Why I’m trusting my textbooks more this year

The MTBoS has changed so much about how I teach and so much about how I think about teaching.This year I am using number talks, visual patterns, Desmos activities, and other things that I would not know about or be comfortable with without the MTBoS, and I stand forever grateful for that.

But as I work to incorporate these MTBoS gems, I find myself doing something that almost feels anathemic to some in the MTBoS: more and more, I am relying on and trusting my textbooks, even those I didn’t pick.

I started this post before Matt Larson’s essay on coherence, Tyler Auer’s analysis of it, and Dan Meyer’s response – hopefully this more personal take will still add to the conversation.

I have rarely trusted in a textbook before this year. My intro to textbooks was a NYC Regents-aligned book that was very traditional, direct, and above the reading level of most of my students. Rather than try to scaffold the book, I decided to use it as a very general guideline to order of curriculum, and made a lot of my own worksheets and SMART board notebooks instead. As a first year teacher in a difficult teaching environment with no real mentor, I was very direct instruction oriented, but I liked my own direct instruction better than the book’s direct instruction. It felt more personal.

Ever since then, I’ve always assumed that textbooks were inferior to what I could make, and I’ve mostly used them as a source of exercises, and rarely more than that. Even on the occasions I liked my books more – like when I used Discovering Geometry in my third year – I’ve mostly re-typed, re-ordered, re-structured. I’ve always assumed I could do it better than my book.

In many cases, I’m probably right. I do think that many of my lessons, created by me or created by others online, have been better than an “I do, we do, you do” lesson that might come straight out of my book without modification. But I also know I’ve spent hundreds of hours reinventing wheels, often with poor or mixed results. There have been plenty of days – perhaps as many as 30% of my lessons last year, if I’m being honest – that a very lightly modified “You do, Y’all do, We do” 1 lesson using the examples and exercises directly from my book would have saved me hours and worked just as well if not better for my students than what I was able to put together. This year, I’m working to identify those moments and save myself some pain.

This is not to say that I am suddenly interested in slavishly following my books without thinking. My geometry book, particularly, comes from a point of view that I think sometimes misses the point; though it does a lovely job scaffolding 2-column proof, it spends very little effort asking students to think logically in other areas, providing proofs for area formulas, for example, without any buildup. It’s not a curriculum, per se, in that it doesn’t include many activities and certainly doesn’t include detailed lesson plans. It’s really a reference book. The point for me is that I should still use it as a reference book, rather than ignoring it completely. I need to trust it more, not because it’s perfect, but because it’s often good enough. If I do that, then I’ll be able to spend more time finding and building really wonderful, coherent activities to extend and balance the book, rather than spending so much time trying to replace it.

I tweeted this over the summer:

Working with a team to write a true coherent curriculum, not even completely from scratch, has really opened my eyes to how poor some of my previous work along these lines has been. Perhaps that is why I’m feeling more respect for textbooks these days, even ones I objectively feel are not as good as what I’m working on. The book we are writing will not be perfect, and in first draft it may not even be perfectly coherent, to be honest. But it will be good. And that makes me feel respect for the teams that write all of the books, even those I would write differently.

  1. Thanks to @k8nowak for introducing me to that reference

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