Skip to Content


Love them! Hate them! Can't do without them?

By Alain Jehlen

When Jana Dean set out to teach her Tumwater, Washington, eighth graders about statistics and life expectancy, she didn't open the textbook. She told the class about the untimely death of her father.

“There was a moment of silence," she recalls. “Then they started telling their own stories: A stillborn sister. A 7-year-old brother hit by a car. Someone who died in a war."

Her classes found out how old 400 of their relatives were when they died, and then calculated life expectancy.

Dean couldn't have found that lesson in a textbook—it was unique to her and her students. Like many great teachers, she designs her lessons for the children in front of her. But she does use textbooks sometimes, as do the vast majority of teachers.

With state tests the dominant fact of life in many schools, the pressure is on to cover the material—all of it, whether you cover it well or not—and textbooks can help. In fact, that's one of the things many teachers hate about them: They tend to be the proverbial “mile wide and an inch deep."

Never mind that the foreign countries school critics hold up as examples actually use the opposite strategy—thinner books, fewer topics, more depth. Here in America, with long lists of standards enforced by high-stakes tests, the books seem to be getting fatter and heavier, to the point where the publisher's trade organization says schools should train students not to carry book bags on just one shoulder: you need two padded shoulder straps and a waist strap to haul all those facts around.

Educators are fighting back against the testing craze. (Don't forget to vote for leaders who will let us replace test-and-punish with teach-and-learn!)

But for now, for most teachers, the realistic task is not so much to do without the text as to keep it under control—make it your servant, not your master.

Here are some ways teachers try to do that.

Choose the book.

“I love my textbooks," says Lin Prescott, a middle school science teacher in Auburn, Maine. “I helped pick them out."

Her book is only half an inch thick, bucking the trend. But more important to her, there are lots of online add-ons both for her and her students. In Maine, she says, every student in seventh and eighth grade is issued a laptop, and this book lets students make good use of it. “There are interactive quizzes and practice tests that give them instant feedback and tell them where to go in the text for extra information."

She also likes the PowerPoints available for teachers, and the many different questions and assignments that she can easily customize.

In Checotah, Oklahoma, social studies teacher Lawrence Lane also chose his texts but with very different criteria: “I went with the book that would be easiest for my kids to read. Some of them don't quite read at grade level. So for me, print size, vocabulary, and simple explanations were important, along with good charts and pictures—things that make it easier for the kid to open the book and follow along."

What do they have in common? Both were active in choosing books that fit their needs, Prescott sifting through many options with her colleagues and Lane working more on his own because he was the only one teaching his particular course.

Depending on your district, you may not have that opportunity, but if you do, these colleagues say, grab it. The time you invest will pay off all year. And many districts pay teachers for the time they spend choosing texts.

If your district administrators want to dictate the book you're going to use, you may be able to do something about that collectively. See page 29 for information on NEA local Associations that have bargained language into their contracts requiring teacher participation in textbook selection. In states that don't allow bargaining, maybe you can still get somewhere by speaking up as a group.

Use parts of the book.

That's Jana Dean's approach. “I use [textbooks] for homework assignments, and I select lessons that meet my students' needs." Dean may take a problem from the book and rewrite it to fit her students' lives—a yogurt shop in the text becomes a popular local eatery in her class. And she uses the books to help her sequence the material and make sure she's covering what the state requires.

Mixed Feelings: What NEA members say about textbooks

Love Them

Hate Them

They give me the scope and sequence I need to teach to. “My textbooks cover the state standards, and for that I am grateful.”
Sandy Smith, math teacher, Arizona  
They're heavy. “Love the multiethnicity. Hate the thickness.”
Kathy Wood, teacher, New Jersey  
They save me time. “I know one teacher who doesn't use textbooks and she is at school every night until 7pm and complains about being burned out on teaching.” 
Susan Sanders, teacher, Michigan
They're boring and shallow. “For the most part, they lack depth and do not whet the appetite to learn. The shotgun approach does not allow for the meat and substance of the subject to be covered. They generally do not encourage further research. They are merely sound bites in print.”
Peggy Lear, retired teacher, Nevada  
They're starting to take advantage of new technology. “I love the computer resources. I love being able to customize tests. The online interactive activities are also great.” 
Kelly Haverlandt, teacher, Montana    
They're expensive and I don't have enough.   “What I dislike about textbooks is how rich some companies are getting at the expense of our students,”
Karen Yoho, teacher, Maryland
They're especially good for new teachers. “I deal with a lot of new teachers and the texts are a good pacer and resource for them. Veteran teachers have the savvy to supplement for the weaknesses in the texts.” 
Maria Rodriguez, literacy coach, Arizona  
They're not written for the students I teach. “Reading levels are often too high for the grade it is used for.”
Diona Copsey, paraeducator, Wyoming “I am the GT teacher, therefore I teach using themes and higher-level thinking activities.”
Angela Davis, Texas

“I tried teaching without them," she says. “In my first two schools, we didn't have textbooks. But it was such a pain to make up all of my own problems! When used as a resource, they can be a great time-saver."

But she doesn't let them run the show. “Textbooks," she says, “just don't contain my students' lives."

Look for better materials.

Again, you may not be able to use this strategy, but it worked for Chad Pavlekovich, a seventh-grade science teacher in Salisbury, Maryland.

He fell in love with a series of short books by Joy Hakim, who approaches science through the human stories of science pioneers like Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.

In an article on Hakim's books, the Washington Post ran excerpts from her story of Einstein's equation E=mc2 and the equivalent passage in a textbook. One was bright, lively, interesting. The other was flat, dull, boring.

Guess which one was Hakim's?

“A lot of my kids didn't realize that scientists have lives and struggles," says Pavlekovich.

He also likes the Einstein book because it deals with black holes, time travel, worm holes—things you find on the Sci-Fi Channel, but not in a textbook. There are no questions on the state test about worm holes, but Pavlekovich says, “I want kids to be excited about science and study it again in high school, and maybe make a career of it."

It wasn't easy, but Pavlekovich managed to persuade district authorities to buy 30 copies of the books. “The kids love them," he reports.

Teach against the book?

You're stuck with a book you really object to. That happened to Portland, Oregon, social studies teacher Bill Bigelow. “My book had exactly three paragraphs on climate change. And the second paragraph says, 'Not all scientists agree with the theory of the Greenhouse Effect.'"

So Bigelow concocted his own global warming unit. His students first read about what's happening and how it affects different kinds of people. Then they interacted with each other, playing the roles of someone who loses, someone who gains, or someone who's trying to make a difference.

Afterward, he had them read the textbook and critique it. “All curriculum is about teaching kids how to read," says Bigelow. “I wanted to inspire questioning and defiance."

Published in:

Published In




There ought to be a contract……

... and in some districts, there is.

When the schools in Hillsborough County, Florida, pick new textbooks, here's how they do it, as provided in their collective bargaining contract. More»

Left and Right Agree! State textbook adoption must go!

Liberal sociologist James Loewen and conservative education historian Diane Ravitch disagree about many things, but they both hate school textbooks, and for similar reasons.

Ravitch lays out her case in The Language Police. Loewen's book is Lies My Teacher Told Me. (Despite the title, his target is books.)

Both say textbooks are boring, bland, and “undermine learning rather than...encouraging it," in Ravitch's words. The industry's guiding principle, they say, is, “Offend no one." More»