Cary, NC – Throughout the Wake County Public School District students are reading — in class, in the library, during reading camp, and even at home. “Our goal is to get more books into the hands of students,” shares Sherri Miller, Director, K-12 Literacy. But when you walk through Wake County’s elementary schools you may not see children with books in their hands. Instead, you’ll see them in computer labs or reading on iPads, laptops, and even smartphones. That’s because since 2014 Wake County has relied on the Big Universe digital literacy solution to expand access to quality nonfiction and fiction text to all students and teachers. As a Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools district, Wake County is a pioneer of innovative learning and leadership practices, including the use of eBooks.
Back in 2014, the district was looking for a cost effective digital library specifically to support their Read to Achieve reading camp. In 2012, North Carolina passed the Excellent Public Schools Act that includes a provision called Read to Achieve. A key component is ensuring students who are not reading at grade level by the end of third grade receive additional instructional support, including summer reading camp and other interventions, to make sure they can read well enough to be move on to fourth grade. An Instructional Technology Coordinator with the district, Jean Monroe, discovered Big Universe and recommended it for use with the reading camp curriculum.
According to Tonia Parrish, the Read to Achieve Coordinator, Big Universe’s 10,000+ leveled eBooks complement and support the reading camp curriculum. Teachers project books using an overhead projector or whiteboard for whole class instruction and also encourage students to search for books they want to read on their own. “It’s exciting to watch a classroom of kids type in a keyword and have a choice of what to read – yet know that they’re getting the type of content we want them to in order to build their reading skills,” observes Ms. Parrish. “It’s amazing to see the students dive into the text and talk about it with each other. And when students have a question about an animal they’re studying in reading camp, they immediately turn to Big Universe to find answers.” Ms. Parrish also loves that “kids are reading for pleasure. Big Universe is helping our struggling readers enjoy the learning process and improve their reading skills. There is content for every interest and every reading level.”
“Big Universe was a big success with reading camp right from the start,” says Ms. Miller. The platform is easy for teachers and students to use — the only training teachers needed to get started was a short how-to webinar — and the content correlates to standards. “The feedback was so positive after the first year that we decided to continue the funding for Big Universe and began making plans to expand access beyond reading camp students.”
Quality Content for Every Subject and Every Learner
Currently, Big Universe is in use in all of Wake County’s 112 elementary schools. District curriculum specialists like Elementary ELA Content Specialist Shawn Johnson embed links to Big Universe content directly into C-MAPP, the district’s online curriculum management system. With just a click of a button, teachers and students can find books that correlate to specific standards and lessons. “Teachers appreciate the Big Universe resources the district recommends,” explains Kim Grant, Principal at Lynn Road Elementary School. “Most of our teachers are really proficient in using Big Universe so always dig deeper and find even more books than those included in the lesson plan.” Lynn Road teachers especially like the nonfiction-fiction pairs available in Big Universe and that they can easily differentiate learning with books on the same topic but at various reading levels.
Walter Harris, the district’s Coordinating Teacher for Elementary Science, also pairs Big Universe text with science standards. “In the past, I always recommended nonfiction titles to incorporate in lessons but that sent teachers on a wild goose chase to find books that often weren’t in their schools’ libraries, or their libraries didn’t have enough copies for a whole class. Now, I know every teacher and student has access to the books I include in the lessons.” Principal Che-Von Stone agrees. “At Cedar Fork Elementary, we are expanding the number texts we have, particularly nonfiction books. Big Universe has been a welcomed resource and provides great content for any topic students are studying.”
Educators in Wake County elementary schools are also finding that Big Universe is a very useful resource for their English Language Learners. “The read aloud books really help students expand their vocabulary,” says Principal Grant. “Plus, the read aloud books can fill a gap for students whose families aren’t able to read to them.” Big Universe also has more than 1,000 Spanish language books.
More Access to Books Means More Reading
Teachers across the district use Big Universe’s comprehensive reports to monitor how much students are reading. At Lynn Road Elementary, the school has a challenge to collectively read one million minutes by the end of the school year. Big Universe provides students with more books to read at home and has helped eliminate book deserts in many parts of Wake County. According to Principal Grant “teachers put books on students’ Big Universe bookshelves that meet their individual reading levels and interests but students can choose whatever they want to read from those selections. This gives the students voice and choice which has really increased the amount our students read.”
Cedar Fork Elementary students are required to read 20-30 minutes every night. Principal Stone makes sure parents and caregivers know that Big Universe is available for use at home. The school’s technology coordinator sends out usernames and passwords to families at the start of the school year and reminds them during information nights about all the books available to their children through Big Universe. Ms. Miller, district K-12 literacy director, finds it “really exciting that students can read a book anytime on any device. Big Universe has boosted independent reading throughout the district.”
Continuing to Innovate and Excel
District and school leaders as well as teachers in classrooms throughout the district have found Big Universe to be an invaluable resource. In the three years Principal Grant has been at Lynn Road Elementary the school has improved from a D to a C school and has set a goal of becoming a B school during the 2016-17 school year. “Exposure to the quality text Big Universe offers has helped our students make those academic gains.”
As teachers and students head into the second half of the 2016-17 school year, there are plans across the district to expand the use of Big Universe. Principal Grant is excited to get more teachers using the built-in writing tool while Mr. Johnson is getting creative with ways to use Big Universe to support Spanish-speaking students. “Big Universe has become part of the Wake County culture of reading,” says Ms. Miller. “We view them as a real partner in our success.”