What is teaching, really, anyway?

This was the question that started to brush my mind last week, when the members of my department and I sat through a sales pitch from a major textbook company unveiling their new set of books, workbooks, and online materials for the high school English classroom. I felt horrified and seduced at the same time–these materials had absolutely everything one would need to stop lesson planning and simply follow the program trajectory. Worry not! Every piece, every student task, every assessment and enrichment tool was carefully engineered to the appropriate rigor, standards, and theme. It was slick. It was interactive. And, it was touted by the representatives as something that could transform our hardworking lives into an easygoing dream. But that’s when I started wondering… if we purchased these materials and I did nothing but deliver them, could I really call it teaching?

Before I could pursue that train of thought, the saleswoman began demonstrating the online component of the textbook, preloaded and constantly updated with video, audio, and tutorials to go with everything and anything my students would be expected to learn. In envisioning my teaching life using these materials, I saw a very simple–albeit somewhat monotonous–alternative to my typical, burstingly generative, yet vastly time-consuming lesson planning norm. But I couldn’t shake the bad feeling that grew with every moment of the presentation. I wondered if I was maybe being unreasonable.

What, exactly, was the matter?

The thing that’s the matter with this type of curriculum is this: I didn’t make it. I have no connection to it. If every single thing my students read, write, and do points back to a perfect fit as a predetermined cog in some grand machinery of education, my value as an educator depreciates.  In a way, following a textbook program to the letter may make my students smarter readers… but only in these clean, perfectly directed situations. Real reading and creating is messy and confused. Being able to balance those points of confusion with curiosity is a real and crucial skill for becoming a generative, creative individual. Looking at these materials, I found myself asking, “Where is the personal power?” A textbook progression cannot respond to students, or urge them to pursue their own passions. A textbook by itself, even the best one, only offers preparation for a culture of query-and-enter-response–one that I would argue is an ill fit for the reality of the culture today’s students have inherited. This culture is a one of create-your-own-idea and open mic. It’s been my mantra this year: students of this age need to create. And as a teacher of this age, I need to create, too. That includes my curriculum.

What do I lose if I let “Textbook, Incorporated” tell me what and how to teach? I lose responsivity. I lose a personal sense of purpose. I lose the power that my love of word and art lends to specific lessons I’ve designed. I lose the opportunity to use the value of my own thought process and insight as a model for a new way to think. 

A canned curriculum will not ever be enough to replace true teaching. Let me put it this way–I don’t having lasting memories of any classroom activity I ever did in a textbook. I remember rich discussions–even arguments, and watching my teacher lead my class through a piece of text or sharing an example of writing. I remember choosing books to study, I remember finding plates of artwork to write about. I remember watching films that made me cry. I remember giving speeches. I remember writing poetry. I remember singing on stage. I remember building the model of a house’s framework. I remember my teacher’s hilarious sweaters and how he would talk about the elements of the periodic table as if they were dear friends.

 If reading out a textbook’s instructions represented the majority of my teaching, I would never have to do… nearly anything, except give feedback on student work and manage my students. But here’s the thing… I have a teaching degree. I know my standards, and I know how to select content and how to design classroom activities that address the standards. I could write a textbook. Therefore, I am a viable textbook alternative. I, too, am interactive, self-updating, and tuned-in to student needs. I, too, am a veritable library of teaching approaches and activities. But most important: I also have the added perk of being a human being who can form meaningful connections with my kids.

I do think that, in some situations, a textbook adoption can improve and guide the curriculum of a program. Of course, teachers who utilize textbooks do not by nature have to default to them all the time, and can work them in as an effective resource. However, in our case, I was very relieved to be a part of a department who gave a respectful yet decisive “no thank you” to the proposed purchase of the textbook set we were offered. In my opinion, no textbook can ever exceed the effectiveness of teacher-designed curriculum, when creative, highly professional educators are designing it for their own classrooms.

The question was “What is teaching?” The answer I came to is “a human expertise, passed on through curiosity and connection.” People are the pathway to learning. Whether we use a textbook or not, we simply cannot just sit at a desk and assign chapters. Our students’ learning lives depend on it.