The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

A Revolt Against Textbooks

on January 7, 2016

I regularly read the online feature “Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo,” and when a topic interests me I submit a response.  A few weeks ago the topic was “What to do about terrible textbooks,” and I replied.  But, apparently, my response was too late since it did not get published.  Although some of the published responses were similar to mine, I feel that they did not go far enough in explaining the problems with textbooks.  So, today I will post what I submitted and expand it by recounting my experiences over time that convinced me to avoid buying textbooks.

My immediate reaction to this week’s question, “How can you handle an awful textbook?” was: Throw it in the trash!  It will do more harm than good to your students by being used as directed.  However, it took me only a few seconds to realize that neither a teacher nor a principal could get away with such an action in today’s top-down run schools.  Somebody in the school district office chose that textbook believing it was of high quality and appropriate for your grade level, and other officials approved that decision.  Even though you, as an experienced teacher, are more qualified to judge the quality and appropriateness of a textbook for your students, it is better not to go into open revolt against your superiors. You will surely lose the battle and, perhaps, endanger your job. Instead, go over the purchased textbook with your fellow teachers and see what the group can extract from it that would be meaningful for your students. Then use only those portions for teaching and supplement them with other sources—maybe, even, and older textbook of better quality.  If little or nothing appears appropriate, shelve the new textbooks and allow them to collect dust while you improvise from your past experience and the materials you have created or found elsewhere.  In addition, it might be worthwhile to campaign for having a teacher committee select textbooks the next time around.


I have never been a fan of textbooks.  As a student I resented carrying several of them back and forth to school, reading long, dull chapters and searching for the answers to meaningless questions. Inside the covers of many of my textbooks were written things like, “In case of fire, throw this in.”   Although those were jokes, I believe they reflected the feelings of most students at the time.

Later, as a beginning teacher, I was asked to substitute for a teacher who was ill.  When, it became clear that she would not be able to return to her job, I was invited to stay for the rest of the year.  Almost the first thing I did was to collect all the textbooks crammed into  students’ desks and store them in a classroom cabinet. No students complained, and a few cheered.

Several years and jobs later, I was appointed the chair of the English department of a new high school.  When the school district decided to buy new English textbooks, none of my staff was much interested.  The old ones were still serviceable, and they wanted to get single pieces of literature that would give them more freedom to decide what and when to teach a particular unit.  Besides, textbooks were getting more and more expensive. As a group we rejected the new textbooks and requested funds to buy a variety of paperbacks instead.  The only hardback books we needed to teach were the poetry collections we already had.

In both the elementary schools where I was principal we also opted for paperbacks instead of textbooks and workbooks.  Teachers felt  they could teach English, history, and, maybe, science using those books and the other materials accumulated over time.

In all those actions our purpose was not defiance, but a firm conviction that the materials teachers chose and the less expensive – or free—things collected over time are better for teaching than textbooks. In all the schools I have mentioned we were able to amass large numbers and a variety of paperbacks to serve our teaching preferences and students needs.  We also found that paperbacks— their covers strengthened with Scotch tape lasted just as long, if not longer– than far more expensive textbooks.




One response to “A Revolt Against Textbooks

  1. Doug Garnett says:

    This is excellent insight. When I taught advertising at college level my student were required to buy textbooks. Given the cost, I attempted to use them. But my students would have been served far better with a small collection of individual books that illustrated the issues we were covering.

    Partly I dislike the academic approach teaching classification and a top down view of something as practical as advertising. It doesn’t do a good job of build the understanding and knowledge that students can use dig deeper into the subject. Logically I understand that people think it should build that. But from watching students I find it doesn’t.


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