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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Textbooks. Seriously? Are they Best Practice For Improving Adolescent Literacy?

This summer at the Connecticut Writing Project at Fairfield teachers are presenting mini-histories and exploring their textual lineage (Tatum, 2007). In a nutshell, they present to others how they came to be as readers and writers and coming to a better understanding of how their stories have intertwined with lived experiences, textual experiences, and the literate world around them. In the stories these teachers tell over and over and over again they NEVER mention (did I say NEVER) that they became more literate through reading, writing, and answering questions out of a textbook. Instead, they express the personal relationships they've had with books that resulted from their parents who read, stellar teachers, comfortable spaces to think, having a variety of reading opportunities, and the power of choice to find books that work for them throughout their lives. I have speculated from our discussions that textbooks used in English classrooms deterred their reading rather making them better readers.

Today, I had a textbook delivered to my desk and was asked, "What do you think?" First of all, the desk beside me  could not hold the weight of the book and it fell over. Being optimistic by nature, I immediately went to the table of contents. WONDERFUL choices. BRILLIANT scholars contributed. PHENOMENAL connection to new Common Core State Standards. LOGICAL organization. Everything I would do as a teacher is in the book accept two things: (1) flexibility and (2) attention to loftiness

I will address each.

(1) flexibility. There are no two classes a day that are the same. Every classroom in the United States has a variety of learners with multiple perspectives, needs and experiences. As a result, no one collection of literature will suffice to meet the heterogeneous classrooms of the 21st century. A colleague who saw me reading the text commented, "Jesus, that is one enormous training manual." I responded, "Actually, that is what it is. It should be used occasionally as a training tool to teach a specific skill at a particular time and then put back on the shelf so young people can enjoy their experiences with words." Teachers should put books in the hands of students that are most relevant to the lives of youth. For these reasons, textbooks are okay, but teachers should be supported to use them with immense flexibility.

(2) loftiness. I now listen to books on my iPod. I also read often online. Even so, I cherish the days I can curl up on a beach, at my house, on a train, or in bed to read a book. No matter how hard I try to imagine it, I cannot envision textbook reading to be a pleasant experience. It is unfriendly, overwhelming, and excessive. It is also enabling. It enables others to be lazy about their thinking because everything has been packaged together for them. This doesn't mean that the content of an English Literature textbook is bad. No, it's actually quite good and it would be perfect if teachers also had "collections" of students who robotically were ready for particular lessons in particular order for particular purposes without daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly interruptions. If only classrooms were as neat and tidy as a table of contents.

I'm not sure if research can measure what is more effective; perhaps the very fact few changes have occurred in NAEP data are because too many schools push textbook instruction on students and it doesn't work. I'm all for reading. I'm definitely for writing. And thinking is a beautiful thing. I wonder, though...do textbooks hinder or benefit the skills needed for 21st century reading, writing, speaking and thinking? My fifteen+ years of work with the National Writing, research in schools, and learning from young people has be believing the opposite. Perhaps it is just me....

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