As the students write, instrumental music plays in the background. A digital projection of a roaring fire dances on a nearby wall.
When their work is finished, the students gather in a circle on a rug and exchange thoughts and opinions about what they’ve just learned. The students take turns debating among themselves about the lesson’s meaning with little interference or direction from their teacher.
Although this scene reflects what’s been typically happening inside most high schools and universities, this particular group of students aren’t teens or coffee-sipping college kids. They’re first-graders at Aquebogue Elementary School.
In Keri Stromski’s class Monday afternoon, the students were learning how to read using a program called Reading A-Z, or RAZ. It’s a program students in the Riverhead School District have used for about 10 years. But the district purchased a new, complementary program called RAZ Kids during the 2012-13 school year, and through the program the younger students can log onto the Internet for a system to read digital books at their own reading level — all in the comfort of their own homes. The system can also read stories aloud and administer quizzes. All the while, Ms. Stromski can monitor their progress remotely. She then supports the homework using RAZ-designed lesson plans in the classroom.
Ms. Stromski said she approached the school district’s administration about purchasing the program last year because she believes it gives students the confidence to read independently. Teachers can send their students encouraging messages and monitor their progress, such as finding out how many times they read a story, or had it read to them. She can track quiz scores, too.
What makes it enjoyable for the kids? For each task a student completes, they can also earn points and redeem them for virtual prizes, like collectible cartoon aliens and planets. Ms. Stromski said she believes the point-reward system plays a big part in encouraging students to complete their work.
And the more they practice, she said, the better readers they become.
But they’re not completely on their own, and Ms. Stromski clearly strives to set up that at-home feeling in her classroom, so the difference as to where home ends and school begins isn’t so stark.
“Grab your book, yellow highlighter and a pencil,” she told her class on Monday.
As she broke down the text for them on a Smartboard, the students then highlighted certain words they already understood and circled other words they didn’t know with a pencil in the books she prepared for them.
The goal for first graders is to be able to read chapter books by the end of the school year, she said.
Aquebogue Elementary School principal Phil Kent said he believes the new program also helps prepare students for the state’s rigorous new curriculum under the Common Core State Standards Initiative, because RAZ Kids encourages them to read more independently.
“Kids are able to get through more books, and teachers are able to track their progress,” he said. “RAZ Kids has shown students the spirit that they can do it.”
Riley Elementary School art teacher Melissa Haupt said her daughter, Olivia, was in Ms. Stromski’s class last year, and said she’s seen a significant improvement with Olivia’s reading skills since she enrolled in the new program.
“She was very excited to come home, log on, and have a book read to her,” Ms. Haupt said. “She wanted to make Ms. Stromski proud of her for what she was able to do.”
While there are a few kinks to work out, such as figuring a way for students to transfer points over to other classes, Ms. Stromski said she’s grateful to have the program in Riverhead.
Preparing lesson books involves a lot of photocopying and folding for Ms. Stromski, but she doesn’t mind.
The results are residual.
“I had students continue to read at their just-right level all summer long,” Ms. Stromski said. “This prevents the dreaded summer slide.”