The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The Trouble With Textbooks

Some time ago I read an article: “What to do about terrible textbooks,” and I quickly replied. But, apparently, my response was too late, and didn’t get published. Although some of the responses were similar to mine, I felt that they did not go far enough in explaining the problems of most textbooks.  In the first section I post my initial submission. In the second section I expand by recounting my own experiences, which had convinced me to avoid buying textbooks. Here they are below.


My immediate reaction to this week’s question, “What to do about terrible textbooks” was: Throw it in the trash!  It will do more harm than good to your students if you use them 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 students at your grade level, and other officials had approved that decision.  Even though you, as an experienced teacher, are more qualified to judge the educational value, it is better not to go into open revolt against your superiors. You will certainly lose the battle and, perhaps, your job. Instead, you should go over the purchased textbook with your fellow teachers and see what the group can extract from it that would be meaningful for students. Then, use only those portions for teaching and supplement them with other sources—maybe, even an older textbook of better quality. If little or nothing appears appropriate, shelve the new textbooks entirely and allow them to collect dust while you improvise using your personal knowledge, past experience and materials you have found elsewhere. It might also be worthwhile to suggest to your principal that it would be better to have a teachers committee select the textbooks the next time around.

I have never been a fan of textbooks. Over all my years as a student I resented carrying them back and forth to school every day, reading their long, boring chapters, and having to search for the answers to the meaningless questions at the end of each chapter   On top of that, many other students had written inside the covers of my textbooks such things as: “In case of fire, throw this in.”  Although they were joking, I understood that those words reflected the feelings of many students.

When I began teaching, one of the first things I did was to collect all the textbooks that the students had in their desks and store them in a classroom cabinet. No students complained about my actions, and a few cheered them.

Several years and jobs later, I was hired to be the Chair of the English Department at a new high school.  When the school district decided to buy new English textbooks for everyone, none of my teachers were pleased. The old books were still serviceable, and the teachers wanted to get single pieces of literature instead that would give them more freedom to teach.  Besides, textbooks were getting increasingly expensive, which might mean that we would get less money for other things that we needed. 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 English were the poetry collections we already had.

Later on, in two elementary schools where I was principal we also opted for paperback literature instead of textbooks and workbooks.  My teachers believed that they could teach both English and American history using those materials and the other materials we had accumulated over time.

In all those actions our purpose was not defiance, but a firm conviction that the materials we chose and the other less expensive materials we collected were better for teaching than textbooks. In all the schools where I worked over time 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.

Please understand that we were seeking the best things for our students, not lower spending. The problems that haunt all commercial textbooks are the impossibility of meeting the needs of schools all over the country, and the fact that those who are creating them are far removed from the reality of students’ needs, interests, and abilities. It is sad, but true, that you can’t effectively teach a student you don’t know personally.

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How to Make Over a School

Early in my time as a school principal my teachers saw me as someone who might be willing to make changes in that school in order to have things better for everyone.


While going through my pile of records recently, I found an old newspaper article about the Oregon school where I was principal for twelve years. As I read it I remembered many of the programs that my teachers and I were able to carry out when we were awarded a state grant. Today, I will try to describe those programs and their results, hoping that our story will make readers aware of some of the good things schools were allowed to do back in the good old days if their teachers were creative and willing to work hard. Ours were, and they made our school a great place for students, teachers and me, when I was principal.

At the beginning, our school was not a winner. When I came there it was the only school in a small country town of farmers, old folks, and workers with minimal jobs. The school consisted of two small and plain buildings on opposite sides of a dirt road; one an elementary school and the other a middle school with only about three hundred students altogether, and no fancy accoutrements inside or out.

When our state gave us the freedom and funding to make changes in our school, the first thing we did was to adopt a road that ran past usl. It had very few houses, and not many cars drove bye. But for some reason it was a popular place for people to throw trash on the road and into the adjoining bushes.

Our school got involved when one of our teachers expressed his determination to clean up the road. First, he contacted the local police department to officially mark the road as our domain. Next, he nailed up a sign on a tree to make our authority clear to everyone who went by; and then he obtained tools and outfits for students to wear for protection when they were working on the road. Finally, he selected a group of older students to carry out the first road cleanup during the afternoon school time. While they were working, younger students, some teachers, and I watched and cheered them on. The road cleanup job was repeated three or four times a year, and was continued in the following years by new workers.

The next school change that I got involved with was suggested by one of our middle school teachers. Although students at that level had a daily study period for homework or reading, most of them fooled around instead. The teacher thought it would be much better for them to use their time doing real jobs for the school and earning rewards for their work. When I saw what the kids were doing during “study time”, I agreed with her completely. It would be much better for children to be active and learning new skills than to play silly games. Besides, several other teachers and school workers had good ideas about what those kids could learn to do, how they could be supervised, and also be rewarded for their work.

The new “Jobs” program we started turned out to be great for the students involved and our school as a whole. Also, a teacher and some school workers were eager to instruct the kids and supervise them. For example, one job was helping the gym teacher clear up the gymnasium at the end of school days by cleaning up the room and putting away all the equipment that had been used. Other jobs were such things as emptying trash cans in classrooms and halls at the end of the day, delivering work materials to where they were needed, posting student art work in the hallways, and even wiping clean the glass doors that lead to the outside. All of the supervision was handled by teachers or school workers in their free time.

The last student activities I remember were serving food in the school lunchroom and collecting used school materials that could be re-sold to a company instead of being thrown away as garbage. Not only did our school receive a good amount of money for those items, it also paid less for having our garbage picked up.

Nevertheless, that was not the last activity for teachers and me. Our school, like other small ones often had a couple of over-crowded classrooms that didn’t work well for student behavior or learning, and were also hard on teachers. To make matters worse a particular class could continue to be overcrowded from year to year unless a few students moved away.

Since we couldn’t know ahead how many children would arrive for each classroom, we decided to have two classrooms for each grade level. Such an action would enable us to keep class sizes reasonable by putting students of similar abilities in the same classroom, and separating students who did not get along well with each other.

When I started to write about all the changes we made in our school I didn’t realize how much their was to say. The events I’ve tried to describe represent 12 years of teachers and me working together and supported by parents. We didn’t regret any of it. After so many yeas, we are still proud of all we accomplished.

Over a few more years the school worked as we had planned. Because of our actions we often got visitors from other schools and newspaper reporters. Things were great for several years, but unfortunately the state administration decided to merge its small country schools with larger ones in towns nearby. We argued against that action as long as we could, but finally we lost. Our school was taken over by a larger school in a nearby city, and many of the things we did were quickly changed. I waited for a short time, then resigned my job and retired.

Today I am leaving Portland for Philadelphia, and my computer will not follow for at least a month. Even then it will need to be “revived”by an expert. My plan is to start writing again as soon as I can, but I think that will be at least June.

Best wishes to you all,



A New Beginning

Although it may not please all readers I must tell you the truth. Right now I am in the process of moving out of my home in Oregon and moving to Philadelphia. PA. Leaving a home that I have lived in, and loved, for thirty years is not easy, but I will spare you the details. Still, I must let you know what is happening to my blog as a result of my moving. I am working every day to clear out my currant house and pack the things I want to take with me.  

As a result, I have very little time now to do anything else, including writing this blog. But in order to keep your attention– and my own sanity–I plan to post things that I wrote and were published before this blog existed. Since I suspect that most of you did not run into them, — or have forgotten them,– I plan to post several here–starting today–and continuing until I am able to write pieces and post them in my new home. I hope that’ll be no more than one month in the future. Start counting!

But do they understand the research, or know what successful schools really do? The original research on teacher expectations tells a far different story from what today’s reformers are calling for. More than forty years ago, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson conducted an experiment in a California elementary school that produced what they called, in a reference to Greek mythology and G Bernard Shaw’s famous play, the “Pygmalion Effect”: the amazing transformation of an ordinary person into someone special. In their book, “Pygmalian in the Classroom”, they described the study in detail and interpreted its lessons for education and other human interactions. 

High expectations is the mantra of today’s school reformers, who are convinced that the trouble with public education is that students have been allowed to slide by with little effort. Their version of high expectations is requiring college-preparatory courses, advanced subject matter, more difficult assignments, and a longer school day and year for all students. They believe that research and the records of selected schools show that demanding more of students brings the desired results. 

The experiment consisted of giving false information to teachers about their students and then sitting back to see what happened. On the pretext of testing the reliability of a newly developed test to predict future student achievement, the researchers administrated a traditional IQ test to all students at the beginning of the school year. Afterward, they reported to teachers, based supposedly on the tests, the names of students who were about to have a spurt in academic performance. 

In reality, those students were a randomly selected percentage of the student body, and their scores showed nothing but their current IQs. At the end of the year, and again two years later, all students were retested, and the results showed that a significant number of the identified “spurters” had in fact made unusual intellectual and performance gains and maintained them over time. Teachers’ grades and written reports also recorded marked improvement in learning and behavior for most of the students.

Although the researchers did not examine what happened in classrooms that year, teachers’ written reports were clear about what did not happen; no extra time, no advanced curriculum, no individual tutoring, no differentiated instruction or assignments.

Rosenthal and Jacobson speculated that what teachers gave their spurters–but not their other students–were unmistakable signals of their faith in them: smiles, nods of approval, more opportunities to ask and answer questions, and a kindly tone of voice. Teachers’ expectations of student success, and their unconscious communication of those expectations, made all the difference.

In its time, this study, along with its replications in three other schools and similar behavioral studies, garnered widespread and authoritative attention. Although there was some criticism of methodology and score interpretation, critics did not contest the researchers’ conclusion that the expectations in teachers’ minds were the determining factor in the success of the identified children.

Now, more than 40 years later, the reality of the “Pygmalion effect” stands unrefuted by further research, while it is supported by considerable evidence from classrooms where poor and minority children have made great strides in their learning because their teachers believed they would. It is also supported by countless stories of successful people who were struggling in school and life until some adult–a teacher, a boss, a family friend–saw something special in them and encouraged them to make the most of it.

Please ignore the message below; I have tried to remove it, but failed.



S’il vous plait

First of all, I want to thank the newspaper “Junior Scholastic” for inviting me to present my opinions about teaching reading. Katherine Willmore was the one who asked me to write for a regular feature called “Yes and No” that offers two different opinions about what is right in a certain situation. That feature pushes young readers to think about both sides of an issue and decide which one is more valid.

Please understand that I am not talking about drowning children in textbooks. My classrooms were more like a library, with new books poring in regularly from the school library and me reading aloud just enough from those books to make students want to read the rest themselves. Of course those were the “good old days” when teachers were not bound to a fixed curriculum or students to yearly testing. Although those days have passed with public schools now tied to the“ Common Core” expectations, I still believe that wide reading is the key to student success and satisfaction. Despite the rigidity of today’s school requirements and the pressure they put on the shoulders of teachers and students, I feel there is enough time and space in a classroom for students to do what is expected and still be able to read what interests them. They should also able to talk with classmates about what they’ve read,   and teachers should be free to persuade their students to move beyond mediocrity by becoming dedicated readers.

The topic I was asked to write about was whether or not students should be allowed to read books of their own choosing or only the high quality literature their teachers selected. I was very pleased to be invited to take the ”yes” point of view, because it was my belief as a teacher that all students should have a broad experience in reading in order to become skilled readers and well educated adults.  I also feared that some students would dislike reading altogether if all they got was high class literature.

Unfortunately, my own strong feelings and opinions took over my attempts to write for Scholastic. Although I submitted three pieces over time as I tried trying to please Scholastic ,they were all rejected because my opinions did not allow for a “No” argument. I couldn’t get myself to say that there were good reasons why teachers should teach only high quality literature. After all, many students would never find those kinds of books at home or with their friends and that would be a serious mistake in their lives.

And so I missed the opportunity to become a writer for Scholastic.  Having explained my foolishness, I will now give you the opportunity to see what I did write for them, so it will not have been written in vein. I’m sure some of you will pity me and insist it is a good piece and should have been published.  


 Over the Many years I was a teacher, and later a school principal, having students become dedicated readers was my goal. Yes, I also wanted them to do well in writing, math, and science, but I believed that reading was the skill that would help them get there.

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Education May Be Getting too Complicated

Today’s piece is about government expectations for students in the state of Texas. I must confess that I had to read the article three times before fully understanding the situation described. But I think that readers will get my description of what is happening in Texas schools and its results.

Two weeks ago a New York Times article focused on the situation of a nine year old girl named Kristin, who had been doing very well at school. At home she also read a lot, even some books that were quite difficult. But at the end of the last school year her school gave Kristin’s class a new test called “The State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness” or “STAAR”, that judged her and many other students in schools across the state as reading “below grade level”. Such a marking indicated that those students had not met grade level expectations and, therefore, needed to receive “extra help” in reading the following year. The problem with that decision was that Kristin, and others who received it, would be set apart from their regular classmates for reading instruction, and might also miss their regular classes of art or music. For those children–and their parents–such a situation would be very undesirable.

As one might expect, scores of parents protested strongly when those decisions were announced and continued protesting. But the Texas Education Agency stood rigidly behind the test results, insisting that the interpretations of test scores were accurate and supported by research.

Over this school year the situation has changed for the worse. Although reading experts outside of Texas expressed criticism of the test results, saying that those students might very well be better readers than they were judged, the Texas Education Agency would not budge. They insisted that the test questions had been approved by a panel of teachers and field-tested by Texas students beforehand.

All I’ve described on this page may have seemed not worth reading because of so many details about the test given to young children and how it affected them. But the New York Times gave it a whole front page in one of the paper’s main sections. Perhaps they wanted their readers who care about educational quality and fairness to be angered by the stupidity and cruelty of the Texas system. I was. Were you?


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