Last spring, Andrea Santilli, a science teacher at Woodlawn Beach Middle School in Gulf Breeze, Florida, published a class-created book in Apple’s iBookstore. It was a nature field guide of northwestern Florida, titled “Creatures, Plants, and More!” An article in Mac Life magazine, “Superstar 7th Graders Publish Their Own eBook to the iBookstore,” detailed her experience. Santilli stated that she “wanted to find a new way to challenge her seventh-grade Advanced Life Science students.”  So she assigned a topic to each student who wrote a page of the book.

Santilli’s students took control of their own learning and accomplished something together. Inspired by her project, I decided that a class-created book would be an engaging way to deliver social studies content. Our book would be a virtual field trip to the original 13 colonies and it would be written by one of my seventh-grade classes. The target audience would be students in the elementary school.

What technology is needed?

In late 2011, Apple released iBooks Author, a tool to democratize the creation of self-published, multi-touch electronic books. iBooks Author, a free application (“app”) available exclusively from the Mac App Store, has the same look and feel as a simple word processor. The app, however, is quite robust. It allows users to create multi-touch electronic books, complete with embedded videos, slideshow galleries, and 3-D objects, by dragging and dropping objects into an assortment of pre-made templates.  

In addition to a student-centered activity, teacher-created textbooks seem like another obvious utilization of iBooks Author. Rather than rely on traditional textbooks, teachers could now create iPad-friendly textbooks of their own, tailored for their classroom needs. These books could contain built-in chapter assessments and individualized differentiation. And, at the same time, districts would save money in textbook purchases.

To register as an Apple third-party developer of free content, simply link an existing iTunes account to iTunes Connect. Only one iPad and Mac are required to create an iBook. Student text and images can be done on any platform, such as Windows, and then pasted into iBooks Author using a flash drive.  An iPad is needed to preview working versions of a multi-touch book. iBooks Author, a free Mac-only app is required, as is iTunes Producer, also a free download.  iBooks Author is template-driven; student work can be easily dragged and dropped into the application. Different widgets, such as slideshows, movie clips, and 3D images can be dragged and dropped into the iBooks Author template. Three-dimensional images are readily available from the Trimble 3D Warehouse (formerly Google Sketchup), while additional free widgets can be downloaded from Bookry.com, such as interactive slider puzzles and touch-activated fireworks.

Getting started

Since Apple asks for a single author or editor, I would be listed as editor, while students would receive credit on the chapters they authored. Parent permission slips were required to allow students to release their first and last names in the book. 

The Corns Visit the 13 Colonies eBookThe first problem my students faced was how to write an engaging story for an elementary school audience. Students brainstormed a narrative thread to hold the story together.  It was decided that historical fiction would be the best vehicle to grab the attention of the youngsters. A small group volunteered to create the overall concept, in this case three magical, time-traveling unicorns. Their names were Damitria the Unicorn, Henrietta the Hippocorn, and Willamina the Shnoopacorn. Each student group would be assigned a colony to tell the “Corns’” adventurous tale. The book’s title became, “The Corns Visit the 13 Colonies.”

Each student worked with a partner to research information, gather copyright-friendly pictures, and create glossary terms about their assigned topic. A variety of text and online sources were researched for factual information. Students were taught about how copyright law worked, as well. Creative Commons copyright and end-of-book citations were discussed. Pictures were downloaded from Pics4Learning.com, a repository of copyright-free, education-friendly photographs. Students also created original artwork for the lead characters. A free, iPad app was used to scan their drawings and add them to the iBook Author’s gallery widget.

A typical class period would vacillate between small group and whole class instruction. At times, the class worked like a magazine, with different specialized departments. This was because some decisions had to be made organically as a class, such as the time of year the story took place or chapter transitions.

This project was cross-curricular. social studies standards, such as history and geography, were met throughout the unit. Language arts literacy standards were met as the class addressed the story’s narrative point of view and setting. Students were heard debating what could be considered age-appropriate vocabulary. Students were also tasked with creating an interactive, age-appropriate glossary that would challenge, but not intimidate, their intended audience. The class even honed their economic and business skills in deciding a title that would be easily searchable. In fact, there are only four books in the iBookstore with the phrase “13 Colonies,” including Joy Hakim’s acclaimed History of US textbook volume, Making 13 Colonies. Mathematics standards were later addressed as daily downloads were analyzed on iTunes Connect’s “Sales and Trends” bar chart.

Once the book was completed, it was submitted for review to Apple via iTunes Producer app. The first upload was put on hold due to trademark concerns. The word “iBook,” on the dedication page describing the project, was a violation of Apple’s trademark guidelines. The word “iBooks” is the mobile application to view an electronic book (“ebook”). Even the word “iBookstore” is trademarked. The correction was simple and lead to teachable moment discussion about trademark law. The authentic learning process became just that. Finally, after a few more tweaks, on Dec. 5, 2012, the book was finally available in the iBookstore. The occasion was marked by a simple email from Apple. “The Corns Visit the 13 Colonies” is currently available as a free iPad download at: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/corns-visit-13-colonies/id583368930?mt=11.

Lessons in marketing and motivation

Book promotion was primarily done through word of mouth, email, and via my personal learning network (PLN), including Twitter (@MatthewFarber) and Blogger (mrfarbersroom.blogspot.com). The book was made available in 50 countries and was sold in five continents: South America (Chile), Europe (the UK, Germany, Denmark, Romania), Asia (Singapore), and Australia, and, of course, North America. A boost in downloads came from a mention in Richard Byrne’s widely-read blog, Free Technology for Teachers (www.freetech4teachers.com). Byrne learned about the class-created book from Twitter.

SurveyMonkey, a web-based survey tool, was used to aggregate feedback from the students. A Likert Scale was used to discern student opinions.

The students were mindful that they were teaching the content to a younger audience. Because of this, students took greater ownership in their learning. This was evident when survey results were disaggregated: 45.5 percent agreed, and 40.9 percent strongly agreed that they were more excited about contributing to the class eBook project than if we had a more “traditional” class project. Even more telling was that the students were motivated by the quality of the culminating activity, than by the grade they would earn. When asked if their contribution to the class eBook would be better because they knew it was intended to be published in the iBookstore, over 90 percent of the class either agreed or strongly agreed.  In fact, over 85 percent of the class reported that their work was better due to the intended audience of the book.

Authentic learning is typically the anchor of a project-based learning (PBL) unit. PBL units are popular in today’s schools due to the fact that they are student-centered and that the learning dynamic emulates the settings in the world. In a PBL unit, students are presented with a real-world scenario and must work together to create a solution. It was interesting moving past “authentic learning" to actually getting something published.  This project was, and still is – book downloads are tracked on iTunes Connect each day--an enriching process. User-generated comments and reviews on iTunes also provide consumer feedback. There is class interest in doing a follow-up book, or even a series. An interactive quiz may be included in a future app update.

I recommend having your class create an e-book. It was a great experience for my students and for me!

Matthew Farber is a social studies teacher at Valleyview Middle School in Denville. He has earned a master’s degree in educational technology from New Jersey City University where he works as an adjunct professor of educational technology. Farber, who serves as a board member of the New Jersey Council for the Social Studies, can be reached at mfarber@denville.org.