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If No Textbooks, Then What?

You hear a lot of talk these days about ditching the textbooks and moving toward a more open-source means of creating content for our students. Donelle O’Brien shared her enthusiasm for the idea in a recent blog post but posed some great questions about what and how this works in a traditional classroom setting. I stopped using textbooks in science and in social studieby Plutors a few years ago, so I thought I’d share a little bit about why, alternatives that I use and how it has impacted student learning in 3-5 grade classrooms.

Because textbooks are written to be mass marketed, the curriculum covered in them is actually much more broad than what most state-standards require at a particular grade level. In our school’s science text, we could only use three of the eight units that are published in the book and it doesn’t include one unit goal that I am required to teach. Our social studies book is specifically designed to teach about our state, but it does so in a static and unengaging manner. Why would I want to use these materials? We know that textbooks do not equate knowledge, which is why I appreciated this Flickr photo because it is titled “Just the Ones I’m Getting Rid Of” by Plutor.

So, if you are pondering the great journey of letting go of the textbook or you are entering a classroom where there weren’t any textbooks to start with, here are a few ideas.

Fiction and Non-Fiction Literature:

Last year, my grade level team decided to forgo the adoption of a new textbook and to spend a fraction of that budget on purchasing various class sets of novels that serve as foundations for most of our curriculum. Carole Marsh, author and founder of Gallopade International, has a great series of mysteries that teach about many areas of our curriculum. She has great titles such as Mystery on the Underground Railroad and The “Gosh Awful” Gold Rush Mystery. These books put children in the middle of historic places to teach about them and why these places are important to our history. We also research picture books that would help tell the story of events in American history in their context of North Carolina’s past, such as Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins. We visited the State Archives and ordered many publications from there that were collections of primary resources to add to our students’ research experiences. For a fraction of the cost of a set of textbooks, we have a collection of literature that adds life and unique voice to our curriculum. Studies Weekly is another of my favorite resources, as it is a content based weekly newspaper publication for students that teaches in exciting and engaging ways. I usually get a mini-grant for these (about $5 per student/per year) and the kids have a consumable resource that evolves from year to year – and, of course, they have excellent on-line support.

Check out community resources:

There are dozens of community resources that will provide free or very reasonably costing programs for classrooms. There are also many who will “lend” these resources to educators. Here are some links to some resources that I have used.

Ag in the Classroom: Ag in the Classroom offers resources for science and social studies lessons, including lesson plans, contact information, a Teen Zone and a great Kids Page.

4-H Programs: 4-H puts together amazing “kits” for educators across the curriculum. We have their Electricity Kits which teach everything from circuits to motors in an inquiry based manner that is designed to get kids thinking and experimenting. The resources for teachers are top-notch and the training/support by 4-H is also excellent.

Government Officials: Who better to talk about state and local government than government officials? Invite your elected and appointed officials into your classroom to talk about what they do all day and how government works. Don’t forget that with the ease of free video conferencing (like Skype), distance no longer has to be an option. When we studied Louis and Clark, we talked to a class in St. Louis who had been studying all about them in their home state!

Museum Speakers and Lending: Check with your local and state museums about sending programs to you, if you cannot go to them. Also, consider the possiblities of the Lending Libraries that many museums, like the North Carolina Museum of Art, have to offer.

Colleges & Universities: Need resources to teach about geology? Who better than a geologist (or at least someone studying to be a geologist)? Universities and colleges are often thrilled to send professors and or graduate students to do programs for K-12 classrooms. They have access to amazing specimans and samples that a regular classroom teacher could never afford to collect. For example, we study rocks and minerals. A graduate student from East Carolina University was more than willing to come out to our school, bring a huge rock collection, streak plates and other activity materials for my students to get hands-on learning experiences with rocks. They also bring the interesting dynamic of how to turn curricular passions into a career!

Getting Organized:

I have to admit that I love plastic storage boxes. They are stackable, fillable, and easily labeled. To start our textbook-less movement, our grade level team organized what we already had. We grouped like topics, added supplemental resources we already had, stuck in any videos/multimedia materials that we owned, and we created a folder on our school’s share drive for each unit. When you check out a unit box, you are agreeing to use the materials from inside that interest you and to add anything that you create/find to supplement it. After a year of six teachers using the same unit, it was exciting to watch those resources grow and evolve. We also have a shared folder of resources (documents, multimedia presentations, findings from Discovery Education, and links to online sources).

One Unit Box we have is the “Kitty Hawk” box. Contents include:

  1. Class set of The Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk
  2. Teacher created reflection questions and comprehension/vocabulary practice to accompany novel
  3. Link to Animated Hero Classics: The Wright Brothers on Discovery Streaming
  4. Photos and literature from a family visit to the Wright Brothers’ Memorial National Park in Kitty Hawk, NC
  5. Various supplemental books about Kitty Hawk and the Wright Brothers
  6. Writing prompt ideas/support for newspaper writing exercise (as if the student were the witness to the first flight)
  7. Curriculum connections to the science of flight
  8. Coloring pages from various sources that teach about others in the race to fly
  9. And more and more every time someone uses the unit box

cole24_ pick me

So, don’t be afraid to let your textbooks start collecting dust. Use your personal learning network (both face to face and online) to collect resources that will enrich and enhance your teaching and learning!

I’d love your comments, suggestions and tips on more ways to teach without a textbook.

*Added June 30

A few people have asked me to talk a little bit about how I teach math without a textbook, so I thought I’d just talk about my typical math lesson (90 minutes daily). I divide my class into 4 flexible groups and they learn our routine early in the year.

I work with 1 group at a table at one side of the room on introducing new concepts or reviewing skills that need attention. We do guided hands-on activities together, use personal dry erase boards, etc.

At the same time, another group is at the interactive whiteboard doing a lesson that I have chosen/created that reinforces skills that we have already worked on. This station might also be used for a learning game or other educational experience disguised as something fun.

Another group is working collaboratively on problem solving skills as a group. They each have their math journals in which they record their problems, strategies and results. Each Monday of the first several weeks of school I introduce a “new” problem solving strategy. Throughout that week students focus on practicing that skill. In following weeks, problems demand that students choose a skill or multiple skills to solve their problems.

The final group is working on an independent assignment at their seats, from Accelerated Math or on a specific computer site that I have chosen (like AAAMath, Multiplication.Com, or even an assignment on Edmodo).

We rotate through these groups daily on about a 20 minute rotation for each space. I get to sit down face to face with every student every day. I have found that my need for grading daily papers, etc. has been reduced drastically. I know how my kids are doing because they have to prove it to me and their peers on a daily basis. We establish such a solid routine that even substitute teachers are happy to carry out these rotations. The students have told me how much they like the varied opportunities within each day to have time together to talk and time to process on their own. I pull resources from across the internet, design projects with my peers and even use worksheets (gasp) occasionally. By carefully choosing the worksheets I want to use rather than just relying on what comes with the book, I know that these papers are going to meet specific needs and targeted objectives. Again, we stay with the county’s pacing guide, take common assessments with other 4th graders and jump through the necessary hoops. Using these methods of instruction, I can effectively and seamlessly differentiate learning for my students and help to ensure their success.

17 Responses

  1. Thanks for this post. This year I’m moving to 6th grade science and my goal is to use the textbook or paper in general as little as possible. These are great options you have provided.

    Since I’m also a math teacher, I’d like to do the same with math. Last year in 7th grade, I was constantly wondering why our county adopted the particular textbook because our math PLC spent most of planning time together developing supplemental resources. I still have a dream of teaching a bookless math class and I’m always trying to recruit brave souls to join me. Maybe one day . . .

    Bottom line is we too often allow the textbook to determine our curriculum AND methods instead of the other way around.

  2. Matt – You can do it! I haven’t used a math textbook in at least 3 years. They had one to take home for reference (and to appease parents). We did everything hands-on and created by me. We weren’t paperless but the activities were much more meaningful!

  3. I bet they were. Luckily I have principal that is willing to let me sail into new territory.

  4. Great post Kelly! I too use text books as little as possible. In the past I’ve taught 6th grade science and have relied heavily on the Project Wet (http://tiny.cc/Beo5C) Project Wild, Project Aquatic Wild, and Project Learning Tree books to provide great ideas to teach about the environment and life science in general. Fantastic simulations which not only get the kids up and moving but also provide great insight into animals and human interactions. I also find using picture books in both science and math to be a great way of teaching. I’ve used the Lorax often with students teaching about enviromental issues for instance

  5. Thank you for accepting my challenge to blog about your Unit Box idea. I love it!!! I’ve learned so much from you and appreciate your taking time to answer those questions I had about how you make this work. I wrote a proposed unit model using Edublogs and will be spending a year designing units and putting them into Moodle. We signed up for Discovery Streaming and I can’t wait to utilize their great resources too. I think I need to look for a sale on plastic boxes at Target. Thanks for the inspiration. 🙂

  6. Matt Guthrie’s comment nailed it for me. He is fortunate to have a principal that “allows” him to explore alternative approaches to learning. All teachers should be so lucky, but many principals, administrators, coordinators, board members, parents and teachers have reservations about charting this new territory. Why?

    Digital textbooks run counter to current (read: traditional) instructional methods. Ditching the textbook is a risky proposition for administrators – pinning student achievement scores to unproven technology. Unproven in the sense that many of the studies on the effectiveness of certain technologies in the classroom either have issues surrounding validity or reliability of the data. See @jonbecker ‘s blog posts on Marzano or @zephoria ‘s blog posts on current socialmedia research to start.

    I commented on Donelle’s original post that I love the idea of ditching the textbook. I would love to see it happen. And, I know that creating alternative lessons and activities (outside of the textbook) have merit. You’ve listed some amazing alternatives here.

    However, in a time where “common assessments” and “standardized” testing drive policy, I think it is somewhat idealistic. It might even be symptomatic of The Snark Syndrome (http://bit.ly/3mGbem).

  7. These are great resources.

    I teach in Quebec. We are in the midst , well, at the tail-end of the first cohort to go through ‘reform’. This means that for each of the past 11 years the next grade level began new courses. This coming year, it is happening in Grade 11.

    A unique quality about teaching in Quebec is, if you work in the English sector, you do not have the same access to text books for the new courses as do those teachers who teach in the French sector. Sometimes we have had to wait over a year for materials, but are still required to teach the new courses. At other times we have received materials piece-meal over the year, as they are translated from French to English.

    So we are old hats at teaching without text books 🙂

    One thing that we do is a lot of co-planning. Teachers meet and create learning and evaluation situations together, or they do so online. For example, this year I will be teaching the new Grade 11 course Contemporary World. It’s essentially a research course. We have a ning that we are using to collaborate across schools throughout the English schools network in Quebec.

    So developing online communities like a ning is another great way to support each other without textbooks.

    Here’s our ning:

  8. Shea, I had actually seen your comment on Donelle’s blog before I had checked my own and left you this response…

    I think you raise some great questions to the idea of ditching the textbooks, and I’d like to offer you a bit of my own experience. The idea of textbooks that is unappealing to me (and frankly dangerous for kids, in my opinion) is when textbooks are used as the primary method of instruction and planning.

    The parent element is a great point. Many parents don’t understand the idea of teaching without a textbook. It isn’t how they learned. I hand out my textbooks. I just don’t necessarily use them regularly to drive instruction. Instead we (and parents) have them as a reference source. Sometimes I will even use the tests that come from the textbooks to assess the learning that my students have done without them. I have found that they do better on the tests using my broader approach than other classes who are using the traditional textbook method.

    I also follow the local system’s pacing guide for objectives and goals. It allows my students the ability to stay on pace with others and the common assessments. It’s also a great “self-checking” system to make sure you are covering everything you are mandated to cover.

    I guess I look at ditching the textbooks as keeping the blueprints but building with a different material. 🙂

    Thanks Donelle for engaging in this conversation!

    In reference to the idea of research based statistics on using the newer technologies, I have a hard time relying on any of these because they are too dependent on the primary external factor… the teacher. I know teachers who use textbooks who get great results, and I know teachers who use them who get terrible results. The same can be said for using non-traditional materials.

    I appreciate the link to the Snark Syndrome post. It is essential that we ed-tech types remember that balance. I also believe, though, that we must challenge what has always been for what could be.

  9. Great post, Kelly! After teaching 5th grade for many years, I was moved to an “extra” 6th grade that was needed. Of course the “extra” class didn’t have text books! It was the best thing that could’ve happened! It forced me to come up with lots of other resources with which to share the curriculum.

    The hardest subject for me, however, is the math! Can you offer more examples of what your math classes look like?
    Thanks for all of your wonderful work!

  10. Great post, Kelly. We need more and more real-world examples (like this) to help convince the skeptics and inspire those who are ready to take the leap.

    @Shea – Yes, there are many principals, administrators, coordinators, board members, parents and teachers that are putting up roadblocks in many areas of potential positive change. That’s why it’s time for as many people as possible to be disruptive. Raise a stink. Make noise. Keep the conversation going until it becomes so loud it’s impossible to ignore.

  11. I had not heard of the Carole Marsh mystery series. I will be sure to check into those. Thanks for mentioning them.

    Regarding the Wright Brothers, I have an easy to access Wright Brothers coloring page at my post about the book, “My Brothers Flying Machine.”

    Here is a link to that post:

  12. Thanks for the follow up re:math. I like your system. Sometimes we forget how simple it can be primarily because we get hung up on classroom management. We are afraid to allow movement for fear of losing control or we fall into the “sage on the stage” paradigm. The beauty of your approach is that it is not subject/content area specific. It’s just good pedagogy.

  13. Oh yeah… students keep all work in their math folder until the end of the week. I collect it at one time and they are responsible for all assignments. I “spot check” for grades choosing 3-4 assignments to assign number grades and I leave comments on most others. Because we work in small groups, so much feedback has already been given.

  14. […] 31, 2009 · Leave a Comment Kelly Hines has a new blog post on K-12 teaching without textbooks. Hines provides a list of ideas ranging from using literature to […]

  15. Good job

  16. […] Kindles in the classroom and censorship: Lifelong Learner 2.0 by Donelle O’Brien Keeping Kids First by Kelly […]

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