Students' Prayers Answered: No Books

A new school near Tucson, Ariz., uses no textbooks. However, each student gets a laptop computer. Robert Siegel talks to Jeremy Gypton, history teacher and curriculum planner at Empire High School.


In Vail, Arizona, outside Tucson, a new school with a new idea: no textbooks. Instead, every student at Empire High School, all 330 of them, has a loaner laptop for the year. What other students might read in books, Empire students will read on their laptops. Jeremy Gypton teaches history at Empire High and was involved in planning the curriculum for this school where the first semester began in late July.

Mr. Gypton, tell us about an assignment that you've already given that might otherwise have involved a textbook, but in this case involves a computer.

Mr. JEREMY GYPTON (History Teacher, Empire High School): Well, with history, I try to use as many primary source documents as possible. I actually just recently had my students studying--my American history students studying the French and Indian War and its impact. And so I actually had them reading parts of the Proclamation of 1763, which is a very key document from that time period. And that sort of document is just not available in a traditional textbook. I would have had to say, `Go online or go to a library and find a copy,' whereas with the laptops and with the resource they're using, they have immediate access to it.

SIEGEL: What's the point here? Is it to get to primary sources? It is to use a medium that youngsters today are more familiar with? How do you describe what you're doing?

Mr. GYPTON: When it comes to our--I guess our reasoning, these are students who've grown up with a computer, with the Internet as kind of organic to their environment. It's not an add-on like it was to me. And this is normal for them. And so limiting them by, like I said, the traditional maybe thousand-page textbook, is, from their perspective, I think, a little bit abnormal because they're used to being able to reach out and view one topic from 20 different angles as opposed to just the one angle that a textbook would present.

SIEGEL: Is there, though, enough material, either on disc or online, to supplant an entire high school education's worth of textbooks? Can you find in an orderly way some presentation of exactly what happened during the French and Indian War, say?

Mr. GYPTON: And that's a great question because a lot of people, when they hear what we're doing here is they think that we're using just search engines like Google or Yahoo! or something like that, and that's absolutely not the case. In my content area, in the social studies, we actually have a subscription Web service called ABC-CLIO, and they have digitized all their resource material into a very, very easy-to-use, extraordinarily comprehensive series of Web sites. I have one Web site with one portal for ancient world history, one for modern, which is just 1500 to present, and one for just American. So depending on what class a student is taking or where in history we are, they would log into that portal. It has a very, very powerful search function that allows me to direct them to specific documents or essays on specific topics, pictures, maps, audio, video, you name it.

SIEGEL: We're sort of assuming here that high school freshmen all know how to work a laptop. Do they?

Mr. GYPTON: You know, they don't. The idea that, `Well, these kids, you know, they love the Internet. They live on the Internet. They use chat rooms. They use, you know, iPods and all this stuff,' that means transferrable skills. And Xbox does not mean Microsoft Word. I'll be completely honest that my students were coming in less skilled in what I would call useful computer skills than I had expected them to be, however, I mean, the learning curve's been steep, but they've been good.

SIEGEL: Jeremy Gypton, history teacher at Empire High School in Vail, Arizona, where the students don't use textbooks, just laptops.

Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. GYPTON: Thanks so much for your time.

SIEGEL: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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