Learning Poetry through Bob Dylan and the Beatles
By Sara Bernard
Students, schools, and homeschooling parents are on a perpetual hunt for high-quality, vetted, free (or cheap) educational materials.
Shmoop, a growing collection of study guides and teacher resources on everything from SAT prep to the Civil War, is attempting to fill that need. It’s mostly free of charge, with some nominal fees for test prep and a few other features.
“We’re horrified at how much money is often charged to schools for this kind of thing. We try to make it inexpensive,” said Ellen Siminoff, Shmoop’s president and CEO. And last year, she says, Shmoop offered their test-prep materials for free to ten disadvantaged school districts.
Shmoop isn’t crowdsourced — the company and its authors own the content; it’s not edited by its user community — but the site is still going through a beta phase, with all the requests and recommendations from users. Shmoop is funded primarily through advertising and small licensing fees, and all of the content is produced by PhDs, K-12 teachers, and other subject-area experts.
“The requirement is that it has to be great content and authors have to know the material,” says Siminoff, “but it has to be funny and interesting, too. You can’t just know Ulysses, you have to like Ulysses.”
I asked Siminoff a few questions about the Silicon Valley-based company and how it works. Shmoop’s mantra: If content producers love their subjects, students and teachers will, too.
Q: Why Shmoop? How did it start?
My husband and I were looking at educational resources online for our own kids. We became quite angry at what was on the Web. It was reductive, it talked down to kids. So much was about how to cheat. We wanted to build something that encouraged students to learn. Anyone who loves any subject loves it because their favorite teachers taught it to them — often, those were teachers who loved their subjects, too. We wanted to do that.
The site has been up for a little over two years, although we thought about it a lot before we put it up. We started out by building content related to literature. We wrote everything in a very colloquial tone. Students liked the approach and teachers liked it too, but it was librarians, actually, who were the first to use us.
Q. Who uses Shmoop now?
Mostly students, teachers, and parents. We have a big homeschool parent audience. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to teach a young child, but you often notice that you’ve forgotten what you used to know! We have a whole teacher area with teacher resources, too, that help make teaching the Civil War, civics, Hamlet, and so on, interactive and fun using the Web. We’ve put up some test prep areas, for SAT, AP, and ACT. We now have multiple million users per month. We’ve licensed a lot of material to entire school districts, such as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Q: What kind of content does Shmoop have? How is it growing?
I don’t sleep at night because of all the stuff we have to do! We started out with literature and then we expanded into poetry. I hated poetry until I read Shmoop poetry. I realized I didn’t understand poetry — that was my problem. One of the most fun sections for us was all the stuff we did related to music. One of the things we were talking about was who our favorite poets were, and Bob Dylan came up as one of our favorite poets. So we “Shmooped” All Along the Watchtower. We’ve since done Bruce Springsteen, Eminem, Kanye West, the Beatles. A lot of teachers say, “What a great way to open a poetry unit, to talk about music!”
We’re now expanding into math and science, too. We have Pre-Algebra and are going to put up AP Calculus in a month or so, and are working on a lot more in math and science. It’s feedback that drives us; everyone sends us notes and tells us what we’re missing. That’s why I put “beta” on the site — I never feel we’re done. What’s great about this platform is you never have to wait until the next publishing cycle to add something.
Q: Why do online materials like Shmoop work?
It’s our real belief that learning doesn’t have to be linear. [On Shmoop], you can bounce around, you don’t have to read something straight through. We guide you a little, but part of it is getting great epiphanies about something you didn’t know about. You can be reading Huck Finn and get curious about the Civil War; you can be reading a piece of poetry and wonder who Emily Dickinson really was. That’s the beauty of the Web. And even if we don’t have it on Shmoop, we link to it. We have a “Best of the Web” area, a whole photo area, and link to audio and video and a bunch of other things.