This year, Culler Middle School sixth-graders will peer into the world of volcanoes through the words of a researcher and photographer who describes hovering over lava lakes in a helicopter and running through clouds of scalding steam.

That world -- a real one described in Donna O’Meara’s nonfiction “Into the Volcano” -- will become standard reading for all Lincoln Public Schools sixth-graders next year as part of a new $3.1 million language arts curriculum the Lincoln Board of Education approved this week.

Piloted in more than 60 classrooms beginning this fall, the new K-6 curriculum not only places a larger emphasis on nonfiction, but allows LPS to make its way into the digital world, one step at a time.

That means Culler students can read about O’Meara’s real-life adventures in a traditional text or on a computer or iPad. They can take notes online, play games or complete exercises related to the day’s lesson, even do homework online -- at least in theory.

Although the district's schools have mobile laptop labs that classrooms share, as well as computers in media centers, many fewer have iPads. That means, at least initially, many of the benefits of the digital component of the new curriculum will be for teachers, as well as large- and small-group instruction.

Teachers can organize lessons online, tailoring them to their preferences and students’ needs. They can project digital materials online, give online assessments -- and get immediate results. And they can collaborate with each other online.

Jane Stavem, LPS associate superintendent for instruction, said because the new curriculum has both digital and print resources, it will allow the district to figure out how to accommodate an online curriculum while still having traditional fare at hand.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” she said. “Overall, we’re really excited about this, because it helps us move forward in multiple directions.”

This is the first time in 11 years the district has changed the elementary curriculum, a step necessary not only because the books are out of print but because the district wants to align its instruction with the national common core standards and make it more challenging for students, Stavem said.

Nebraska is one of just a few states that have not signed on to the voluntary, national common core standards, but many districts -- as well as the state as a whole -- have been designing instruction and standards that follow them closely.

The curriculum's emphasis on nonfiction follows research showing students need to read more of it, said Karen Saunders, LPS language arts curriculum coordinator. It also has more difficult reading assignments. 

The first semester of this school year, Saunders said, students struggled some with the tougher material but are doing well as the year progresses. And students have said they like the nonfiction books, she said.

The new curriculum also will allow LPS to move toward more comprehensive digital classrooms, training teachers as they go and making sure the digital resources are compatible with existing materials and systems at LPS, Stavem said.

“This helps us to begin to think in new ways,” she told the school board Tuesday.

The digital materials can be updated during the six-year contract with McCraw-Hill Publishing Co.

Saunders said LPS got a good deal on the new curriculum, in part because it agreed to pilot the reading series while the publisher still was developing it.

Eleven years, ago, the district paid $2.6 million for the current reading curriculum, she said. Because the district now has 6,000 more students in grades K-6, that means the new one costs nearly $20 less per student.

To use the new curriculum, all teachers will need a document camera and projector, Saunders said. About 90 percent of classrooms already have such equipment, and schools will either buy what they need through their technology budgets or work with PTOs to buy additional technology.

And as LPS moves forward, Stavem said, digital instruction needs will drive the district's technology purchases.

The new curriculum, she said, allows LPS to move forward slowly into a new platform with which all the major textbook companies are wrestling.

“That’s what is nice about this,” Stavem said. “It wasn’t an all-or-nothing decision.”

Reach Margaret Reist at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com