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Fed Up With Textbooks

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Sue Ellen McMullin and Patricia Couts no longer hear students in their math classes ask the dreaded question, "When are we ever going to use this?'' Not since they started using the textbook Stairway to Algebra.

When they were using a mainstream commercial text, they'd hear the question a lot. They'd also see puzzled or discouraged looks on the faces of their 8th grade students at the all-girls Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Md. Increasingly, they found they were bringing in homespun exercises and activities to supplement the text. That's when they decided it was time to write their own.

Two summers ago, the veteran 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, such an endeavor is not that unusual in the independent school sector where teachers tend to have broader latitude than their public school counterparts over what textbooks to use. Unleashed from state and district textbook-adoption policies and blessed by small classes and supportive administrators, a growing number of private school teachers have decided to rely on their own expertise.

"[Independent school teachers] can look for the best possible textbook that fits them and fits the needs of their students,'' says Rodney LaBrecque, 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 work in the classroom because they don't try to take on the world or water down subject matter to target the average student. Big publishers have so many competing demands to meet that they often "homogenize the life out of a subject,'' says 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 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 by J. Westin Walch in Portland, Maine. Since then, Hamilton has written another, a guide to style and grammar called Solving 50 Common Writing Problems, due out next fall.

Lark Palma, head of the Catlin Gable School in Portland, Ore., warns that the leeway afforded independent school educators can have a downside. Too much autonomy, she says, can get in the way of the structure of a curriculum. "I've found in experimenting,'' she says, "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.

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 exercises often urge students to work in groups and take part in hands-on learning activities.

The authors also wanted a text that would bolster girls' confidence in their math abilities. 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 prose, and tries to find real-world applications to subject matter that textbooks too often present in abstract terms. McMullin and Couts 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 points out. "So we would substitute and say, well, we'll make it soccer shirts. And they could relate better to that.''

When the teachers approached the headmistress and their department chairman at Holton-Arms with the idea for the book, the administrators agreed to pay them a stipend for the summer they spent writing. The grade 3-12 school also absorbed the printing and binding costs, handled sales to students, and offered the teachers another stipend to make revisions in the summer of 1994.

Stairway to Algebra is currently under consideration for publication at a small 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 the 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 the homespun volume.

"Textbooks too often are framed for reasons that are political rather than scholarly or pedagogical,'' says Peter Tacy, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools. "For a comparable amount of money, you can do a lot of different things.''

--Laura Miller

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