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Ever since teachers Sue Ellen McMullin and Patricia Couts started using the textbook Stairway to Algebra, not once have they heard their students ask the dreaded question, "When are we ever going to use this?"

They used to hear it a lot, McMullin says. They also used to notice that their 8th-grade students at the all-girls' Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Md., often looked puzzled or discouraged. And they were having to bring in more and more homespun exercises to supplement the mainstream commercial text they were using in class.

That's why they decided it was time to write their own. Two summers ago, the veteran Holton-Arms teachers got to work, outlining topics, splitting up chapters, scouring over old notes, creating new problems, and batting around ideas until they emerged--in time for the 1993-94 school year--with a 398-page, professionally printed and bound, bright red textbook with their names on it.

While ambitious and somewhat tedious, their endeavor has not been unmatched in the independent school sector, where teachers usually find themselves with broader latitude than their public school peers over what textbooks to use--if any at all--for their students. Unleashed from state textbook-adoption and school district policies, and generally privileged by small classes and supportive administrations, a growing number of private school teachers have decided to take their expertise to the press.

Independent school teachers "can look for the best possible textbook that fits them and fits the needs of their students," says Rodney LaBrecque, the dean of academic affairs at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Conn. "And when they can't find what they want, after a while they say, 'Well, I know this material, and I'm going to write my own.' "

Most teachers-turned-authors say their textbooks are successful in the classroom because they don't try to take on the world or water down subject matter to target the average student.

"It's incredibly frustrating because traditional textbooks tend to get written by committees of editors" that have to focus on what will sell to a diverse market, LaBrecque says.

Big publishers tend to have so many demands to meet that they often "homogenize the life out of a subject," adds Sharon Hamilton, an English teacher at the private Buckingham Browne and Nichols School in Cambridge, Mass. Hamilton wrote a teacher's guide to Shakespeare after searching the market in vain for a book that would help endear her high school students to her favorite author.

Shakespeare, A Teaching Guide, "presents techniques that my own students taught me by default," Hamilton says. The book was published two years ago, after about a year of inquiries, by J. Westin Walch in Portland, Maine. Since then, Hamilton has written another book, due out next year--this one a guide to style and grammar for high school students called Solving 50 Common Writing Problems.

Lark Palma, the head of school at the Catlin Gable School in Portland, Ore., warned that the leeway afforded independent school educators can have a down side. Too much autonomy, she says, can get in the way of the structure of a curriculum. "But I've found in experimenting that there is no ideal textbook."

She and a colleague teamed up to write The Political Animal in the late 1980s when she was a teacher at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School in Columbia, S.C. "We wanted a humanities approach to the study of history for 9th graders, and we had to write our own text to come up with that," Palma says. The textbook was bound and printed at a local Kinko's, and Heathwood Hall freshmen are still using it in history classes today.

Mindful of Girls

For McMullin and Couts, writing a book to meet the needs of their students meant tailoring it to accentuate what they believe are the specific learning styles of girls.

"Girls are more altruistic and like to support each other," McMullin says. For that reason, the textbook's exercises often call on students to work in peer groups and take part in hands-on learning activities.

The authors also wanted a text that would encourage girls' confidence in their math abilities. "At this age, when traditionally girls' interest in math supposedly drops off drastically, you have to keep them feeling successful and interested," Couts says.

So the book offers several different explanations to problems to accommodate a variety of learning styles, gives students writing assignments that force them to articulate their understanding of concepts in clear, simple prose, and tries to find real-world applications to subject matter that textbooks too often present in abstract terms.

The authors say their book also works to remedy another shortcoming of many commercial texts: sexism.

"If the girls were in the word problem, they were doing things like opening boxes of dolls," Couts says of the textbooks they found on the market. "So we would substitute and say, well, we'll make it soccer shirts. And they could relate better to that."

For its part, the 600-student Holton-Arms School has stood behind the teachers. "I had always wanted to write a math textbook,"McMullin says. "But I never got the support to go ahead and do it."

After the teachers approached the school's headmistress and their department chairman with the idea for the book, Holton-Arms agreed to give them each a stipend for the summer they spent writing. The grade 3-12 school also absorbed the printing costs, handled sales to students, and offered the teachers another stipend to make any necessary revisions in the summer of 1994.

Stairway to Algebra is currently under consideration for publication at a small, young publishing house in Massachusetts. The authors say they didn't query the bigger publishing companies because those houses usually prefer to produce an entire series of textbooks that span grade levels.

Until they receive word from the publisher, the textbook will remain a Holton-Arms novelty. But the teachers are confident that many of their counterparts in both girls' and coed schools would like to get a closer look at their book. In fact, since taking the manuscript to a math conference and garnering some local media attention, the two have received more than a dozen inquiries from other teachers interested in buying their textbook.

Free To Choose

When it comes to buying instructional materials for the classroom, many private school teachers don't think investing in traditional textsis money well spent. Textbooks too often are "framed for reasons that are political rather than scholarly or pedagogical," says Peter Tacy, the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools. "For a comparable amount of money, you can do a lot of different things."

Many independent school teachers will opt to spend that money on college-level textbooks from which they can choose appropriate sections and supplement with primary sources such as commercial magazines and newspapers. Others will continue to rely on their own material--bound or unbound, published or unpublished.

Derek Stolp and Donald Duncan, two math teachers at Milton Academy in Milton, Mass., wrote Middle School Mathematics: A Gateway to Algebra in 1987. Like the Holton-Arms duo, the Milton teachers collaborated on a different method for teaching pre-algebra, received summer stipends from their employer, and printed the results locally. They even sold their text to about a half-dozen other private schools, some of which are still using it.

But this year, for the first time, the teachers have decided not to use their own book. "To some extent, it becomes obsolete right away," Stolp explains. "My own teaching continued to evolve, and I've had to supplement increasingly."

Stolp says that because of this dating--in addition to the time it took them to write the textbook and their inability to find a publisher--he probably would not attempt such a project again.

"I'm really interested in inventing materials for kids, and I'd love to make some of the things I've done available to people who might be interested," says Stolp, who recently created a curriculum for a pre-calculus class called Mathematical Modeling. "But maybe next time,I would make some things available on theInternet."

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