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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