Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Educational Magazines and the Case Against Textbooks

Last year was my first year teaching, and I was pretty lost most of the time. One thing I regret doing was automatically accepting and teaching from the provided textbooks (mostly MacMillan/McGraw Hill stuff). Sure, I improvised when and where I could, bringing in additional material where necessary, but we still did the textbook thing. I promised my principal that we would get all the way through the textbooks, and that we did. I pushed us through.

I'm not sure that the third graders got much from last year and our mutual trudge through Textbook Land. But that's okay, because I certainly did.

Want to know what lesson I learned? It will definitely come as a shock to you. It's this:

Children. Hate. Textbooks.

There, I said it. Surprised, aren't you? 

I know, whatever, Holly, this is a fact that everyone knows. But somewhere along the way, I got caught up in "doing my job" and forgot. So just to make sure that we're all on the same page, I thought it worthy of repeating.

Children find textbooks boring.

Somewhere within the first couple of months of school, the word mundane came up in someone's silent reading book, and we talked about it as a class. Having this word in their vocabulary, my students used this adjective to describe everything we did in the textbooks from then on.

What can we do with this information? We can first recognize that children that are bored or that are forced to do something they don't enjoy aren't learning as much as they could be. I would even argue that they're learning not much at all, or perhaps they're learning entirely the opposite lesson that you wish to convey, such as, "Science is boring and stupid, and I hate it."

Of course, I could use this opportunity to argue that any tool is only as useful as the one who uses it. Perhaps in the hands of a truly skillful teacher, a textbook wouldn't be so bad. But alas, I am not quite yet one of those, and I have the tendency to think that the teachers who use textbooks successfully are in the minority. I could be using this time to research how to properly engage students while also using a textbook, but that seems difficult and... well, kind of traditional and boring. So instead, I'll do what I do best and question the whole system.

Before I left the school, my principal asked for a recommendation on what to do about textbooks and curriculum for next year. Well! That was certainly one document I didn't mind typing up! I'm sure he was actually looking for something along the lines of, "This book is fine, but this other doesn't match Common Core standards. Here's a different one that I found that is CCSS aligned," but that's not what he got from me.

Instead, I recommended purging all textbooks in favor of subscriptions to educational magazines for all students.

There are a number of benefits. We'll start with what will make your administration happy--They are directly aligned with Common Core standards. (They have to be, in order to sell, these days, so that's an easy one.) CCSS urges an increasing amount of nonfiction in the classroom, and magazines provide age-appropriate nonfiction articles on a regular basis. 

On top of that, the articles typically relate in some way to current events, providing a good basis for authentic learning and discussions.

Got digital readers in your classroom? Perfect. A lot of magazine subscriptions can be delivered digitally. No digital readers? No worries, they also come in paper version.

But I think the most important point is that these magazines are specifically designed to attract students' attentions. Most have full color photographs with eye-catching headlines. They use authentic language that doesn't scare students away and also doesn't come off as trying too hard. (I know that in many instances, I tend to shy away from something designed specifically for children, but this isn't one of those instances. These magazines don't come off as patronizing or trying too hard to be cool, at least the good ones. They were designed properly.) As a para, I worked in a few classrooms that used educational magazines, and the students devoured them, cover to cover. Effective, indeed.

Alright, so what magazines am I talking about? Give us some examples. Here are the ones I found, though this may not be a comprehensive list:
  • Time for Kids. This may currently be the most widely used educational subscription magazine, at least in my experience. I even remember getting these when I was in elementary school. Full color photographs. Different issues for different grades: K-1, 2, 3-4, and 5-6. Available in print or digital copy. Weekly issues. The content in these magazines is mostly current events, which are usually science or social studies, along with a little bit of fluff. Cost is $4.00 to $4.50, depending on how many copies you buy.
  • Scholastic Classroom and News Magazines. (See all available.) A range of magazines for PreK through grade 12. Cross-curricular for younger students. Older students' issues are available for current events, language arts, science, math, fine arts, life skills, Spanish, French, and German. Issues are weekly, biweekly, or monthly. Prices range from $5 to $10 per issue. 
  • Studies Weekly. Separate issues for Science, Social Studies, Health, Character Education, Heritage, and Math, and for each grade level, K through 6 (math only available for grades K through 2), though some grade level issues overlap. Color comic-style illustrations with the occasional photograph. Available in print or digital copy. Weekly issues (hence the name). Some are magazine style, others (specifically the older grades) are newspaper style. A specific selling point for this one is how it directly aligns with CCSS. I get the feeling that this one is all pre-written, no current events, and stays the same (or with minor adjustments) each year. So, a textbook with comic book illustrations, in a newspaper format. Huh. Some issues cost $1.75 each while others come in sets, $10.78 for 1-9 copies, $5.39 for more than 10 copies.
The other thing I recommended to my principal was using literature circles to teach language arts. I had an entire cabinet full of sets of books that I never touched, regretfully. 

Literature circles to teach language arts. Current educational magazines the introduce topics in science, social studies, and current events. Student-centered project-based-learning assignments that cover everything else (including math and writing). 

And we're still using textbooks, why?