“As a sitting principal, the calculus I used to decide which books we’d buy would go like this: If I’m gonna spend $8-$15 per copy, can I get 4-5 years of use out of this book?” explains Jason Singer, who founded KIPP Summit Academy and KIPP King Collegiate High School before co-founding Curriculet. “I read the same books in high school as my dad did, and as my students were largely reading. Huck Finn is a classic text and great writing, but it’s not particularly engaging to every kid today.”
That’s where Curriculet comes in. As Singer explains, the “vast majority of kids” “could take an incredibly complex gaming text like World of Warcraft and spend weeks mastering it, but if I gave them Huck Finn, they would give up on it in two seconds.” To Singer, “there has to be some mechanism in that game that keeps them persisting.” Through interactive “layers”--videos, quizzes, background information--embedded into texts, Curriculet aims to make reading more accessible to students, and easier for teachers to evaluate learning.
On September 29, the company officially moved beyond offering public domain content by partnering with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and HarperCollins to offer book rentals to teachers. Educators can now rent over 4,000 books on the Curriculet site for $0.99-$3.49 per copy, and teach it either with the existing Curriculet layer (800 of the books now have layers available) or by creating their own.
To Singer, Curriculet’s book rentals directly address the buying frustrations he faced as a principal, when the commitment to a certain set of physical books often overrode potential student interest. As Singer poses, “What if we changed that calculus altogether? What if it was never about what was in the book room, and any teacher could teach any book they wanted in a given year?”
By partnering with publishing houses, Curriculet is now able to offer copyrighted, non-textbook titles previously unavailable on the platform. And as Singer sees it, Curriculet offers publishers, who “don’t have the capacity to make books that they sell in schools particularly relevant from an educational publishing standpoint,” with “a way to make their entire library Common Core aligned and interactive overnight” through layers. He envisions Curriculet as a bridge between publishing houses, who provide the material, and educators, with layers developed by Curriculet’s teachers.
Singer attributes Curriculet’s ability to connect publishers and teachers to its rejection of the library pricing model. Traditionally, libraries own a certain number of copies of a book, which it lends to a theoretically unlimited number of patrons. This remains true in many digital libraries, where administrators will purchase a yearlong license for a book with consecutive reads. Curriculet’s non-sharable, non-transferable model offers an alternative to both publishers and purchasers. Schools must purchase a copy for each individual student use, since data on student performance precludes sharing across accounts, benefiting publishers. And teachers can decide which book to teach without committing to using it for years to come.
As Singer sees it, the really exciting potential--”where the idea of book rentals fundamentally changes everything”--lies in replacing a school’s library with Curriculet books on-demand, a project currently being piloted at Summit Public Schools. “Students can select any book they want to read independently,” explains Singer. “We bill the school monthly for the number of rentals that their students took.”
Singer envisions this new library model as changing reading culture in schools. As he explains it, out of 2000 students at Summit, 1300 selected the same book over a two week period: Deadline. “Now you have this reading community in which 1300 of 2000 kids are reading the same book,” he says. Under the traditional library model, in which a school buys based on an estimate of how many students may read a book over a long period of time, “no school would ever buy 1300 copies of any book.”
All 1300 copies of Deadline requested by Summit students were pre-embedded with the same Curriculet layer, enabling teachers to track student comprehension throughout the reading process, and providing interactive media to readers. But (so far) teachers cannot modify the layers for different levels, which poses a problem for measuring comprehension and increasing engagement: a second grader, a sixth grader, and an eleventh grader would likely have very different understandings of Deadline.
And, of course, a school library in which every book comes with Curriculet quizzes and videos embedded prevents the immersive, escapist experience that has sparked a lifelong love of reading for many. (Jo March, Francie Nolan, Belle and Don Quixote are among the famous fictional examples.) By providing interactive activities and comprehension quizzes in all school library books--rendering them indistinguishable from classroom assigned texts--would Curriculet take away the joy of simple escape into stories?
Singer counters that although ideally, all students would love to read independently, the first step is to get most students reading at all. “The vast majority of kids coming out of school are reluctant readers,” he explains. “They’re giving up on books not because there aren’t great books out there for them, but because there’s no real assurance that they understand the text.” So while a Curriculet library might not provide an escape for Matilda from the Wormwoods, it would provide many a young reader with her story.