Textbook Scripts, Student Lives

By Jana Dean

Illustrator: J.D. King

Illustration: J.D. King

Three years ago my school district invested in a new, highly structured math program. At the same time, the central office vowed to invest in its teachers. Those taking on the program got the opportunity to co-plan with others teaching the same grade level. Because I love teaching math and like collaborating, I agreed to be part of this centralized bid to support student success.

The school board approved the purchase of the Connected Mathematics 2 series, published by Prentice Hall. The back of the textbooks promised: “Classroom tested, proven effective!” The publishers claimed that the curriculum as packaged would spiral elegantly through three grade levels and leave no gap in anyone’s understanding. My heart sank at our first collaboration meeting. The hired consultant took up all the talk time and then handed us teacher’s editions and proclaimed that we had nothing to worry about: 70 percent of the content in the books matched state standards, and all we had to do was open the books to page one and follow the pacing guides he’d provided.

During my first year of teaching, I learned what an asset a textbook can be. I taught in a school without books. I wrote every single math, language arts, social studies, and science lesson, and also taught music, physical education, and art. My students moved on to 7th grade, their skills improved, and I required a weeklong solo stay at the beach to recover. (I watched daytime television and did jigsaw puzzles.)

Since then, I’ve also come to realize that a textbook can provide continuity for students. There’s no way, however, that textbook authors can know what happened in my classroom the day before yesterday. Nor can they listen to my students’ stories in order to connect academics to the daily and local struggles of their families and community. I want to teach responsively and with hope for a better future for my students. Textbooks, published by corporations that have much to gain by maintaining business as usual, aren’t likely to press students to envision a future any different from the past and present. I want students not only to master the concepts and procedures that will be on the next standardized test, but also to be able to use the mathematics they learn to examine how race, environmental issues, and economics affect their lives and their world. If I’m to do that, the textbook can come along for the ride, but I’ve got to be in the driver’s seat.

The students I teach live in Tumwater, Wash. Ours is the smallest of three towns surrounding the state capital, Olympia. Interstate 5 cuts our county in half and connects it to Seattle — just an hour’s drive to the north when the traffic is not bad. When I first moved here 20 years ago, log trucks rumbled to the bay and plywood mills lined the waterfront. Now, with the easy reach of the deep-water ports of Tacoma and Seattle and the loss of most of our Western Washington big trees, ship-to-shore container trailers and warehouses outnumber log trucks and mills. Most people work for the state, in the service sector, or in the trades. Some commute up or down the freeway. We have few private schools. Almost everyone goes to public school, and families tend to trust teachers with the task of teaching their children to read, write, and do mathematics.

In contrast, the curriculum choices of school districts around the country seem to show a distrust of teachers’ ability to get students where they need to go. Many new textbooks provide detailed instructions about exactly how each lesson is to be delivered, complete with predicted and scripted classroom dialogue. Even open-ended questions often have a “correct” answer. School districts pay good money for this “learning insurance” and understandably, given the investment they’ve made, expect teachers to follow whatever program they’ve purchased.

Although not the only culprit, No Child Left Behind has exacerbated the trend toward this kind of top-down control. School districts, in their bid to ensure quick success on standardized tests, seek “guaranteed” programs, creating a national curriculum appetite. A national market makes the investment in developing the materials worthwhile. Textbook publishers have lined up to profit from selling ready-made packages linked to CDs, websites, and automated, standards-linked lesson planning software. On the surface, it would seem that ample, predesigned resources would be in the interest of student learning. When the rubber hits the road, however, teachers, not the textbooks, know their students. And teachers do the teaching.

My first year in the classroom, I met a tow truck driver. He told me as he hooked up my Honda Civic (seized cam shaft) that he loved driving a tow truck because it was just like fishing: He never knew what he’d haul in. I wouldn’t know until I had taught for a few years how much like driving a tow truck classroom life would be. While the rudiments of the job remain the same, every class is different. Some years the combination of personalities makes for dozens of blissful permutations of the seating chart. Projects get a life of their own and the only students failing are those who never make it to school. Other years, you stagger through the weeks and months, pulling every trick you know out of your bag to massage a collection of challenges into a productive community. The first few years of teaching I hoped that I’d “get it down.” I desperately wanted some kind of script to follow just to make the job a little easier. To rely on a fixed curriculum presumes uniformity from day to day, year to year, and student to student, from now into the foreseeable future. Eventually I learned that while I repeat lessons and units from year to year, the way students respond undoes any notion of a foolproof pace and predictable script.

For me, teaching starts with my commitment to showing my students that they have the power to bring beauty and justice to their lives. While it’s my job to provide students with an opportunity to learn what’s outlined by the state standards, the only way I know to get them there is to listen to my class so that I can teach in a way that helps them use academics to make their world a better place. Connected Mathematics 2, the series our district purchased, does do more to engage students in learning than most books, but the problems don’t invite students to apply mathematics to analyzing the institutions and social and environmental issues that matter in local communities.

According to the charts provided by the publisher, the pace of the program also looked problematic. It assumed more classes per week and longer class meetings than any of us teachers had ever had. In addition, on a good week in middle school, at least one day out of five, things just don’t go as planned. We routinely have bad-weather late starts, a death in the family, fire drills, or a frank refusal to learn on Tuesday. Even under the best circumstances, the events in a lively, engaging classroom simply can’t be predicted years in advance and from five states away. Teaching at the proposed pace would have been like going on a road trip with a remote-control driver. I wanted to drop the new books and retreat to my closet full of math resources. I didn’t. Instead, I grimly picked up my stack of books and resolved to try.

We teachers taking on the challenge had also taken on supporting each other to succeed. The fear of letting down my colleagues made it hard to trust my experience and instincts. Rather than carefully building classroom community that is closely tied to mathematics in students’ lives like I usually do, I jumped in and started with the books open to page one. Like my colleagues, I found that following the program strictly as written and paced wouldn’t reach my students. I had to address their misconceptions, and often, the cumbersome or directive language of the book got between me and my students and between my students and the math. In addition, we were right about the pace: it was simply too fast to keep without losing half the crowd to confusion that leads to disengagement.

Also, while textbook authors do their best to create “student-friendly” texts, these books presumed experience my students simply hadn’t had. Many of the problems touched on the familiar: car washes, T-shirt sales, and planning for school events. Others, however, built on contexts that required background knowledge most of my students didn’t have. I remember an early lesson that derailed into a long explanation of rental fees for bicycles while on vacation. Renting bikes is an expensive proposition, one which most of my students hadn’t encountered. The objective of the lesson had to do with rates and linear equations, but the distance of the context from my students’ lives made the math harder rather than easier to access. I don’t have anything against bike rentals, and I don’t object to building background knowledge to help my students access math, but if I am going to do so I want it to be about something that can lead to critical thinking about the conditions of their own lives and the lives of others.

Another problem especially dogged me. Many of my students simply weren’t engaged. And they were the same ones most at risk for failing our state’s standardized test and missing out on the chance for higher math or dropping out of high school. Here’s my theory: Curricular resources designed for “typical” students work best for those students who have accepted school as an institution. They tend to come from families who’ve been successful in school. When resources reflect upper-middle-class and middle-class experiences, they normalize those experiences and marginalize others. This can serve to reinforce the gap in my grade book between students who see their lives reflected by the curriculum and those who don’t.

I quickly learned to shift contexts as I aimed to reach all my students. My early attempts were simply bids for engagement through the familiar. When we came to a problem in the math textbook about yogurt shops, for example, rather than explaining a phenomenon absent from our community, I turned the yogurt shop into Eagan’s Drive-In, one of the last remaining local joints amidst a growing maze of national chains. Another set of problems had to do with Walk-a-Thons. Instead of following a five-day thread that I didn’t think would interest most of my crowd, I got a copy of Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line” and we playfully walked and tracked rates and paces to the music. Instead of buying a cookstove on time, as suggested by the book, I researched skateboard prices. Each of these shifts in context took preparation time. I could no longer rely on the book for student-friendly instructions. Instead, I rewrote tasks and projected them on the wall. In spite of the extra up-front work, I found it paid off in less of the mop-up work generated by missed homework, confusion, and lack of student interest.

For each of these early departures, I relied heavily on the purchased program for the structuring and sequencing of questions and problems. This helped keep me “on the same page” as my colleagues during collaboration meetings. While my students hadn’t “covered” the pages, I’d studied the lessons and the state standards so closely that I could bring my students through the concepts apace with other classes. That way I could still exchange observations with colleagues. In this way, the common text served as an advantage. We teachers learned from each other about how students struggled with specific concepts. We were also able to commiserate about the pacing mandated by the district office. Together, we eventually made a successful bid to the math curriculum coordinator for pacing charts that better matched our school calendar.

Staying close to — but not following — the text improved my teaching. In order to shift contexts, I had to see the math underlying each set of problems in the textbook through my students’ eyes. I had to ask and answer the question, “What would help them care about learning these concepts?” I took on understanding the assumptions and sequencing of the text as a professional development project.

As I gained confidence balancing text, my desire for collaboration, and each year’s “haul” of students, I got more ambitious. The second year, rather than studying fictitious peanut butter prices, students compared the ages of their oldest living relatives. In the process, I learned about my students’ heritage and families in the first weeks of school. More importantly, students learned about each other. Later, I shifted a series of lessons in nonlinear relationships from interest rates on savings to interest rates on loans. I challenged students to respond to the question, “Is interest fair?” They compared rates for payday loans, auto loans, and student loans. They also grappled with the injustice of realizing that people who have less money often pay more for college due to interest on loans.

More recently, I have begun to design whole units around topics that touch students’ lives, as well as supporting them to think critically and see connections to local, national, and international issues. Students studied fossil fuel depletion, local driving habits, and gas prices while learning statistics. (See “The Future of Driving,” Rethinking Schools, Vol. 21 No. 2.) Living wages became a backdrop for linear relationships. (See “Living Algebra, Living Wage,” Rethinking Schools, Vol. 21 No. 4.) This year’s class compared life expectancy in the United States with life expectancy in other parts of the world and applied statistics to understand the underlying environmental and economic causes for the inequity they observed. Each of these “redesigns” uses the textbook as a point of departure. I study the scaffolding of concepts provided by the purchased program and use it to frame my students’ learning while massaging the culture of the class with questions that open their eyes to the world and to each other.

Sometimes I think my life would be easier if I abandoned the book altogether. But I don’t throw it down and march off independently because I value the opportunity to talk math with my colleagues. Also, while I question much of the motivation behind standardization, I accept the premise that the sequencing of content makes sense. Students’ time oughtn’t be wasted by needless repetition. If I operate within the sequence of the purchased program, my students’ education will have more continuity. And sometimes the text provides the most direct access to important concepts. The book series also affords valuable experience in reading “academic English” which is also the language of standardized tests, higher math, and the path to a diploma. My most at-risk students need as much practice with that as I can give while keeping them engaged in learning. I also have my selfish reasons for hanging onto the book: Using it usually frees me from writing homework assignments. I still remember that first year in the classroom.

Sometimes I consider backing off from my ambitious redesigns of entire units to rely more heavily on my district’s structured program. But then I remind myself of the hush that came over the room when I introduced statistics and life expectancy with the sad and too-early death of my own father. Students proceeded to listen to each other’s memories of lost family and friends. They heard about Dustin’s cousin and former student of mine who had died in a car wreck a few years before. They heard about stillborn babies. They heard about whole families gone, and blankets on fire with houses that followed, and family members lost in Vietnam, the Gulf, Iraq. They heard about Riva’s little brother, hit by a car on his bike when he was 10. By the time students’ stories filled the room, the math learning we were about to do was already more about my students and less about the textbook. And better yet, the connection they made between math and their own families later allowed them to connect to the struggle for clean water and health care in Bangladesh and Malawi.

Sometimes I naively think that the hard work is over and maybe I’ve “got it down.” And then I remember: A script, no matter how good, isn’t teaching and learning. When I asked Sammie a few weeks ago what she thought about learning math by collecting statistics about families, she tilted her head to the side and said slowly, “Well, I think that making it about our families makes comparing histograms and box-plots more interesting.” Her response twice reassured me. Not only did she find the learning engaging because it tapped into her classmates’ stories, she’d used the academic language required by our state test. While the books contain lessons to meet the standards and plenty of well-organized problems, they just don’t contain my students’ lives. And as importantly, they don’t contain questions that help my students analyze how wealth and power function in our world, let alone push them to envision a future much different from the present.

Like my tow truck driver, I love my job. Every day is different. And unlike my carefully edited teacher’s guide, I never know what I’ll haul in.

Jana Dean (jdean@reachone.com) teaches algebra to 8th-grade students at Bush Middle School in Tumwater, Wash. She contributes regularly to Rethinking Schools and is co-editing a Rethinking Schools book on environmental justice and climate change.