School board members: Next time district administrators ask you to approve the purchase of new textbooks, please vote “No.”
And district residents: Next time you go to the polls to vote for candidates to serve on your local school board, ask how much they plan to spend on textbooks. If they plan to spend any money at all, please vote for someone else.
First of all, remember what it was like when you were in school. What was your favorite thing to read? Textbooks, right? Wrong. No one enjoys reading textbooks. Okay, so some students in an idle moment will pick up textbooks and leaf through them. But usually not if there is anything more interesting to read. And just about anything is more interesting. Except maybe the dictionary or an encyclopedia. And kids who — of their own volition — pick up a textbook and read it are almost always already good students. They’re the ones who are going to learn no matter what. The kids who struggle are the ones who require books that will get them excited about learning. Let me assure you that textbooks are not going to do it for them.
Second, here’s what university professors tell people learning to be teachers: Don’t use textbooks. Let children learn using original sources. Want an example of what I mean? A high school history teacher I once substituted for introduced World War I to students by presenting them with a packet of original documents. One was an eyewitness account of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand beginning with the words “As the car quickly reversed, a thin stream of blood spurted from His Highness’s mouth onto my right cheek.” Each document illustrated a different cause of the war. And the causes of that war are complex. Almost inscrutably so. But by the end of the class the students — all of them — were arguing and discussing amongst themselves. “Which cause did you write down for this document?” “I think it’s this one, because … ” “I don’t think so, because … ” In other words, they were engaging in higher-order thinking skills, which is exactly what you want to have happen in a classroom. I guarantee that if that teacher had just required the students to read a chapter in a textbook about the origins of World War I, most would have been talking about anything other than the assignment, texting under their desks or needing to go to the bathroom or nurse’s office urgently.
Third (and not the final reason, but I’ll leave it at three for now), textbooks are expensive. How expensive? Well, during May and June (which seems to be textbook-buying season) local school boards approved the purchase of about $2.6 million worth of textbooks. If they had voted “No” when asked to buy those books, districts would have had enough money to pay about 65 less-experienced teachers, 37 highly experienced teachers or 17 superintendents for a year. That’s a lot of money to spend on books that are boring and unnecessary for teaching or learning.
Oh, and remember that high school history teacher I told you about? The one who has students read original documents rather than textbooks? Here’s the Horrible Histories video she uses to open that class. It’s funny but accurate. And the kids enjoyed watching it (bet you will, too):
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