Once upon a time, if Verona teachers were reading a book to kindergarteners about a snoring bear and a burping rabbit, they’d have to add the sound effects themselves. Now, thanks to a grant from the Verona Foundation for Educational Excellence (VFEE), a smartphone app will add those sound effects—and a whole lot more.
“It brings reading aloud completely to life,” says Elissa Freda, the media specialist at Forest and Laning Avenue elementary schools who won the grant. “It’s as if they’re watching a show instead of just hearing the story. It does much more than I can do with my voice.”
The technology is called Novel Effect and the $2,300 VFEE grant enabled Freda to buy a subscription that covers teachers at both Laning and Forest, and 110 books. (Freda bought those through Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, saying she always tries to support local merchants.) Teachers open the Novel Effect app on their phones to activate the technology, which can project the book onto a classroom whiteboard. The Novel Effect app also gives teachers access to hundreds of free digital books.
“I call it my ‘magic speaker’ and the kids love it,” Freda says. “I hook it up to Bluetooth and say, ‘we’re going to use the magic speaker for our story today’ and then the room falls silent because they want to hear those sound effects.” Thanks to the technology’s projection capabilities, students can sit further apart than they might have for reading sessions in the past, which can be helpful even as the number of COVID cases in the district fall.
Freda laughs when she recalls the first time she used Novel Effect, reading “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” to a class using a free trial plan. “They had no idea where the sound was even coming from,” she says. “The goblins were coming to life and they were like, ‘Did you hear that? I heard goblins. Did you hear goblins?’ ”
VFEE got to hear burps, snores and more when Freda submitted a video of Novel Effect in action as part of her grant application last December. “We thought it was pretty cool,” says Luigi Cappello, chairperson of the nonprofit, which has been funding grants to Verona teachers since 2006. “Reading is a big area of interest for us because it helps so much with student development.” Cappello notes that VFEE funded the “One District One Book” spring reading program for four years before it became a permanent part of the district’s budget.
Novel Effect is Freda’s third VFEE grant. The first, in 2019, was for Breakout EDU, which challenges students to work together to solve a series of challenges to unlock a locked box. The second was for Lightbox, which offers books in a digital format so that all students can read the same book at the same time even if they are not in a classroom. That technology, which is available in all four elementary schools, was used extensively during the pandemic when Verona students were learning remotely. Freda thinks it remains useful even now that students are back in classrooms because it can support them as they read books above their current reading skills.
Freda hopes to be able to do a Novel Effect demo for school parents soon, so they can see how the can spark interest in reading. “The kids have missed out on so much,” she says. “This was a way for me to bring some fun back into the classroom safely.”
(Photo: Novel Effect)