Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Don't Buy a Textbook

Stanford History Education Group's Reading Like a Historian

I recently received an email from a Superintendent in Massachusetts. It was time to buy an American history textbook series, and he wanted to know if I had any suggestions. My quick answer is: Don't buy a textbook. There's too much out there that's free and a lot better. Below is an updated version of the longer answer I sent him.

1) Get a Free Secondary Source/Textbook
Overall, my recommendations reflect a "balanced" approach of breadth and depth of coverage, which also allows your teachers to use a variety of sources. For example, I was extremely impressed with an approach used at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School. There, the teachers kept an older set of textbooks on the shelf in the classroom--similar to a set of hard copy encyclopedias for occasional use. For more engaging instruction, teachers used supplementary materials from a variety of sources.

I realize that teachers often want a textbook. So an example of a FREE copy of an updated secondary source/textbook can be found at Digital History, a collaboration that includes the Chicago Historical Society. There you will find a link to a free online textbook as well as numerous supplementary sources.

2) Access Digital Text for Using CAST's Book Builder
Easy access to this free digital textbook (which can also be printed out) would open up the opportunity for your teachers to use, when appropriate, CAST's Book Builder. I, as well as the middle school teachers I work with in Southern Illinois, have been so happy with this program's flexibility. It is truly amazing. Here is an example of a lesson I developed with Book Builder for a recent research project in a fifth-grade classroom. Granted, every student in this middle school classroom had their own netbook, which I realize is not a reality in every classroom.

3) Consider the Choices Curriculum
Not spending money on a traditional textbook series frees up dollars for supplementary texts that support the topics your teachers would like to explore with much more depth. Lately, I have really liked what the Choices Program from Brown University has developed. On their website you will find several text series related to American History and Current Events topics, to name a few. This website also offers an amazing collection of videos of scholars discussing the issues presented in the series. Keep in mind these readers were originally developed for secondary students, so your teachers would want to review them to make sure they are appropriate for your students before ordering.

4) See how Historical Thinking Matters Could Support your Curriculum
Professor Sam Wineburg's website, Historical Thinking Matters is the closest curriculum I have found that matches the types of supports CAST developed for their program, Think Like a Historian. If you are interested in learning more, I provide highlights about this website, including links to teaching materials, UDL-like supports such as Graphic Organizers, etc. in one of my previous blog entries. I also recently received an email from TeachingHistory.org announcing the availability of 75 American History lessons through the Stanford History Education Group, another organization tied to Sam Wineburg. These lessons emphasize historical thinking, thus the website's title: Reading Like a Historian.

5) Include Civic Education Another important topic for the middle level learner is civics education. The Center for Civic Education offers some helpful titles.

6) Include Holocaust Curriculum In Illinois, all districts are required to include a focus on the Holocaust in their curriculum. The best resource for these materials is Facing History and Ourselves, which is headquartered in Brookline, MA.

7) Don't Forget Children's Literature Saving money on a traditional textbook series also allows you to buy classroom sets of nonfiction texts. For example, Robert H. Mayer's When the Children Marched: The Birmingham Civil Rights Movement recently received an honorable mention from the Carter G. Woodson Committee as a middle level text that promotes social justice. These types of texts are more engaging than the bombardment of facts presented in traditional textbooks.

I realize my response is a bit more verbose than a quick suggestion for one textbook series; however, I have been less than pleased with what's typically being published by the major textbook companies, especially in terms of the activity sheets they are producing under the banner of "English Language Learning (ELL) Strategies." For example, a major textbook company did provide activity sheets for English Language Learners, but these "accommodations" on worksheets were larger font size and fewer questions (i.e., NO visuals, NO vocabulary support, NO concept maps). It's as if to say talking louder (e.g., larger font size) is all that's required for language acquisition. Fortunately, there are organizations such as CAST that know better, and getting this word out continues to be an important endeavor.


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