Lessons Learned after Teaching without a Textbook

A high school teacher explores the lessons learned after moving away from a textbook-based curriculum.

A Text-Based Curriculum Just Wouldn’t Work

I work as a high school math teacher and building-level team leader in an urban magnet high school in Hartford, Connecticut. Our district includes twelve semi-autonomous and rapidly growing secondary public magnet schools that are mandated to serve a culturally and economically diverse set of students. We draw students from 36 sending districts which include urban, suburban, and rural towns. Each school has a custom theme (e.g., environmental science, performing arts) and school structures vary. At one point, an attempt was made to standardize the curriculum throughout the schools using the Springboard texts from College Board, but due to the drastically different needs of each school, it was difficult to implement with fidelity.

As a result, we currently use a curriculum that was created almost completely by teachers and curriculum facilitators within our district. Each summer, a group of teachers comes together to write and revise the curriculum, which consists of a series of Google Docs connected by hyperlinks for easy editing and sharing. While the structure of our units and some of the materials are homegrown, many of the materials were recommended by teachers from different sources. Below are a few examples:

Each school is asked to preserve the structure of the units, the anchor activities, and some of the assessments we create. Yet due to the variability between schools, teachers are free to take or leave any additional resources included in the curriculum to suit the needs of their students. Teachers are also encouraged to leave comments on the curriculum documents throughout the year that will be used during the next summer’s revisions.

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Initial Benefits

Fortunately, teaching without a traditional text has had unintended benefits. It has forced teachers to unpack standards and think deliberately about what strategies can be used to teach both content and practice standards. A sophomore teacher who once taught ratios and proportions “by the book” was pushed to think about the progression of the standards and even used the SAP Coherence Map to research how they are first introduced in sixth grade. During a recent meeting, a teacher remarked, “Writing my own questions has made me understand what the kids really need to know. Seeing structure in expressions is so much bigger than I thought.”

Moreover, we may think all of the chapters of a textbook are Common Core-aligned, but there are often topics that don’t attend to the Major Work of each grade. By ditching the textbook, we have effectively let go of non-aligned topics and opened up more time to focus in-depth on the standards.

The lack of a textbook has also made my colleagues and me quicker to adapt to changes in the education landscape. Connecticut has recently adopted the revised SAT as its high school accountability measure, and by having a stronger knowledge of our curricula, we were easily able to highlight which standards were linked to the SAT and find tasks that were both SAT- and CCSS-aligned.

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Lastly, we’ve found that students need resources that are accessible anytime, anywhere. While you may be able to take a math book home with you, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s accessible. By dropping the textbook, we have been able to focus on finding or creating our own tasks, applets, and online videos that are both student-centered and usable anywhere. Below are a few of our favorites:

Lessons Learned

On the other hand, the overhead required to teach without a text can be high, and failing to commit fully can leave students in a worse position than if they had a textbook. While our current curriculum does a great job of attending to the Shifts of Focus, Coherence, and Rigor, the inherent flexibility makes it possible to bend the curricula within its limits and lose all three Shifts. My colleagues and I have created a list of tips for maintaining the Shifts without a textbook or rigid curricula to hold onto:

  • Unit plan with a buddy. Many of our smaller schools only include one teacher per course. As a result, there can be serious misalignment between years that leads to a lack of coherence. We make it a policy to plan each unit with another teacher of the previous or subsequent course.

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  • Find both a lesson structure and a unit plan template that explicitly includes time for conceptual, procedural, and application tasks. Our curriculum includes ample resources that cover all aspects of Rigor, but it can be tempting to overemphasize procedural fluency by resorting to worksheet generators or online practice. Using both unit and lesson plan templates that include explicit sections for conceptual, procedural, and application tasks reminds us to check the curricular resources or find our own, if needed.Lesson Plan
  • Comment on the curriculum: As previously noted, we house our curriculum on a set of Google Docs that are open to comments from teachers. Without a textbook in the way, our curriculum coordinator is able to use our suggestions to make changes in the curriculum by the following year and sometimes sooner.
  • Get good at pretesting: Our students come from a wide range of backgrounds, so it is difficult not to revert back to standards from previous grades, especially when your students seem not to remember prerequisite concepts. To maintain a strong Shift in Focus without a text, short formative assessments are crucial. One of my colleagues once reminded me, “How many of your students actually need help with below-grade-level topics? All? Half? A tenth? We should know! Because, for every prerequisite standard you spend more time on, you deprive your students of another, possibly more important topic.” Here are some of our favorite methods:

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  • Focus less on common texts, and more on common strategies. Often, math textbooks prescribe how a topic should be taught at the start of each section. Without the guidance of a book, our discussions have shifted to designing and piloting new instructional strategies and routines to improve achievement. We are only able to try one at a time, but we are slowly making progress.

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  • Help out your newbies. The learning curve for teaching without a textbook is steep; your new teachers will need you. Introduce them to the templates, lesson plan with them, share resources, and offer to let them observe your lessons.

One of my colleagues recently told me that textbooks are like crutches: although they might save you some pain, you’ll never be able to truly run. I’ll take a scraped knee every once in awhile if it means I get to sprint ahead with my students.

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About the Author: Bob Janes is currently a mathematics teacher, team leader, and Core Advocate at Two Rivers Magnet High School within the Capitol Region Education Council in Connecticut. Within this role, he teaches 9-12 math and supports both interdisciplinary grade level and departmental teams to improve curriculum and instruction. Bob strongly believes in the importance of international collaboration. He has previously taught at Rooks Heath School in London, UK where he conducted a study that compared the teacher evaluation systems in the United States to the United Kingdom. More recently, he has received grants to attend the International Congress on Mathematical Education in Hamburg, Germany and the Park City Math Institute in Park City, Utah. Bob is an active member of the online mathematics education community and often blogs, tweets, and attends meetups. He has also presented his work in person at many conferences including NCSM, ATOMIC, and TMC. His passion for mathematics is surpassed only by his love of music, and he is always excited to share how these two disciplines connect. Bob is constantly striving to improve his craft and the craft of those around him in an effort to provide the best education for students.