I have never effectively used textbooks in my classroom, especially in the traditional sense. During my first year as a second grade teacher in Oklahoma City, I quickly discovered that the textbook approach does not work for me. I found it difficult to juggle the teacher's edition with all of its suggestions of warmups, assessments, differentiated worksheets, and enrichments. In fact, many of the suggested activities seemed disconnected from the main lesson. Often, most the same activities were a waste of time, primarily.
So, I figured I could make a neat little list of reasons why I don't traditionally use textbooks in my classroom.
1. I am the tip of the spear.
I am the educational leader in my classroom. I am the one assessing my students. I am the person who knows (or should know) the needs of my class as a whole and of the individual members of our little family. The textbook is not, does not, and will not be these things. The textbook is not and will not be a member of our family. While it might sit on the shelf, longing to play a deeper role than it does (as a reference tool), it does not know me or my students. I'm OK with that. It increases my awareness that I am "the most important factor contributing to student achievement" (See the quote at right.). In addition, as a professional, I need to take more responsibility to know things.
Research shows that effective teachers are the most important factor contributing to student achievement. Although curricula, reduced class size, district funding, family and community involvement all contribute to school improvement and student achievement, the most influential factor is the teacher. Choosing effective teachers is critically important for schools trying to improve their performance.
I respect the mountains of research and effort that have been expended in order to produce the latest and greatest textbook package. "Expert" educational consultations are sought. Graphic design artists are recruited. Lawyers are retained. Writers and editors write and edit. And salespeople are dispatched into the field to show off all the bells and whistles. With all that goes into creating the shiniest product, the process seems to remove my own ability to be creative. If I use the textbook, I feel like I should be true to the intended processes and content included by the design team. Anything less would be disrespectful, right? Instead, just as I want my students to get their noses out of the book and to look at the world around them (Sometimes we even use a book to do so.), I need to get my own nose out of the teacher's edition. Imagine all the things I can discover about the members of my class when I am freed to roam among them more.
3. The textbook is one-size-fits-all.
I've been on enough textbook selection committees, ironically enough, to understand that the publishers want to make as much money as they can on their product. They put a lot of work into arranging their books to make sure they take care of as many of their clients' preferences as possible. They make them pretty, and they fill them will all the "required" educational lingo of the day. As such, publishers want to get as much traction from a single product as they can. They want to sell their books to as many districts as they can. As unintended as it might be, publishers are forced into making their books "fit" for all states and all districts, resulting in a lot of fluff and unnecessary verbiage packed into the teacher's edition. If it is that thinly spread, might there be other sources that are just as effective or more so?
4. I don't want to follow a foreign script.
I need to feel more ownership with my materials and lessons than a textbook allows me. Many educators - especially new teachers - like to have something in their hands to guide them through a lesson. Some would prefer to read a literal script from the teacher's edition. Perhaps they don't trust themselves to cover everything in the right way. Maybe they want to make sure they don't leave anything out. Whatever their reasoning, I need to have more eye contact with my students than I can have when my nose is in a book. At the same time, I like students to have eye contact with me. That human connection is important, but with a textbook in between us, there is a barrier to the relationship we so desperately need.
5. I would rather students interact with me - not the textbook.
Not only do I expect to share eye contact with students in my class, but I also need to have conversations with them. We need to pause and talk things out. Together. I need more intimate contact than the textbook allows - not the clinical contact that a textbook so naturally encourages. Education is not all science - though publishers would love it if it was. In fact, that's how publishers and educational gurus approach their crafts, filling their books with if-then statements as if kids were computers to be programmed. If they respond in this way, then assign this page; if they respond that way, then skip to page such-and-such. As I contend that children are not computers, I have to believe in a more human approach.
A textbook takes students out of the real world and puts them into the school world - as if the two should be different. No, as much as some would like to believe it, when a kid comes to my class, she doesn't leave the real world behind. The problems from home are still there. In addition, I need to prepare my pupils to function in the real world and not just prepare them for tests at school. While publishers try to reflect cultural diversity, and while they fill their books with full-color photographs of people and places in the real world, textbooks probably do very little to make kids feel like those pictures portray the real world in which they live. Real life is three-dimensional. Reading a section and completing the questions at the end feel a lot like a school activity - something we do at school, in this place, and not something we will do again when the dismissal bell rings or after we move our tassels.
Much has been written about 21st Century education. We hear a lot about how school needs to change to keep up with the needs of the new century. We are no longer in the Information Age; we find ourselves, now, in the Innovation Age. That's exciting. It also means students need to make connections like never before. When we cut our school day into neat little 20-minute segments and require specific blocks of time to be dedicated to a certain subject, we do a disservice to our society. That, again, is not how the real world works. I would not propose that publishers try to produce some multi-volumed book set that combines all areas of the curricula (Can you imagine what that would look like?), but I would propose that Math and Science no longer need to be divided into separate courses. History and writing no longer need to be separated, especially at the elementary level. There are certainly times that call for isolating skills, and I am an advocate for dissecting processes with students, but at the same time, my students must understand how individual lessons fit within the larger picture. It's important that we display the forest and the trees, and that is more easily accomplished when I create my own lessons.
8. Students get used to the routine.
We talk about routines in education a lot. We consider routine to be very important for certain students. But at the same time, a rigid routine can be boring. Introduce a class discussion about personal needs. Read a few paragraphs about westward-bound pioneers. Answer some comprehension questions. A textbook lesson is more complicated than that, but you get the idea. If I work through every lesson using the same pattern - which is what textbooks typically do - and only change the content, not only do I divide school activities from the real world, but I have just written a recipe for boredom. This century's children hate being bored. They want action and activity. They want to explore and discover. They want to get their hands dirty. They want to be surprised.
9. Textbooks are expensive and heavy.
Most people with children understand the second part of that statement. Those backpacks being dragged behind your son or daughter can weigh roughly the same as a smart car. If you pick up a box of books, you quickly get a lesson about density and weight. Paper comes from trees and trees are heavy. If I can creatively present the same concepts and information without the struggle that come with pulling out heavy materials, I will. The idea comes to mind that we must be paying by the pound for our textbooks. One book, for a single subject and for a single student, may cost nearly $100, while the same information and processes are available electronically for free. Understandably, I do not teach like everybody else. In fact, I love finding or developing my own materials and methods. But at the same time, I find it strange that we throw a couple hundred dollars into a kid's backpack and make her responsible for lugging it home and returning it the next day. Not to mention the physical consequences of carrying all of that weight.
10. The textbook removes my authority.
No, I am not being paranoid. Just as sending a child to the office for discipline removes a bit of my authority (He couldn't handle me, so he pawned me off onto the principal.), so too is my academic authority diminished when I rely on a textbook. I want my kids to think; I should have the courage to step out of my box to think, as well. Just think of the authority that I become when I am the person presenting the content and strategies. If I use a textbook, am I the person teaching, or am I merely the catalyst through which the material is flowing, with the authority being the words in the textbook. I hope it doesn't sound haughty, selfish, or greedy to say that my students look up to me with more respect when they realize that all of that information is in me. When that recognition increases my standing just a smidgeon, students will be more likely to approach me for assistance in the future. That's a good thing.
Please, by all means, do not take my reasons to mean that I condemn teachers who prefer the anchor of a teacher's edition. These are, by and large, my personal reasons, and should in no part imply that they should be adopted by every teacher. Above all, I realize that my teaching style is different from your own. My classroom chemistry is different, and the relationships I forge with students is different. Not only that, but everything is different within my own room from one year to the next. By staying away from a traditional textbook approach, I can more easily adapt my lessons when necessary to address those differences, as well, but it should in no way suggest that your situation will be the same. We are not cookies stamped by the same cutter. We are not robots programmed with the same code.