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Be a Filter


Last week I was at our state Teacher’s Convention, where I presented four times. I always enjoy learning from others and sharing ideas. For today’s post, I’d like to share a few excerpts from textbooks that highlight the importance of being a good filter when choosing educational materials for students. I often use these examples in my presentations because they are a simple way to illustrate the complex issues districts and teachers face when selecting curricular materials.

I first read the first two examples about five years ago when I was working on my Masters degree in Gifted Education from the University of Connecticut. One of our reading assignments was an article by one of our professors, Sally Reis, titled “How Schools Are Shortchanging the Gifted” (Technology Review, pp. 38-45; April 1994). In the article, she wrote about how the reading level of textbooks in America had dropped by two full grade levels. To illustrate, she quoted the following two excerpts. The first comes from a fifth-grade history textbook published in 1950:

“After a time, Captain Jones had command of another ship, the Bonhomme Richard. It was an old vessel and not very strong. But in it the brave captain began a battle with one of England’s fine ships. The cannons on the two ships kept up a stead roar. The masts were broken, and the sails hung in rags above the decks. Many of the men on the Bonhomme Richard lay about the deck dead or dying. The two vessels crashed together, and with his own hands the American captain lashed them together. By this time the American ship had so many cannon-ball holes in its side that it was beginning to sink. The English captain shouted: ‘Do you surrender?’ ‘Surrender? I’ve just begun to fight!’ John Paul Jones roared back at him. It was true. The Americans shot so straight and fast that the English sailors dared not stay on the deck of their ship. Their cannons were silent. At last the English captain surrendered.”

Rather exciting, eh? The second excerpt comes from a fifth-grade history textbook widely used in the early 1990’s:

“The greatest American naval officer was John Paul Jones. He was daring. He attacked ships off the British coast. In a famous battle, Jones’ ship, the Bonhomme Richard, fought the British ship Serapis. At one point in the battle, Jones’ ship was sinking. When asked to give up, Jones answered, ‘I have not yet begun to fight.’ He went on to win.”

Well, whoop-de-la-de-do. Notice the exclamation point is even missing on the key phrase in this second example!

When I was at our Teacher’s Convention in 2003, I was curious how textbooks in this new millennium would stack up. So I visited the three textbook vendors in the Exhibit Hall and asked to see a 5th grade History text. Here are the results:

“At sea John Paul Jones, a navy commander, battled larger and better-equipped British ships. In one famous battle in the North Sea near Britain, the British asked Jones to surrender. He replied, ‘I have not yet begun to fight.’ Jones kept fighting until the British ship gave up.”

Once again the exclamation point is missing! And once again the reading level is noticeably lower than the 1950’s text.

A second 2003 example:

“For the most part, the few ships in the American navy had little effect on the outcome of the war. However, in April 1778, Captain John Paul Jones raided England’s coast. The next year, Jones’s battleship, the Bonhomme Richard, faced the British battleship Serapis. The British pounded the Bonhomme Richard with cannon fire, leaving it badly damaged. When the British captain asked Jones if he was ready to surrender, Jones yelled back, ‘I have not yet begun to fight.’ In the end, the Serapis surrendered.”

This final example from 2003, when coupled together with the other 2003 excerpts, helps to illustrate why it’s so important, when selecting materials, to analyze the various options available:

“The Patriots also battled the British on the ocean. One of the first men to join this fight was John Paul Jones. He volunteered for the Continental navy in 1775 – a time when the navy had just four ships. In 1779, Jones was captain of a ship named Bonhomme Richard. On a calm September evening off the coast of Britain, Jones attacked a British ship named Serapis. Under a bright full moon, the ships pounded each other with cannonballs and grenades for over two hours. Jones’ ship was blasted full of holes and leaking badly. But when the British captain asked Jones if he was ready to surrender, Jones shouted back:

‘I have not yet begun to fight!’

Jones and his sailors continued to battle until the British ship surrendered. This was a proud moment for the young American navy.

Review: Why was the victory of the Bonhomme Richard so important? Draw conclusions.”

If you are teaching fifth-grade history, which would you choose? Particularly if you have gifted students in your classroom, which text will best reach them? Is that even a factor that is considered when schools determine which textbook to adopt? For some it probably is, but do other just focus on cost and which texts will be accessible for all students?

Certainly there is more to teaching any lesson than solely using the textbook, and I don’t give these examples with the intent of discounting the relevance and importance of all the other materials and methods used by teachers. We have a huge variety of tools and methods at our disposal, and we should and do use them. My point is simply this: when selecting any materials, what factors do we consider? What factors have we overlooked that should be considered? Are the gifted students bored to tears because the reading level of the text in your classroom is two grade levels below grade level, while they are reading four grade levels above grade level? Yes, it is very possible that there is a six-grade-level disparity between the reading ability of your gifted students and the reading level of the textbook. A six-grade-level disparity… Would we allow that for our special education students? Certainly not without appropriate accommodations. Yet somehow for our gifted students this wide disparity is “good enough.”

Well, I’m here to say that’s NOT good enough!

These kids are capable of far more than we require of them. They crave it. Yet most are probably too polite to mention it to you. The others are letting you know by becoming behavior problems in the classroom.

I know many of you are secretly aware, deep down, that there’s a kid in your class you’re just not reaching – a kid who’s ahead of the game and seems to be getting by just fine – for now. But you know what he’s “learning” in your class doesn’t really fit what he could be learning. So for starters, take a look at your textbook and other curricular materials. Is it challenging enough for that student? Could it be more challenging? Next pick a topic that you teach, and then select (or possibly even have the student select) an alternative curricular material for learning about that topic. Maybe he could read about John Paul Jones in the encyclopedia instead of in the textbook? (one possible example of many)

Raise your hand if you’re worried that he’s going to be “missing something” if he doesn’t read the text along with all the other kids…

Seriously? The child reading the encyclopedia is missing something?

See, we teachers – some of us – have become so tied into our ‘curriculum’ that we hold it on a pedestal as being the finite source of all knowledge for our grade level. Let’s sprinkle some reality out on our John Paul Jones lesson. What are the key points we want the kids to come away from the lesson with? (Or, another way to look at it: Why do we teach about John Paul Jones? What do we want the kids to gain from the lesson?) Probably most would agree:

1) This quotation: “Surrender? I have not yet begun to fight!”

2) And some level of awareness about the role persistence plays in winning a battle, even when all seems lost.

Can he gain both of those from reading about John Paul Jones in the encyclopedia? Of course he can!

Now he’s just as ready to join the class for 3) Class Discussion: when you discuss why the “Bonhomme Richard” victory was so important in 1779; when you discuss other examples from American history when all seemed lost, yet persistence prevailed; and when you discuss the modern-day relevance of John Paul Jones’ example today.

“But I’m not allowed to break outside of my curriculum!”

I would argue that your curriculum is 1) and 2) and 3). Your curriculum is not the textbook. The curriculum of 1) 2) and 3) can be reached through multiple avenues. Do we not already provide alternatives for special education students, alternatives that are “outside the curriculum” (i.e. beyond the textbook). Of course we do. This is no different. This is one option for providing appropriate accommodations for students whose learning is significantly different from the norm. They just happen to be significantly different in the other direction.

Pick just one lesson and give it a try this week. See how it goes. Discover how refreshing it is. Realize how not overwhelming it can be to provide alternatives for gifted students. Start small – with one lesson. When you feel you have a handle on it, then choose another lesson to try alternatives with. In a future post, I will give more details of alternatives like this, but I don’t want to swamp everyone with details in the beginning. For now, just pick one lesson this week and determine an appropriate and challenging accommodation for it. We’ll meet back here in a few days to talk it over :o)

“Surrender? I have not yet begun to fight!”


It is refreshing for me as an education grad student, to hear a teacher call for alternative/ additional sources of information to teach the gifted. I was the typical gifted student, frustrated and not just a little bit bored. My grades were slightly above average if you could even get me interested in doing the work at all. This is one of the major reasons that I am changing professions.

The so-called gifted programs that I was involved in were pretty weak on substance and lacked any "challenge" (ironically, "Challenge" was the name of the gifted class I had in Jr. High). In all fairness to current teachers of the gifted, my frustrations stem from an experience spanning 1977-1984. I know that the gifted curriculum is much improved since then.

As I take my certification classes, I am finding more and more, the texts that are available leave much to be desired. They can be confusing, and boring if we are lucky. Sadly, they can be downright inaccurate if we are not so lucky. I am not just talking about a revisionist version of history that leaves out the fact that Columbus was one of the first to engage in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. I have actually found errors on dates and facts. We need to be careful when we choose our texts.

While I'll grant you that most high school textbooks are written at about a 4th grade level, we've been dumbing down the curriculum for longer than that. I did a survey of 20th century textbooks for a class my senior year of college. The "reading" textbook from the 1940's was really an etiquette book. The stories were all about High School Harriet and how she should behave on a date. Even the discussion questions were about "What should Betty do if she accidentally accepts two dates for Saturday night?" I've no idea how this could be considered reading.

"Seriously? The child reading the encyclopedia is missing something?" Thanks Tamara for that quote!

Somewhere sometime long ago I came across a statement that said if a person were to read the encyclopedia from A to Z, they would have the equivalent of a college education. I offered that challenge to my 4th graders, and never complained IF they were reading the encylopedia!

THEN there were the days when I would make reading of the dictionary mandatory to see if they could find a new word that I didn't already know. I was always amazed at what words each and every student would find and share the information. Nothing better to do on a cold and snowy Montana winter day!!! ;)

Wow, I'm surprised there are so few comments on this excellent post! For my first grade daughters, I can't help but wonder where the "differentiation" is in this expensive private school when they are both bringing home identical schoolwork and homework from different classes with different teachers. For myself, I have this to say about "knowledge gaps": I didn't know what it felt like to really learn until I took calculus in college without having had the pre-requisite of trigonometry. I had to teach myself so much at the same time I was learning calculus, and it was nothing short of exciting! On a bigger scale, though, would it not make more sense to place students according to readiness rather than age? "A six-grade-level disparity" is nothing short of age discrimination, which is for some reason legal in schools.

Here's another idea: have the gifted kids pick next year's textbooks! Or for things like science textbooks, have them research the section you're about to cover. I was horrified in college to read my brother's middle school science textbook. My list of significant errors filled 3 notebook pages front and back (33*6), and that didn't even count the latter half of the book on biology.

Many teachers (myself included) rely on a textbook to fill in gaps in our knowledge. It's risky to grab a popular--or worse, cheap--textbook and assume it's correct. If we let the smarter and/or harder working students do some of the digging, they will get a better education, and the rest of the class will, too. One of the best experiences anyone can have is to be trusted with more responsibility. (Dennis Bakke's book Joy At Work is the consummate example.)

I find this discussion very enlighting. My question to all teachers is, "what can a parent do to help the teacher keep those advanced children engaged." It seems that as long as the child is doing well and not causing behavior problems they are given the same trivial work to complete and then ignored. My 7 year old daughter is already complaining about how school is so boring. Are we really this short sighted as a nation to not realize the cost to society of losing these children's passion? I understand that teachers are often stretched to the limit but I truely believe that there is much more that we can do for these children. I hope there are teachers out there willing to go out on a limb and be the voice for the top 25 percent.

The textbook examples are horrifying. It's no wonder that literacy rates are going down steadily. Not only are the students learning less, the material looks crushingly boring.

I had occasion around 1940, when I was abou eight years old, to spend a couple of weeks with relatives who had saved their children's textbooks. I still remember them vividly as interesting and informative. They were probably about fifth grade level, and I've often wondered if they were unusually well written. Probably only in comparison with today's texts.

It's not just the gifted who benefit from well written text. Simple, short sentences can often be very hard to read - particularly in the content areas. Because so much is left out, so much must be inferred. All kids deserve well written texts and teachers who hold high expectations for them AND teach them with intention.

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