Dear Sarah,

I have been watching some of your videos on the Teaching Channel and it always seems like you are having students read interesting things, not necessarily from textbooks. Our school requires us to use a textbook for our middle school students. Is there a way I can plan for a school year when I have to use a textbook while still getting kids interested in what they’re reading?


Textbook Stuck

Dear Textbook Stuck,

In so many ways, this is a brave question to ask! It’s never easy to figure out how to make adjustments within a system you’re obligated to, yet students need us to confront our uncertainty on their behalf. It’s also a brave question because it requires us to set aside a belief that a textbook does the teaching. Before we go any further, say this out loud to yourself: Teachers do the teaching, not textbooks.

Yet, I know it’s tough to feel this way when you’re obligated to a textbook, a pacing guide, or a scripted curriculum. However, if this is where you find yourself, here are some things you can do to get unstuck.

Figure out the non-negotiables. Almost all of us have some facets of our curriculums that are non-negotiable. It might be a text, a unit, specific content, standards, or assessments. It’s important to first figure out what you must include. Even more importantly, you have to figure out which things are actually non-negotiable. It’s an easy trap to fall into: we think things are required because “it’s always been that way.” When, often, if we start to gently ask “why” we discover no one really knows. These can be your openings for trying something different.

Re-arrange what you have. Think of it like making dinner from what you already have. You open the refrigerator and the pantry, you look at what you have and you start to think about combinations you haven’t tried before. You see how the ingredients can be used in new ways. That’s your textbook! Do you have to read everything in the same order? Can you organize the content around different themes or essential questions? How can you skip around in order to create new kinds of text bundles? This alone can help you see what may be non-negotiable in new ways.

If you’d like some more details on how I work to create text bundles, check out chapter two and graphic organizer from a book I worked on for NCTE, Supporting Students in a Time of Core Standards.

Bring in your own content. Another important reason for really determining the non-negotiables is that it lets you see where there’s room to bring in your own content. Even if the opening is small, there’s always enough time to catch your students’ attention with a song or the “just-right” 5 minutes of a film. You can add a TEDTalk or a children’s book, a commercial or a short story. Every time you use one accessible text, you’re creating a pathway for students to engage with another, more complex one. Once you have those themes or essential questions to guide you, you’ll start seeing pieces of content you can attach to this work in all kinds of places.

More than the text, it’s about the pathways you create to engage with it. Even if you discover your curriculum is not malleable, remember that you know your students better than any textbook. You know the right questions to ask them, the right examples to offer them, the best ways to connect the ideas to your students’ lives. When I know I need to teach content or a text that seems inaccessible (for any number of reasons) to my students, I think about widening the pathways. If I start with that inaccessible text and just plough through, it’s usually painful for all of us. However, if I create a wide pathway into that text — through lots of other short, accessible ones — suddenly, students have more background knowledge, more connections to make, more meaning to construct.

I can’t wait to hear about what you create!

Teach openly,

With Teacher2Teacher



If you like what you’re reading, sign up for Sarah’s free weekly newsletter to help us all stay inspired, mindful and bold!

Pin It on Pinterest