Innovations: A Textbook Case

March 01, 1994 6 min read

Students could learn from her books, for example, that Queen Elizabeth I of England brushed her teeth with sugar or that Spain’s Queen Isabella passed a law forbidding Indians from taking too many baths. Some of the stories would be humorous; others would be adventurous. And along the way, young readers would learn history. “We shouldn’t make kids read any books we wouldn’t want to read ourselves,’' says Hakim, who lives in Virginia Beach, Va.

But there was a problem: Hakim could find no takers for her idea.

Such prominent educators as Diane Ravitch, a former U.S. assistant secretary of education, and Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, endorsed her efforts. But virtually every major trade and textbook publisher rejected her manuscripts. Foundations declined to underwrite her efforts, as well, and Hakim ran up a debt of $60,000.

“They all said, ‘This is great stuff,’ '' Hakim remembers, “but it would just be too risky to publish it.’'

All that has changed. This past fall, Oxford University Press, looking to make inroads into children’s publishing, put out the first three volumes of her 10-book series, A History of US. Bookstores quickly sold out the first printing of 5,000 copies.

The books have won her an interview on National Public Radio and an introduction to President Clinton. American Educator, the AFT’s national magazine, has excerpted the books. And the American Textbook Council has called her work “one of the most interesting history-textbook ventures in years.’'

“These books are superior to standard textbooks,’' says Gilbert Sewall, the council’s executive director. “They are historycentered. They are complex and nuanced, and they have a literary style and verve not common to mass-market textbooks.’'

And, most important of all to Hakim, elementary and middle school children don’t think her books are boring. “I really liked your book,’' one Virginia Beach student wrote Hakim. “I liked it so much I read the rest of the book on my own! That should mean a lot to you because I don’t read much.’'

Critics have long concurred with the kind of appraisal Hakim gives traditional textbooks. Written by nameless committees of writers, the books lose any spark of personality in their writing early in the publishing process. Instead, they tend to become recitations of names, dates, and political events. There is a good reason for this. The books must sell in every state and thus must offend no one nor leave out anyone’s history. Yet, what makes them commercially viable also makes for dull reading.

Hakim, a 62-year-old with short brown hair and a dry wit, discovered this for herself when her daughter was studying U.S. history. “It was a disaster,’' the author recalls. “When I saw the history book, I understood why.’'

When a school superintendent in her community showed Hakim a study suggesting that reading comprehension was 40 percent higher for newspapers than it was for textbooks, things began to click into place. “I realized that I or any newspaper person could do better,’' she says. “I just knew there was a need, and I assumed the publishing world would fall at my feet.’'

In a sense, however, comparing A History of US with standard textbooks is unfair. Hakim never intended for her books to be textbooks. “I wanted to make the point,’' she says, “that we need trade books in school and not textbooks.’'

Oxford is, in fact, marketing the book as a crossover between the two genres. The company sells the books to bookstores and has arranged with D.C. Heath, a long-established textbook publisher, to distribute them to schools. The company recently mailed individual copies of the fourth volume of the series to middle schools nationwide.

Rather than write a textbook, Hakim simply set out to write books that children would want to stay up to read by flashlight under the covers. To make sure the books would be both appealing and understandable to them, she hired schoolchildren as reviewers. For a $5 fee, they read the manuscripts and made notations in the margins. The letters “NC’’ meant a passage was not clear, “B’’ was for boring, and “G’’ meant good. “It’s amazing how perceptive kids are,’' she says. “I threw out one chapter after one very bright boy said, ‘I didn’t get this.’ ''

Hakim collected reams of personal details about historical figures, some of them funny and others gruesome. For example, in The First Americans, the initial volume in the series, she included a journal entry from a member of explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s crew. He wrote: “We were three months and 20 days without getting any kind of fresh food. We ate biscuit, which was no longer biscuit but powder of biscuit swarming with worms, for they had eaten the good. It stank strongly of the urine of rats.... And of the rats...some of us could not get enough.’'

A leading textbook company that was considering publishing the manuscript had sought to remove that passage. Hakim insisted it remain, arguing that such details would only whet children’s appetites for more. “Kids just eat that stuff up,’' she says.

Hakim also declines to shy away from controversy and complex ideas in her books. In the first volume, for example, she compares the antislavery views of Bartolom de Las Casas, a Spanish priest, with those of Juan Gines de Sepulveda, his countryman and a scholar who favored slavery. “One of my students finished the book and told me it was better than Nintendo,’' says George Coggan, a Charlotte County, Fla., teacher who has used the books for three years with 4th and 5th grade students. Coggan says his students gave the books glowing reviews even though for the first two years they were reading from pre-publication manuscripts without illustrations. His school district has since purchased 5,000 copies of the books for use in its elementary schools.

Although many teachers who have come across the books are as enthusiastic as Coggan, a few are somewhat skeptical. Dale Kenney, a 9th grade history teacher in the District of Columbia public schools, says that although her students overwhelmingly prefer Hakim’s second volume to their usual textbook, she worries whether the book meets her district’s curricular objectives.

That may be a concern for other teachers, as well, points out Sewall of the American Textbook Council. He says students typically encounter the study of history first in 4th grade and that experience is given over mostly to learning state and local history.

To some degree, that may be changing. In 1988, the Bradley Commission on History in the Schools, a national panel formed to examine the study of the subject, called for teaching more history and introducing it to students earlier. And at least two large states--California and Florida--have done just that. “The social studies market is in flux right now,’' says Kathy Shepard, a marketing manager for D.C. Heath. “There are a lot of people who want more history and are very interested in teaching it this way, and there’s also a group that wants its textbooks.’'

Cost could pose another obstacle for the new series. In paperback form, schools can buy the individual books, which are about 160 pages long, for $8.95 each. Large quantities can cost as little as $6.95 apiece. Still, a complete 10-volume set could add up to $70. “Can schools afford these materials?’' Sewall asks. “I can’t answer that question. But my hunch is the books will find a place in more affluent school districts and in school libraries.’'

Hakim points out that educators need not buy all 10 books but may want to pick out a few to support an instructional theme or as an alternative to textbooks. D.C. Heath, in fact, has projected it will sell 10,000 copies of each volume this year. “We’re comfortable with that number,’' Shepard says.

In the end, however, whether the books gain a wide classroom audience will depend largely on the teachers who come across them.

“If a teacher finds A History of US appealing and thinks of it as a vehicle for teaching history and reading,’' Sewall says, “then the book stands a chance of being successfully received.’'--Debra Viadero

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Innovations: A Textbook Case