Teaching Opinion

Teaching From a Textbook Makes My Class More Student-Centered

By John T. McCrann — July 29, 2017 3 min read
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Most of my memories from middle and high school math involve using a textbook: “Turn to page 237 and complete problems 2-20 even.”

This was not a particularly engaging or empowering way for me to learn math.

Of course, it did work. I (mostly) did my classwork and homework, progressing chapter by chapter through Algebra, Geometry, Algebra 2 and Pre-Calculus.

I did have one alternative model. My senior year I took calculus with a teacher, Ms. Lee, who generated most of our class handouts herself. The problems felt tailored to us (sometimes even including names of classmates with little details about our lives: “John was pitching in the game against Leesville High School....”). I remember feeling much more connected to the class because of this.

I started out my own career trying to emulate Ms. Lee. “I know my students and what they need to learn better than some textbook publisher who is just trying to profit of our kids!”

Yet, I quickly encountered the problem with this way of planning math curriculum: it’s hard and takes a ton of time. Developing all those problems, tailoring them to my students, creating mathematical situations that address the ideas I want students to be thinking about without introducing a trick that would make things overly complicated.

Even if I believe that teacher-created materials are the ideal learning resources, the job of teacher (as

traditionally understood in the schools and systems I’ve worked in) does not give us the time and space necessary to do this work well.

So, this past year I abandoned Ms. Lee’s model. Our progressive small school that believes in teacher professionalism and teacher empowerment adopted textbooks that we expect all math teachers to use in their classes every day. (We adopted the CPM Educational Program, a progressive curriculum which I highly recommend).

As a teacher and teacher-leader (I’m the department chair and made this policy with administration), I felt and feel ambivalent about this choice. But after a year of working with my students and our team, I believe that it was the right one.

I’ve learned how to leverage my understanding of my students WHILE implementing a curriculum designed by someone else.

My high school math textbooks felt like a barrier preventing me from connecting with the teacher and discipline, but I think I have found a way to use the CPM resources to forge deeper relationships with my students.

Instead of spending my prep periods developing different types of linear equations (some with integer solutions, others that include decimals and fractions, etc), this fall I will spend it looking at a set of linear equations and thinking about Brandon, Laura, Deshawn, and the other individuals in my class. Where will they get tripped up? How can I group them together so that they can have productive conversations about the different ways they could attack each equation? What system should I put in place to make sure students who get stuck can find a way out without having to call me over to the group?

Grappling with these questions is a better use of my limited planning time and leads me to develop pedagogical moves to support students’ mathematical thinking which I would not have had the time/energy to develop without the text.

Where do you and your colleagues fall on the decision to use teacher-developed vs outsider-developed classroom resources? What are some of the costs and benefits that you all weighed in making the decision that works for you? Regardless of the decision you have made, how do you ensure that teachers have time to think deeply about curriculum materials AND their students?

Photo by FelixMIttermeier.

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