Textbooks, Cont.

The creator of this fabulous, fact-filled super graphic on textbooks vs. e-books asked me to have a look at the chart about textbooks since I’ve weighed in on the subject previously. I’m not surprised by any of the statistics quoted.  I think the data reinforces the point I’ve been trying to make that textbooks and printed media are crucial learning tools the students and the teacher needs.

Through some public private partnerships, textbook makers need to create the type of books that have the assignments clearly written right in the books. The teacher should be able to modify the lessons, but the lessons should already by written out, I think. It’s not a matter of the federal government imposing some curriculum on the schools. That is not the way to see at all. It’s about ensuring that there is a solid curriculum in place, that is knowledge based, content rich and sequential, so that grades aren’t repeating the same topics year after year. We’ve gotten very disorganized with this move to do everything online. There are some great resources on the Web. PBS Teachers does incredible work integrating current events and lesson plans. That is an incredible and free resource. But even an excellent resource such as PBS can’t replace a literature anthology, a history book, or a science textbook.  It’s nonsense to assume we would have classrooms without them. I realize budgets are tight, but that is an absolute essential in my mind. There will be teachers who have a lot of their own activities they want to share with the class, but there needs to be a solid framework in place and I think the traditional textbook is the proper media toward that end.

E-Textbooks Infographic


Re-Inventing the Wheel

The re-inventing the wheel phenomenon just plagues our schools and no where is that more apparent than in the area of curriculum. When talking about what 2nd or 3rd grade students should study in school, as a parent, I want to be able to know there is a trusted core curriculum is in place. As a former teacher, I know this is hardly the case. My experience was that most veteran teachers had invented or assembled their own units and lesson plans and they varied wildly in terms of  meaningful substance. I wasn’t satisfied with the type of lessons my co-teachers came up with, nor was I satisfied with what I came up with on my own.

I contacted a curriculum company in the Bay Area, Teacher’s Curriculum Institute that make the History Alive! program and they gave me some of their old units which they were revising. Their materials were a godsend. The units came with well annotated slides and clearly written lesson plans which led us through interactive activities based on actual historical events. Their suggestions and supports made teaching a pleasure. With these good, time tested lesson plans I could soar as a teacher. Without them, I will admit, it was a continuous struggle.

Some teachers may appreciate the “freedom” of writing their own lessons and selecting their own reading materials, and do an excellent job of it, but I was always uneasy that there wasn’t more of a catechism of information, if you will, for me to teach. I hope it isn’t the case that our individualized culture has made it impossible for us to agree on a clear body of knowledge for our kids to master.

The Common Core really is a noble undertaking in that it establishes a common standard. Many of the standards identify things that good classrooms are already accomplishing. One thing that may sound like a departure from the traditional language arts class is the inclusion of “informational text.”  It might sound off-puttingly technical, but it really just means articles about the real world, such as current events.

I can’t think of a better source of real world information than a local or national newspaper. I’d love to see stacks of papers in middle school and high school classrooms, or an online version, if that is preferred. The quality of the writing provides a great model for students and the articles will be full of specifics the students can research and investigate. If there is an unfamiliar word, then that is something students can search online, building that important base of knowledge.In one classroom I worked in, we received a stack of newspapers every day. My students, high school drop-outs returning to finish credits and earn their diplomas, loved reading about local issues and national issues. These things were relevant and meaningful to them.

Scholastic News magazines are another excellent source of “informational text.”   Scholastic does a great job with their news  magazines. They also produce magazines about science  and art and civics. These magazines are perfect for students and they perfectly meet that “informational text” requirement. The magazines give the students something specific to do. There are questions for them to answer and for the class to discuss.

Rather than have each teacher individually search the web for interesting articles and come up with their own activities around those materials, some of which may not fit in with any recognized course of study, I’d wish they’d have a class set of Scholastic news magazines, a local or national paper, with well-developed, well-designed lesson plans attached to them, available to every teacher. Those lesson plans should be flexible and adaptable but they really ought to be in place, at least as a reference, for teachers, students and parents to use.

The Common Core

An editorial in the New York Times this morning advocates that states move forward with implementing the Common Core learning standards.  A majority of states have already adopted these standards, which is a surprising and welcome development in our overly-politicized, polarized educational climate. It’s good to see that the states can come together and agree on some common goals.

The Common Core does accomplish something great. It specifies the important skills that we all want our students to develop so that they are prepared for college level work. Students need to be able to analyze text in greater depth and to write about complex issues by citing sources, evaluating evidence and making and refuting arguments. The Common Core asks students to do all that and more, and we should all applaud these new, rigorous standards.

What the Common Core is missing, though, is a clear outline of course *content* for any grade or subject. The middle school social studies standards, for example, list no dates, no countries, no specific events or developments in the history of civilization. There is nothing like the “Table of Contents” you would find in a traditional textbook anywhere in the Common Core. Individual states and districts, schools and teachers are left to determine course content on their own. Without a common syllabus, a grade-by-grade list of specific concepts, or anything in the way of a common base of knowledge,  it is hard to see how the Common Core fulfills the promise of its name.

It is confounding that our current discussion around educational issues seems to conflate two very different  words- “curriculum” and “standards.” They are often used interchangeably, as they are in the New York Times editorial, but they aren’t exactly the same thing and we should be clear about the difference. “Standards” refer to the quality of the students’ work in those subjects. “Curriculum” is the actual course content and learning materials and activities around that content. The Common Core does a terrific job outlining “standards” but does not offer anything in the way of “curriculum.”  That is a *huge* missing piece that schools will have to fill in for themselves.

Dance, Dance, Revolution

One of my favorite memories from teaching  middle school was seeing my 7th grade class perform in a swing dance competition. I was blown away.  These little, punky kids, who gave me such a hard time in our language arts class, turned out to be incredible dancers. They could lift each other up and swing each other from side to side and upside down. These young teens, with their heaving, awkward bodies which could barely fit into their little desks in my class were suddenly channeling all their physical and mental energy in this really positive, productive way.  I admire the P.E. teacher who was able to teach the kids so well. Great things are possible, she showed, even with 7th graders, when you have a clear goal, good instruction, and lots of practice.

When I was a student in high school, we were lucky to have an dynamo of a theater director who produced  big musicals, every year, with big casts and lots of choreographed partner dancing.  For the musical, Anything Goes! we did a big tap dance number, in unison, on an elaborate, multi-leveled set. Actors, dancers, stage crew, and orchestra all played their part in putting together the spectacular show. Feeling the stage vibrate with our pounding feet was something I’ll never forget.  (I don’t know how well the audience liked it, but for the performers it was a transcendent experience.)

I still have anxiety dreams that I’ve forgotten the steps, or a line, or my costume; those early theater experiences lodged themselves deep into my developing consciousness, it seems. It was scary to perform in front of a big audience and there was lots of anxiety about whether we would be able to pull off the feat. But we did pull it off, mostly because of the heroic efforts of our director, but also because we kids rose to the occasion and stretched our capabilities as far as we could,  and accomplished what seemed at moments all but impossible.

For some kids, music and/or dance might be the one thing they really love that keeps them coming to school. I was always taken with my students who would spin out raps and rhymes in all their spare time. They were a little too fame-obsessed for their own good, thinking, as too many do, that an American Idol appearance or a recording contract was in their immediate future, but they did have a creative spark which I respected and tried my best to nurture. Still, I wish I had done more to channel those creative impulses into a big production such as a musical or dance off or rap off or something. Maybe in the future I’ll get another chance to do something like that.

Long Live the Textbook

I watched the Michelle Rhee documentary on Frontline and wanted to get down a few thoughts. My first impression is of an incredibly strong, driven, focused leader. Rhee has courage, determination and grit.  This woman has got it going on.  Real badass and incredible role model of female leadership.

I think it’s a mistake to put too much focus on one individual leader, though. By sticking her neck out so far like that, Rhee has become a lightning rod for all the frustrations people feel about the state of our schools. It becomes this issue of are you for her or against her, and that’s not really helpful. It encourages a war-like mentality.  Everyone becomes overly reactive and defensive and that can become a real obstacle to constructive problem solving.

If I’d been in Rhee’s position,  I would have taken things from a different angle. Rather than focus so specifically on firing teachers and principals, I would have focused on implementing a high quality curriculum. I feel strongly that we shouldn’t put the burden of curricular design solely on the teacher. The notion that students should design their own curriculum is even worse.  It is well-intentioned, but absurd. Imagine middle school students designing their own algebra textbooks. You can’t expect anything but wildly uneven results with such an approach, though I sympathize with the underlying theory that students should actively construct knowledge. Yes, but let’s not lose our heads here.


Teachers, students and parents should be provided with a coherent curriculum that is aligned with the tests. Give everybody a textbook with all the material laid out plain as day. Everybody- administrators, teachers, parents and students need to be on the same page and the textbook makes that possible.

I will never forget my superintendent telling me that he did not believe in using a textbook in the classroom. He thought it was better if the teachers pieced together our lessons from multiple sources. The result for me was  a nightly scramble to come up with material for our 90 minute language arts core. Some days were inspired. I’d find reading material, and make reams of copies (the amount of photocopies you need in order to make up for the lack of textbook is staggering.) I liked using newspaper and magazine articles and I’d write questions to go with them, but often it wasn’t enough to keep the students busy for the whole period. And when students don’t have something concrete to do, they act out.

We spent a tremendous amount of time learning a reading process the district had put its faith in, where students read in teams. I found it very hard to manage. Too noisy, too hard to focus, too easy for students to get distracted. Yes, it was “interactive.” Interactivity is the holy grail of progressive education. But having lived it, I’m not at all convinced that is the best way for kids to read and learn. I think classrooms would benefit from more quiet, independent work time.

Toward the end of the year, I had the chance to pilot a textbook the district was considering for adoption. (Even though the superintendent felt it was bad pedagogy to use a textbook, he was still required to have one on hand.) For the two weeks that I used the language arts textbook, designed by Holt, the clouds opened. The reading material was well presented. Review questions, project ideas, it was all right there. My students were busy and engaged. I had good material to work from and helpful prompts to lead discussion. I feel like my strengths as a presenter really came through when I had that curricular support. My students thrived with that consistent, clear curriculum in front of them. Alas, the district adopted another textbook which weighed a ton, had tiny print, no pictures and was needlessly convoluted. Poor design. Bad decision.

In my fantasy scenario, there would be a well-stocked teacher supply room in every school with multiple sets of books to choose from. I know, fantasy. But it is a matter of priorities. As expensive as the books may be, they certainly aren’t any more expensive than rooms full of computers, which is the current spending trend.

This is not to say that I’m against computers in education. Gamification is a trend ripe for broad implementation. One of the most remarkable things I’ve ever observed in education was watching my son learn all his states, and their locations because of an app called Stack the States. When he was four years old, he could identify every state, by shape and location. I’ll admit, he could put those states in place faster than I could. The potential for learning in this format is tremendous. Games that allow kids to feel successful as they learn really work. Of course, the reverse is also true.  I downloaded the National Geographic app recently. The content is good, but the game interface is discouraging. A wrong answer earns a harsh, “Not even close!” Good games encourage you to keep trying until you get it right. With this game, you hit a dead end when you make a mistake.  Learning should not be a demoralizing process. If it is, all those awful defense mechanisms get triggered, and we’re back where we started.  The gamification trend is so cool because it makes use of the brain’s reward circuits. If a game doesn’t do that, it defeats the purpose.

Certainly, there are a ton of exciting developments with technology and education and I say let’s make good use of them.  But let’s not abandon that trusty old war-horse, the textbook, in our zeal for revolution and reform. The old ways are good too.