The case for and against English textbooks

mcdougallittel

Based on the plans that I was writing out yesterday for the next quarter (yes, I know that this doesn’t make me an Innovative Educator™, but I tend to plan the elements of my course in advance), I realized that I can come in to work on Monday and tell my advanced class that they can bring in their textbooks and sign them back in.

Sounds kind of a mundane set of instructions, right? But let’s keep in mind that it’s the end of January.

We are barely into the second semester of the school year and the “bring in your textbooks and sign them back in” announcement is what you often hear in May. But as I have been sketching out plans for the third and fourth quarters, I’ve noticed that I’m simply not going to need the English textbook for the remainder of the year. So why have it at home?

English textbooks have always perplexed me. While I know I shouldn’t make the mistake of comparing my current students’ experience with my own, I can’t help but think back and remember what I actually did in my own high school English classes. Now, I’d had “reading books” when I was in elementary school–in fact, I wrote a whole post about them on my other blog back in 2011–and they had vocabulary and grammar worksheets that went along with them, and I remember actually having an “English” text in junior high, but I don’t remember using it for more than grammar exercises. When I got to high school, though, there wasn’t a set of textbooks that I remember filling out forms for every year, unless you counted the Sadlier-Oxford vocabulary books we used from ninth to eleventh grade. No, English when I was in high school was simply novels and plays, starting with Great Expectations with Mr. Valenti freshman year and ending with Ordinary People senior year (which may or may not be true. I remember that Great Expectations was the very first book I read in high school, but my mind’s cloudy on the last one). My teachers would hand out the book along with the Sayville High School “book loan card” that we filled out and were kept on file, and we’d be told that we had to read part of the book or the entire book by a certain date.

That’s kind of how I work things with my advanced sophomores. I give out a copy of whatever we’re reading as well as a schedule of when we’re discussing what (as much as I can, anyway) and reiterate my expectation that they come to class prepared each day. Most of the material, however, isn’t from our textbook and instead comes via individual copies of novels or plays, or things I have found in various anthologies or from websites that I have photocopied. The textbook does come into play for a random poem or story here and there, and all of my sophomores read Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which can be found there, but beyond that I have to ask: why is the book there? Okay, I know why it’s there or at least how it got there. Years before I started teaching at my current high school, there was a textbook adoption process and whomever was in charge at the time chose the McDougal Littel text, with all of its ancillary exercise books and test prep materials.In another district I once taught in, the winning company was Pearson-Prentice Hall. And while those ancillary exercise books have been great for stuff like sub work, I can’t say that it would make a difference in my work.

So do we even need textbooks in English class?

Obviously not. As I flip through a textbook designed to “teach world literature” based on a curriculum that has been revised and revised again since the textbook was purchased, I see works of poetry, essays, short stories, folk tales, plays, and excerpts from novels that are incredibly unappealing. Moreover, they’re all incredibly old. Not that old is necessarily bad, but there’s something about English textbooks that make you wonder if the editors have read anything written after 1972. Plus, there’s so much illustration and activity added to the book as a way to “enhance” the literature (sample question: “What does this photograph of a city street make you think about what the character is experiencing at the beginning of the story?”) that it can be pretty distracting.

I sometimes wonder if my students actually read what’s written on the page instead of skimming it or paying more attention to pictures and other information in the margins. Not that I don’t want them to branch out beyond what they currently read (if they read at all)–after all, I consider imparting literature onto my students as part of my job–but the whole packaging of it seems out of date, if not just the wrong approach. We’re in a new age where technology has not only made information readily accessible but has also made literature more readily accessible. In the past couple of years alone, I have downloaded novels by Mary Shelley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Leo Tolstoy for free, have found a wealth of poetry via sites like Poetry Out Loud, and have read amazing shorter works from newspapers and magazines that I would have had not had free access to when I was in high school. So we should just go ahead and finish the transition to the digital age and get rid of textbooks–after all, they can read Thoreau on their tablets or cell phones when I assign him.

But.

Free access isn’t always good access. What “great” literature (older works) that isn’t free is often what’s in the public domain and doesn’t sell particularly well all the time. The copyright on a lot of works that are staples in English classrooms is constantly being renewed. Furthermore, the purchasing systems at many public schools is still woefully behind the times. Amazon and several other popular websites where we can get reading material from very often require purchasing via credit card, and to my knowledge, my school does not have a credit card number that we can simply plug in when I want to download 25 copies of The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Great Gatsby to an iPad cart. Most of our purchasing is done via checks, which is why our department still uses catalogs for literature and often those catalogs, while they do have their fair share of novels to choose from, also feature the very workbooks that we apparently have been led to believe are obsolete.

I suppose I could just tell my students to go get their own copies of a novel we have been reading, but that has only ever worked for summer reading assignments on advanced and AP classes. Since a public education is free to the students (they don’t pay tuition and don’t normally have to pay for books, etc.), they obviously feel entitled to free materials (some, as I have found, feel entitled to free writing implements), so asking them to pay for those materials as we go is obviously the kind of overstepping of boundaries that gets their taxpayer (read: my employer, according to them) parents all up in arms and wondering where their hard-earned dollars are going. So what do I do? Well, it involves a single copy of some essay and short story anthologies and a lot of time in front of a photocopier, which adds up to a nice little copyright violation. We need something. Maybe not a textbook in the traditional sense because for literature they are bulky and can be useless. But how about taking money allocated for English textbooks and spending it on individual works and anthologies or department subscriptions to a magazine or two that we can then use or share. At least that way if we’re being forced to be budget-conscious with reading, we can do it in a way that’s smart.

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