Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Control the content.

I'm looking at this from the standpoint of a High School English teacher.

The reality is that it doesn't matter much which books I teach my students. While I like and have predilections towards more thoughtful literature, I really don't need to use those books to do what I do. If this seems strange, I blame it on my labeling as an "English" teacher.
I don't teach English. Never have. Don't even know how, really.

What I teach is skills via literature.

And if we can all agree for a moment that the "skills" part of that is the important part, then it becomes clear that the literature is really just a prop to help me teach those ever important skills. I honestly don't really need any specific prop- I just need something to work with.
All that said, I've become increasingly agitated by the constant questions about "text books." So let's talk about those.

First off, textbook companies exist for one reason: To make money. That's it. Any motivation they have to provide a quality product is dependent on that product being able to make them money. As a result, it's in their best interest to create a product for the largest possible market. Practically speaking in the US, that means building textbooks that fulfill California and Texas' requirements. Everybody else gets to buy it too, but the content is engineered for those states. Fine.
Second, textbooks were a thing created out of need. There was no practical way for an educator to compile all the resources they would need for a year's worth of instruction. Books could be rare (or obscure), there was a lot of writing to be done, and a huge amount of organization to be undertaken.
All of which is to say that we got lazy. We started to think that it was easier to just buy a textbook than it was to build what we wanted for ourselves. We were led to believe that we should leave such stuff to the "experts." Here's the thing: we are the experts. We are the educators, we do know what we need in the classroom.
Several years ago now, I spearheaded a project at my school to have the senior English text be an in-house self published book. We did it in one summer- and yes, it was a lot of work. But from that effort we had exactly what we wanted- nothing more, nothing less. Once that initial push was made and the text existed, every year we could revise it, tweak it, modify it to fulfill our ever-shifting needs as educators. I'll also tell you that self publishing a textbook was wildly less expensive than buying one- printed commercial textbooks were $80-100 each, and our books were less than $6. It was so much less expensive, actually, that we could give them to our students every year- they would keep them, write in them, take contextual notes in them... and it'd still be cheaper than buying some published book.
Now, given that my school has gone 1:1, things are looking even better. We're slowing the printing of texts and moving to ePubs. We're building a modular contextual vocabulary unit that will allow each teacher to pull from the same bank of words, but easily re-order their vocab books to reflect the order in which they intent to teach texts.

If we can't, as educators, be bothered to take control of the very content that we teach- if we hide behind the facade of a textbook, then we do ourselves and our students a profound disservice. We become the same as a chef who takes no interest in the quality or provenance of his ingredients. We become a farce.