughter has Big Universe to learn with and she doesn’t have it to teach with at her school.

With half the school year still left to go, students are already asking Ms. Weber what this year’s summer reading challenge will be. “We definitely want to incorporate writing so we’re thinking that in addition to reading at least 20 books, students will have to write five book reports.” The reward for meeting the challenge has yet to be decided. Ms. Weber isn’t sure how to top the pie throwing. Maybe a dunking booth?

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