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Response: Strategies for Dealing With an 'Awful' Textbook

This week's question is:

How can you handle an awful textbook?

Many of us teachers have little or no say in what official textbook is used by our students.  And many educators and students would agree that it's not unusual for us to be stuck with an awful one. 

How can we deal with such a lemon in way that keeps us out of hot water with administrators, but also provides a rich educational experience for our students?

Today, educators Mary Ann Zehr, Christopher Lehman, 2015 National Teacher of the Year Shanna Peeples, Kristina J. Doubet, Jessica A. Hockett, Kimberly Carraway, and Libby Woodfin share their suggestions on how we can deal with this challenge.  You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Mary Ann and Christopher on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. I've also included comments from readers.

Before I turn this column over to my guest, I'd like to share a few of my own thoughts.

Textbooks can be a two-edged sword -- they can be efficient, provide order, and save teacher's time, they can provide good models, and they can provide a guide for learning. There can be a danger, however, in teachers (and administrators and school districts) viewing them as being written in stone and insisting they be followed precisely. I would suggest that it is better to see textbooks as a sort of cookbook where teachers can pick the right dishes for the appropriate occasions. The Latin word root of the word "cook" means "turn over in the mind." Teachers using their experience, judgment and skills to constantly "turn over their mind" is one of the main job requirements of effective educators.

The level of textbook flexibility provided to teachers varies, however. If you are obligated to follow the textbook closely, one suggestion is to try and use it as a "framework" for your class. In other words, first examine what the leaning goals are for each chapter and identify the places where you can most easily include more engaging teaching strategies. Because of that potential challenge, here are a few ideas on how to use a textbook most effectively:

* Converting textbook passages or dialogues into text data sets (You can see examples of these in my ASCD article, Get Organized Around Assets and in a couple of pieces I've written for The New York Times), clozes (The Best Tools For Creating Clozes (Gap-Fills)) or sequencing activities (read about these in another NY Times post) to be completed by students.

* If there are a long number of questions to answer in a textbook assignment, turn them into a Jigsaw assignment with partners each having a few each to answer and being prepared to support their answer with reasons.

* Turn textbook passages into Read Alouds and Think Alouds.

For additonal ideas, you might want to explore my collection, The Best Resources For Adapting Your Textbook So It Doesn't Bore Students To Death.

Response From Mary Ann Zehr

Mary Ann Zehr is a teacher of English-language learners at a public school in the District of Columbia. Previously she was a journalist for Education Week for 14 years:

The short answer to this question is: don't use an awful textbook, or at least not the sections that are inaccessible or boring. It's better to find readings from the Internet or in the library that are engaging--and spend a lot of time at the copy machine--than to try to build lessons around readings that aren't interesting for teenagers.

When I started teaching U.S. history and world history four years ago to English-language learners, I was given the regular high-school-level textbooks provided to students in mainstream classes. The textbooks were "awful" in that my students couldn't understand the vocabulary in them. Still I gleaned what parts were workable. The useable sections tended to be primary sources, such as an excerpt from "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass"; sidebars, such as one about the education of young scholars during the Tang Dynasty; charts, such as one showing similarities and differences between the Ottoman and Safavid empires; and photos and captions.

Initially, I used my own money to buy a set of softbound books published by Scholastic called "Everything You Need to Know About American History Homework" and "Everything You Need to Know About World History Homework." The softbound texts are geared for middle school students and have a lot of maps and visuals and are written at a reading level that most of my students could read. Each textbook cost about $10 so with an investment of about $300, I purchased enough so that every two students could share one. It was well worth it. By the end of that first year, the school had bought me enough of the Scholastic books so that every student had one to read in class. And by the second year of my teaching, I had requested, and the school had purchased, a classroom set of world history textbooks created especially for ELLs, called "ACCESS World History," published by Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt.

Even after I had some "textbooks" for social studies that ELLs could read, I heavily supplemented them with readings I thought would be compelling for students and build literacy. That included primary sources such as diaries and speeches, narratives, and historical fiction. In U.S. history this past school year, for example, my students read "Silver People: Voices of the Panama Canal," a verse novel by Margarita Engel, when we studied U.S. imperialism. They read the first half of "Farewell to Manzanar," by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, when we learned about Japanese internment camps during World War II. The school district had bought class sets of those books at my request with federal Title III dollars, which are allocated for ELLs. My U.S. history students also read the graphic history, "Trinity," about the building of the atomic bomb, by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm. Through the D.C.-based PEN/Faulkner Foundation, author and artist Mr. Fetter-Vorm came and spoke with my students about "Trinity." That organization buys books for students to take home and arranges for the authors to speak with them. In addition, my U.S. history students read several of the diaries by teens in the Holocaust collected in "Salvaged Pages," by Alexandra Zapruder, and she also came to my school and spoke with my students through the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.

Since building literacy is at the heart of all my lessons, it's essential that each lesson be designed around a compelling reading. It takes time to identify well-written short readings or books that match the curriculum but an outstanding text goes a long way in spicing up social studies lessons. I've found some genres, such as diaries, graphic histories, and historical fiction to be particularly engaging for ELLs and teenagers, so I advocate for my students in seeking funding to buy books that will get them excited about the subject matter I teach.



Response From Christopher Lehman

Christopher Lehman is the Founding Director of The Educator Collaborative and author/coauthor of several popular books on education including Falling in Love with Close Reading. He can be reached at TheEducatorCollaborative.com or on Twitter at @iChrisLehman:

I will start with the obvious answer first: We cannot allow ourselves or our students to feel held captive by an "awful" textbook or program. Often the best choice is to get rid of it. A well reasoned argument, which includes clear alternatives, can often go a long way with building and district level decision makers.

Now, if you cannot get rid of the "awful" textbook or have good reason not to, consider ways to build effective instruction, and real world learning, beyond that resource.

In a very practical article for ASCD, aptly named, "You Can't Learn Much From Books You Can't Read," Richard Allington describes the problems associated with using textbooks and provides many practical solutions for working with and beyond them. It really is a must read as few can say things as clearly and powerfully as Dr. Allington.

In my response, I'd like to extend one of his arguments from that article: provide a "multi-sourced and multi-leveled curriculum."

The Whole World, Literally, Beyond Textbooks

Try this:

  1. Open up your textbook to a curricular area you will teach this year.
  2. Get out your smartphone or other device.
  3. Type into a search engine the topic your textbook is addressing (I prefer Google for this).
  4. Then do not only view website results, move along to images, video, and news. Yes, include news. What comes up is often so interesting!

For example, I searched for "plant and animal cells," a staple of many Science curricula. Numerous web pages came up in the search. Even more interesting are tons of images and videos, from the very simple to complex. Then the coolest are available news sources. In this case, one was a story on a finding that plants may send out stress signals just like animals. Who knew?

This is not just a good exercise for planning a more robust content area unit, even English teachers can go beyond textbooks in this way. For instance a quick search for a favorite author, "Jacqueline Woodson," just brought up a New York Times article on a lunchtime interview and conversation between herself and Jimmy Carter.

Then add to this the opportunity to connect directly with experts. Katie Muhtaris and Kristine Ziemke suggest in "Amplify: Digital Teaching and Learning in the K-5 Classroom," and Kristin describes in this article for the ILA blog, how important it can be to create a class twitter account and follow authors and experts. This way you and your students can ask questions of people in the field without ever having to leave the classroom.

Bringing in other sources also brings in other perspectives. What a textbook may have in terms of breadth, they often lack in depth.

The real opportunity of the internet age is that we no longer need to ask a textbook publisher to curate information for us. We, our colleagues, and even our students can take part in reading across a vast array of sources and people.

Expanding Choices Moves Us Beyond "Pre-Reading" Activities

I also cannot talk about textbooks without cautioning against the overuse of pre-reading activities.

There was a time before the internet... I know, you might have just gasped, but follow me on this one... There was a time, before the internet, when text choices for students were extremely limited. Textbooks were once one of the soul sources of collected information. With there being so few alternative texts available it made sense to support students with teacher created pre-reading activities like "Word Splashes" or "Anticipation Guides." These helped students get within a ball park "gist" of the meaning of the text you were about to read with them.

The downside is that while these activities helped students get closer to the content, these activities did not help them get closer to reading and learning on their own.

With the ever-expanding world of high quality texts written for students of all ages, and the opportunities of the internet, we can support students in learning the habits of real learning.

For example, instead of creating an "Anticipation Guide" for a challenging textbook chapter, you could:

  • Invite students to select from several print and digital sources and gather the "gist" of a topic on their own, just as you do in real life.
  • Invite students to use a class twitter account to write to an author or expert and ask a few questions about the upcoming topic to build general background knowledge (you can also ask for advice on what sources they suggest you read next).
  • Use the textbook last, instead of first. Have students do more choice reading from available sources, then come to the textbook as a summarizing source after they have read and viewed around the topic.

Even if students come to a textbook in college or an employment manual during a career, developing the real life practices of learning will serve them well. Having the built-in habit of seeking out more accessible or more varied information or asking an expert are critical to becoming more knowledgeable.



Response From Shanna Peeples

Shanna Peeples, the 2015 USA National Teacher of the Year, is an English teacher at Palo Duro High School in Amarillo, Texas where she teaches Advanced Placement students, English Language Learners who speak a total of 27 languages, and struggling students in both day school and the school's evening credit recovery program:

The critic, Dorothy Parker may as well have been describing certain textbooks when she wrote: "This wasn't just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it."

Aside from such "raisiny" awfulness, some textbooks are full of inaccuracies to meet political agendas, not that I'm pointing out any particular state where I may live:

Adding to this, a textbook may not meet criteria for overall badness, but repels students because of its dryness or other stylistic failings. In my own experience, it's been this particular problem that has plagued my classroom. Because I believe in student-centered learning, it's an engaging and rigorous fix for me: I enlist student help in "remixing" the textbook.

Remixing is emerging as a distinct culture, as found in the excellent (and free) documentary, Everything Is A Remix. Put simply, remixing is just what it sounds like: taking existing material and editing, combining, and/or adding to it to create a new product.

Before you get started, it's a good idea to read this quick blog post on the legalities of copyright.

Inviting students to remix a textbook into more interesting material has worked well for both me as a teacher and for my students, as it calls upon them to process the content at a much deeper level than simply scanning a textbook. It calls on them to use critical thinking and collaboration, while also turning them into creators rather than passive consumers of information. This can be as simple as having students present in groups using drama strategies like the ones mentioned here.For example, my students have done choral readings of information on rhetorical modes that are both academically viable and entertaining.

Or, students can work on their formal presentation skills by working together to produce a multi-media Pecha Kucha presentation. Pecha Kucha is a Japanese presentation method that uses 20 slides timed to show for only 20 seconds each. This site has excellent examples of all kinds of Pecha Kuchas. My students enjoy this format because we can view quite a bit of information in one class period since each Pecha Kucha takes only about six minutes. The Pecha Kucha format is an excellent boost to student's skills in summary, which helps them to retain the information more deeply.

Finally, if these suggestions seem a bit too ambitious right now, turn the textbook into a seminar like they do in art and design school: Students critique a chapter and offer suggestions for improvement. Simple guiding questions would be: What could be better? What would you change and why? This forces students to engage the material as creators of meaning as they take on the stance of fellow creators of meaning.

An extension of the critique could be that students create a wiki showcasing their revisions of the  information. They could add new illustrations, content and commentary that links to other sources of the information, thereby using research skills as well. More information on creating a classroom wiki is here.

Success in any of these activities is likely to help your students say, in the words of the Caterpillar from "Alice In Wonderland": "I have improooved it."



Response From Kristina J. Doubet & Jessica A. Hockett

Kristina J. Doubet, Ph.D. and Jessica A. Hockett, Ph.D. are the co-authors of Differentiation in Middle and High School: Strategies to Engage All Learners (ASCD). They are also members of the ASCD Faculty and consultants who work with practicing teachers of all grade levels - nationally and abroad - on the topics of curriculum, assessment, and differentiated instruction. Follow them on Twitter @DIY_Diff and on Instagram @d.i.y_di:

When deciding how to deal with a textbook of any sort - abysmal or exemplary - remember that a textbook is not a curriculum. Good curriculum outlines the learning goals students should work toward (conceptual understandings, knowledge, and skills) and a general sense of guiding questions and rich learning activities and assessments in which students will engage.

The textbook's role in such a curriculum should be that of a resource. Textbooks can provide explanations and examples (math), models, principles, and scenarios (science), images and narratives of events (social studies) or collections of texts (language arts). What they cannot provide, however, is meaning in the context of specific curricular goals and assessments. In the same way that a sail and a sexton help a captain navigate a ship, a textbook can assist a teacher in plotting a course for learning.  

First, establish clarity about where you are heading. Some teachers consult their districts' curriculum frameworks, which outline where students should arrive by the end of the year or course. Other teachers scour the standards (usually composed of knowledge and skills) and make sense of those in terms of the Overarching Understandings and Essential Questions students should explore.

Once you are clear about your destination, choose the parts of the textbook that you do like, and use those portions as you would use any other supplementary material. Are there clarifying charts, graphs, or tables which students can consult? Is there a glossary that would serve as a handy resource? Do you see any problems or questions that you could use for class work or homework? Select the best the text has to offer and use it in the manner for which it is best suited.

Next, develop a storehouse of additional resources - both print and non-print - to serve as additional tools to help your students reach their curricular destination. Pull primary and secondary sources from the Internet (e.g., American Memory from the Library of Congress). Locate tiered informational texts at newsela.com or literary text collections at http://commonlit.org. Assemble rich problem sets and student explorations from the "classroom resources" at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics site (NCTM.org). Collect lesson ideas for exploring causal patterns from Harvard's educational resources (cfa.harvard.edu). Consult your school's media center/specialist for other print and non-print sources.

Then, considering all your resources--including the textbook--develop learning experiences that cause your students to grapple with your learning goals as they interact with that content and with each other. This might include inviting your students to examine the textbook critically in light of the overarching Understandings and Essential Questions you have developed and uncovered together. Challenge them to act as critics in selecting what is sound from the textbook, in light of what other resources say and don't say. Being open about a textbook's or any resource's fallibility will encourage both you and your students to thoughtfully evaluate information - a vital skill in our rapidly expanding universe of knowledge.



Response From Kimberly Carraway

Kimberly Carraway, EdM, a learning specialist and educational consultant focusing on the intersection of cognitive neuroscience and educational practice, holds degrees in cognitive studies and elementary education from Vanderbilt University and in learning and teaching from Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She consults internationally with students, educators, parents, administrators, and mental health professionals, bringing them practical learning strategies informed by current research. She is the author of Transforming Your Teaching: Practical Classroom Strategies Informed by Cognitive Neuroscience and founder of the Carraway Center for Teaching and Learning:

Teachers long to have well-designed textbooks, full of useful content, informative imagery, extension activities, and varied forms of related assessments. However, due to a variety of financial or curricular reasons, many teachers are stuck using "awful textbooks." Some helpful tips for adapting your instruction to compensate for poorly designed or ill-fitted textbooks are as follows:

  • Teach your students how to best use the textbook. At the beginning of the course, walk through the textbook with your students. Point out the sections or specific aspects of each chapter that you like and plan to use for instruction. Show them where to focus their attention and the parts of the chapter from which you may pull assessment questions (i.e. vocabulary, chapter summaries, captions, etc.) Perhaps you want them to focus just on the images and captions, or tell them that you really like the chapter summaries.
  • Use the textbook as one of 3 or 4 main sources of information for your course. Teach students that the textbook is just one of many sources of information. Supplement each chapter with primary sources and other content-related textbooks, videos, websites, books, and additional handouts. If a textbook has poor imagery, have students find an image, chart, diagram, video, or other form of imagery related to the content by researching online as a homework assignment. Alternatively, if the text's images are strong, use them to generate discussion along with text from an outside source.
  • Teach students how to compare and contrast information found in the textbook with information from primary sources. Develop students' abilities to analyze, compare, contrast, and make informed judgments about what they read. Use graphic organizers to help represent the information.
  • Use the chapter titles, scope and sequence, and key vocabulary terms and questions to create your own course material and lesson plans. Use the material as a resource as you redesign your course.
  • Find additional resources online. If there is a website associated with the textbook, it may include vocabulary lists, games, chapter summaries, or extension activities created by the textbook publisher. You may also find resource materials that other teachers have designed and posted online related to your particular textbook. If you have trouble with the textbook, it is likely that other teachers have felt the same way and posted about it.
  • Pre-teach the material before assigning it for homework. If the textbook is too difficult for your students, expose them to difficult vocabulary terms, establish necessary background knowledge, and provide a chapter summary before having them read each chapter. You can also read the chapter sections aloud with your students, modeling how to pick out important information and how to make sense of complex sentences and confusing text.
  • Create your own assessment instead of using the one created by the textbook publisher. If the textbook assessment is too crowded, you may need to retype it to create more room for students to show their work. Sometimes the textbook questions can be too simple for students. Use the textbook test as a review sheet or homework assignment to make sure students know the basic information, and then create your own higher-level form of assessment. You can also create new questions for your students to answer at the end of each section or chapter, if those provided by the textbook are not strong.



Response From Libby Woodfin

Libby Woodfin, a former elementary teacher and high school counselor, is the director of publications for EL Education:

This is such a common problem. Due to budget constraints or a lack of decision-making authority, many teachers feel forced to use textbooks that are out-of-date, biased, or filled with errors--this is compounded by the frustration many teachers (and students!) feel with the pre-digested material found in some textbooks. Such a watered-down, sanitized treatment of what should be fascinating scientific phenomena and layered historical analysis does not prepare our students for the world they live in. They deserve better.

So what can you do about this problem over which you may feel you have no control? Below are six tips to help you handle that awful textbook:

1. View the textbook as a resource, not as your curriculum. Students study topics, not textbooks. Use the textbook strategically as one of many resources that give students a rich opportunity to think and learn about a topic. Plan backwards based on what you want students to understand, rather than what the textbook "covers." The textbook can be an entry point for case studies that allow students to dive more deeply into compelling topics.

2. Create rich sets of texts. Combine the relatively one-dimensional textbook account of historical events or scientific concepts with primary sources or relevant current events. For example, use the textbook to help students understand the big picture of the Great Depression and then dig deeper with primary source material about the causes and impact of the Dust Bowl as a case study (e.g., poems and song lyrics from the time period; articles on the agricultural impact of mechanized farming). Such text sets not only present students with opportunities to think critically about multiple perspectives on historical events, but also provide opportunities to help them be stronger readers of complex texts. Starting in third grade, in fact, the Common Core standards require that students read multiple texts on a topic, which means that even if your textbook is great, it's still necessary for students to read more than one text.

3. Seek out the very best supplemental texts.It can be overwhelming to find supplemental texts that will be engaging and at the right level of challenge for students. Try to avoid general web searches and instead go straight to the websites of museums (e.g., The Field Museum), government organizations (e.g., The US Environmental Protection Agency), and nonprofit academic, arts, or professional organizations (e.g., The Poetry Foundation) for many great resources that are often curated with students in mind. And don't forget about your school or community librarians. Librarians can be your best resource, with access to many more books, articles, and artifacts than you may be able to find online. Librarians can also help you find great literature that will connect to the content area you are studying.

4. Think outside the box about what constitutes text. Choosing a text to supplement your textbook doesn't need to always point to articles, reports, or novels. In life we need to learn to use sharp analytical skills when analyzing a data table, a historical painting, or a fluorite crystal. Museums often have rich online databases of scientific and historical documents that students can really dig their teeth into. For example, an Electricity Net Generation table from the US Energy Information Administration can be a provocative introduction to the fossil fuels chapter of your Environmental Science textbook. Students can puzzle over the mysterious information (e.g., What's a petroleum coke? Has our use of one kind of energy risen, while others have fallen?), which heightens and sharpens their need to know about what they will read in the textbook. For a history example, check out the probate records of colonial Americans, which raise all sorts of interesting questions for students that may not come up in the broad survey a textbook will offer about colonial America (e.g., How much was a pig worth compared to a shirt, a frying pan, or a bushel of malt? Why is the spelling of common words so strange? What was life like when you owned almost nothing?). These unusual text choices also offer great opportunities to build academic and discipline-specific vocabulary.

5. Give students reasons to read. Especially when supplementing the textbook with complex texts, give students plenty of reasons to want to dig in and work hard. Examples include:

  • Socratic seminars or informal debates using text-based evidence from multiple texts
  • Sets of texts that present multiple perspectives on the same issue, especially those centered on issues of justice or fairness (View a two-part video of students at Polaris Charter Academy in Chicago analyzing primary source documents on both sides of the issue of slavery in the American south: Part 1; Part 2)
  • Opportunities to teach a topic to peers, younger students, or community members (View a video of kindergartners in Boise, Idaho teaching community members about birds at their Celebration of Learning)
  • Opportunities to do something with what they're reading and learning about (e.g., a proposal to conserve energy in city buildings; a public service announcement about gun violence). See examples of high-quality student work that results from learning deeply about such topics in the Center for Student Work.

6. Invite students to critique the textbook. Once students begin reading more texts about a topic, including primary sources, and sources from multiple perspectives, invite them to critique the textbook. They may want to correct perceived inaccuracies with new information (especially if you have an out-of-date textbook) or debate why the textbook author made certain choices about what to include or exclude. This is a great opportunity for students to cite evidence from other texts to support their claims.



Responses From Readers


Thanks to Mary Ann, Christopher, Shanna, Kristina, Jessica, Kimberly, and Libby , and to readers, for their contributions!

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