One of the biggest headaches for Lincoln Southwest High School reading teacher Mindy Wright is students who regularly have their noses stuck in their cellphones and MP3 players rather than their books.
So Wright decided to embrace the enemy.
"I felt that they are so into those devices," she said. "What if we had reading devices?"
Wright, who facilitates the classes for Southwest students who don't read at grade level and have not passed their reading graduation demonstration exams, applied for a $5,000 grant from the National Education Association Foundation to buy 31 Nooks and 33 e-books. Students must pass the demonstration exam to graduate.
"We'd like to assume that by the time students are in ninth grade, they're reading at grade level," Wright said. "But that's just not the case."
Many of the students who take the reading classes are English Language Learners or in special education because they have some sort of learning disability. District officials like to keep the reading classes small, but because of budget issues, the Southwest English Department lost one full-time English teacher this year and class size increased from 15 to 20 students, Wright said.
Larger class sizes have increased the behavioral problems teachers face, including issues with cellphones and electronic music devices, she said.
"There were so many behavior concerns," Wright said. "I remember thinking to myself this is like herding cats."
The idea for e-readers came up at a teachers meeting, and Wright began to research the idea. She landed on the Barnes and Noble Nook because it allows access to the city library's e-books and offered more of the books in the curriculum.
Wright sees lots of potential advantages to the e-readers. For one thing, many of the students in the reading classes can't afford a lot of expensive technology, and the e-readers allow them to use new technology many of their peers don't have, she said.
Also, many of the students are tactile learners and need to keep their hands busy -- such as flipping electronic pages on the screen of a Nook. And a dictionary is part of the device, which will allow students to look up a word's meaning while they're reading and increase comprehension, Wright said.
The type size also is adjustable -- a boon to students who might be leery of wearing reading glasses in class.
There is little research on whether electronic books help struggling students, Wright said, but with the district's electronic grading system, it would be easy to track students to see if they improve. But Wright is optimistic.
"I can already think of great ways to utilize this to help these kids without them thinking I'm helping them," she said.
Electronic books also made an appearance in Park, Goodrich and Culler middle schools this semester, thanks to about $4,000 in Title I federal stimulus money.
Mary Reiman, Lincoln Public Schools director of media services, said district officials wanted to try all three brands of e-readers -- Nook, Kindle and iPads -- to see which works best.
"We're just testing the waters," Reiman said.
District officials decided to try the e-readers in middle schools because students in that age group who struggle to read often don't want to be seen holding books that are below their grade levels. With e-readers, nobody needs to know what students are reading, she said.
"We feel they might actually start where they should start in the beginning to work their way up to where they should be," she said.
Each of the three middle schools has about 10 of the devices. Some day, Reiman said, she expects all students will use some sort of electronic reader, but just what they will look like depends on how the technology advances.
"We know (e-readers) are the way of the world," she said. "The key is really what type of device do we need to buy?"