The Textbook Debacle

On my last post about being overworked and needing to use the textbook, Kate Nowak linked me to a PCMI presentation on using a scaffold to make textbooks more usable. I contacted the presenter, Marcelle Good and with her permission, wanted to share her perspective (emphasis mine).

Me: My students don't use textbooks at all because I basically create my own. I make daily worksheets using problems, scenarios, and diagrams from the book but I *try* to scaffold or ask questions in a way that starts with what they know how to do and leads into the new material.

Marcelle: My students don't use textbooks, either, but this year I was introduced to a really good textbook from which I based many of my lessons. It saved me a lot of time and I'm looking forward to doing more of it this year.

I had an aha moment in working with Leslie Hamburger, who is a consultant with WestEd and is their "Quality Teaching of English Learners" math expert. Their philosophy on scaffolding is the idea that a scaffold is something you use repeatedly, students internalize, and then they are able to do the work without the scaffold.

So, for example, the best scaffold in my classroom are my "Sentence Starters for Accountable Talk." At the beginning of the year, I'll have students in small groups with a list of sentence starters (I agree with...I also think.../ I respectfully disagree with..../I had a different idea.../I'm not sure what this means, but I think it might be about.../etc.) that they are required to use. At first, this is awkward and weird, but my students are learning English and I find that even native speakers tend to struggle with academic conversation. The next step is those Sentence Starters are on the table. By December, they're in poster form on the wall. When students say something in a really great way, I highlight it and often add what they say to the poster ("I'm not sure what this means, but..." came from a great student moment in trying to figure stuff out). By the end of the year, in classroom discussions (in my room and also in their other classes), students had internalized the language and were able to have an academic conversation. Students don't sound scripted anymore, and they'll take this manner of speaking with them to future classes. So, that's a scaffold - model, apprenticeship, independence.

Thinking about that as my basis for a scaffold, I moved to thinking about how to get students to read a text. As you pointed out, guiding questions are really important ways to get at a text, so this may be splitting hairs, but I started to think about chunking the text and finding a prompt that could work for everything. So, in the powerpoint you saw, I think I included, the "Summarize, draw a picture, or ask a question about the text" prompt. That's something that I used every time I took something from a textbook. What was nice about it, is that by May, students had internalized how to do that (I didn't start using the textbook until February, and I was still experimenting with how to use it, so I wasn't ever able to move away from the prompt). But the idea would be that that would be the prompt starting in the beginning of the year, then we'd move to boxes with no prompt, then I'd ideally be able to give them a text with a wide enough margin at the side that they could read a text and make notes about it.

None of this is super innovative, but there was something really powerful that happened for me when I separated the idea of a worksheet that I create from scratch with good guiding questions to move students forward (which students obviously need) from the idea of scaffolding a lesson.

The text/worksheet/activity is one thing, and the scaffolding is something else. It's the repeatable protocol or prompt or idea that students are familiar with that will help guide them through a challenging lesson. When I go back to thinking about Vygotsky, the purpose of scaffolding thinking was to move a student to a place where they would be a more independent problem solver, or an apprenticeship. I want to think about what students can internalize and use without me and make sure I'm building that into my lessons, with the hope that at some point, when they're in a new class or setting and they see a challenging mathematical text or hear a challenging idea, they'll have a whole bunch of tools to figure it out. The stuff that relies on my asking them really good questions to help them move forward is important, but thinking about how to move them to a place where they internalize a way that they can generate their own questions, or find some way to look at the math and start to activate prior knowledge on their own is where they become more independent.

So, in math, accessing prior knowledge is super important and is something you do in your lessons. Good math students and mathematicians somehow get really good at it, and find a way to do this on their own. They look at an unfamiliar problem or topic, and immediately start going through their mental database of math that they know and make connections that can help them understand the new topic. It's amazing. So, the question is, how do you get students to go from accessing prior knowledge because you prompt them, to looking at something and being able to access the appropriate prior knowledge on their own? And I think the idea is what is the next step? How can math teachers be explicit: I am asking you about this stuff because you already know it and it's going to help you! To, a more, "What is it that you know that will help you with this?" to students automatically doing that. And the scaffold is the repeatable, internalizable thing that gets them there, and the first step of that scaffold is just asking them the question that will make them think about it, but maybe with something that makes clear to them that what you're doing is trying to activate their prior knowledge so that the teaching part that you're doing and the reasoning behind it is clear to the students so they can get there on their own someday. So, a rudimentary example would be on every worksheet with a new topic, there's a heading that says, "Activate Prior Knowledge" and there's a box where you ask general questions to guide students to what they already know that can help them, and in the beginning, you answer those questions as a class or as a small group. Then you take away pieces of it, so at the end of the year, you just have a heading and some empty space that students start brainstorming in. They'll still get stuck, they'll still need your good questions, but it means you have to spend less time making worksheets (this was my main goal), and the students are taking over a little bit more of the cognitive load.

Again, this could be splitting hairs, but I really struggle with trying to make teaching sustainable, and to get back to the textbook idea, it was great to find a good book that asked those good guiding questions for me, so that I could spend my time thinking more about the habits of mind and the practices I wanted my students to have. I still write a lot of my own stuff, but my goal in the next few years is to have a textbook take care of the What so that I can just think about the How.


I loved hearing her perspective and I had never thought of creating a general, scaffold box. I always recreate the way the textbook presents the information because I think it sucks. So I don't think that I could use the scaffold box and still just used the textbook. But, Marcelle is using the CME Project textbook which is apparently amazing compared to anything I've ever seen.

What was really a highlight for me is that no matter how good I am at questioning, that is not helping them to be independent thinkers and problem solvers. They might be thinking better while they're with me but they aren't learning how to think on their own.

I still hate my textbooks. They are confusing. But is it a valuable skill that I'm causing my students to miss out on? I'm still not totally sure but I still know I won't be using the textbook. I guess next step would be to check out the CME Project and try to integrate more parts of the book along with the scaffold box.

Anyone else familiar with the CME Project?


  1. This is great. I'm going to print it out, so I can use these ideas this coming it.

  2. Finding a good textbook is essential to teaching a course. Creating your own should really one be a last resort when there is no good textbook available. One of the advantages of being a university professor is that you get to choose textbooks fairly freely. One of the disadvantages is there there often is no textbook in cutting-edge fields.

    A good textbook will have already done a lot of the curricular work designing assignments with appropriate scaffolding, and only minor tweaking should be needed to adapt it to your class. Being forced to use a textbook that is a bad mismatch to what your students need makes a teacher's job 3 times harder.

  3. I'm not forced to use a textbook that is mismatch to my students, I just haven't one that IS a match.

  4. CME is awesome, I wish we had it. Blog and more info here: http://patternsinpractice.wordpress.com/

    While you aren't scaffolding as explicitly, students are still internalizing. The questions that you ask over and over (both on paper and aloud) are memorized and mimicked. Most students do it without even realizing. I would be interested to know if the rate of acquisition depends on the model though.

  5. I agree that CME is a really good textbook. It kind of straddles the line between the "traditional" textbook and the "reform" textbooks like CPM & IMP. It looks like a "traditional" textbook (and follows the algebra, geo, algebra 2, etc. course map) but it's really more focused on making sense of ideas and making connections between them.

    Bowen Kerins is one of the textbook designers. You might have heard of him regarding: PCMI, his comments on Dan Meyer's blog, competitive pinball. If you get in touch with him, he might be able to hook you up with sample texts for free/cheap.

  6. Thanks for the information. I've used parts of CPM and I liked it but I'm not sure how to use it in a way that 'aligns to common core' and prepares students for standardized tests, which is sad to say.

  7. CME is awesome. A different teacher I met recently told me that she uses CME and ups the level of difficulty for her kids based on the ideas presented in the textbook.

    I myself do what Marcelle does, but I do it based on a variety of resources, textbook being one of them. In the end, my kids need to be able to do everything that is presented in the textbook because my colleagues and I share the same midyear tests. But how I get there is by my own scaffolding (and secretly teaching how I think the kids need to learn the topics). For that, books like CME -- and other thin tradebooks as well! and the web! -- are very helpful.