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Why Kindles in addition to physical books

13 Stack of Kindles
This is how many Kindles there were two years ago. There are more now.

favicon Tonight I’m registering and charging Kindles and getting them ready for students next week. It’s a methodical process.

It gets me reflecting about why I started the Kindle Classroom Project in the first place—and why it should continue.

You see, I’m not against physical books, and by no means do I make a categorical claim that Kindles do a better job of promoting reading. Though Kindles do offer some benefits over physical books—text-to-speech, variable type size, a built-in dictionary—I am not certain those features outweigh the tactile comfort of physical books. You can’t exactly curl up with a Kindle. A physical book is an object in the world, after all, and some young readers say they like to a feel a book’s heft, to flip its pages, to follow their progress by noticing pages move from their right to left hand.

But here’s something that’s also true: Most students who like physical books are already readers. They have a good relationship with reading. They have come in contact with many physical books, whether at home or in a bookstore or a library.

I want all students to read, but my main interest is with adolescents who struggle with reading or say they hate it. With those students, I’ve found that Kindles entice them. Particularly with Latino boys who read several years below grade level, Kindles are intriguing. The tech level is low, and the Kindles are clunky, but there’s something magical that happens when you hold a 501-book library in your hands.

Maybe it’s this: With a physical book, you hold the depth of one story. With a Kindle, you hold the breadth of many.

Besides the magic, there’s the economics. No matter how much we like physical books, we’re not seeing very many of them in urban public schools. School libraries are scanty, and librarians are sparse. It’s expensive to buy, circulate, and keep track of physical books, and for a number of reasons, few public urban districts (except San Francisco, a beacon) are funding school libraries.

Kindles are cheaper than physical books. Let’s do a math problem, sound good?

Say you have 162 students and you want them to be reading all the time. You have 501 physical books in your classroom library, but some titles are more popular than others, so just to be sure, you purchase six copies of each book. What’s your investment?

Hmm, um, 501 titles x 6 copies each x $10 each = $30,060.

OK, now let’s do the same thing with Kindles. The education rate for a basic Kindle (if you don’t get them donated, like I do) is $49. And Amazon lets six people read a book at the same time. Therefore:

(162 students x $49 per Kindle) + (501 titles x $10 each) = $12,948.

That’s a considerable savings. But let’s say that you want to buy one physical copy of each title so that students can browse the shelves before reading a book on their Kindle:

$12,948 + (501 physical books x $10 each) = $17,958.

Still a big savings, right? Now, the kicker: The physical books move around—from student to student, home to home, backpack to backpack, whereas the Kindles pretty much stay still. You know where I’m going with this, right? The amount of loss and damage of physical books in urban schools is, well, staggering. Though I don’t have any hard data, I’d estimate that a 3,000-book library with 162 students would incur a $500 – $700 loss each year. That means buying back books instead of broadening your collection.

Sure, Kindles break, too, but not that often. Last year, 5 broke—certainly not ideal, but about $250 to replace, much less than $500.

So I think it’s safe to say that Kindles offer a significant cost benefit over physical books. But perhaps even more important, they provide students more immediate access to books.

When a student finishes a physical book, she needs to return it, check it back in, look for a new book, see if it’s available, and check it out. This process seems easy but involves several people, including maybe the teacher or a student librarian. There is a lot of signing in and signing out, a lot of potential for mistakes, and a possibility that students will check out a book without going through the process. I haven’t met a teacher who enjoys keeping track of circulation.

With Kindles, there’s none of that headache. When a student finishes a book, she looks for another one, clicks on it, and begins reading. Easy as pie. Fewer moving parts, fewer chances for mess-ups. And, ultimately, more chances to keep reading.

All of this is to say that I’m happy that the Kindle Classroom Project exists and is going strong. The program promotes reading, especially for students who may not like reading otherwise, and it does so in a cost-mindful way.

My favorite part is that regular people across the country seem to agree. The Kindles keep coming in, and I keep registering them and charging them and getting them ready for students. favicon

Please share your brilliant insights!