Alexandria Online

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Mad at Your Texbook? Dump it. Build a teaching culture.

I met another teacher who got mad at his textbook and stopped using it. There it was, Pre-Algebra, the classic ox-stunner weighing in at about three pounds, worn bald at the corners, marked with sticky notes, useless for him. His name is Doug McKenzie -- looked to have at least ten years under his belt and teaches at a small K-8 independent school in Santa Barbara, California, Crane Country Day.

This visit was a random one: I saw the school from the car, thought it looked nice, called ahead and then dropped in. Since I said I was into technology, I got hooked up with a computer person, Chris Reussner, who kindly gave me a tour and discussed with me what their technology curriculum was.

This is another oddity of being a tech person. When you visit a school, they invariably show you the server room first, then a computer class, and then talk about what is happening in technology education. People naturally and generously want to show you where the technology IS at their school, not where it ISN'T.

I asked Chris about teachers who might be using online resources instead of textbooks and he didn't know of any, but then he suddenly got what I was after: "Doug McKenzie stopped using his textbook: I'll introduce you to him." I give Chris credit for being able to apprehend my negative-space perspective on the whole technology enterprise; I was barely able to articulate it myself.

What does Doug use? A bunch of worksheets he made, problems from online resources, and stuff he just plain made up. He is the classic bag-of-trickster teacher. The kids draw diagrams, stand in a line with hats on, set up dominos. Lots of manipulables.

Doug had never heard of Flexbooks or the CK-12 Foundation, but he quickly understood that he could both contribute and benefit from such a resource. I think he felt that it would be difficult and time-consuming to gather, edit, refine and present the materials he uses. How could that be useful for anyone other than himself and Chris, my guide, who teaches Algebra with Doug?

I think that's a common feeling among teachers: "I've got all this stuff, but it only works for me." Conversely, we've all had the experience of taking over someone else's course and being handed a dense folder of dog-eared materials in no particular order and being told cheerfully how helpful all these pieces of paper should be to us.

So here's the tricky question: how do we take all the great stuff that teachers like Doug are using and make it useful for other teachers? It's a corollary but not as significant question to the one that was asked in the New York Times Magazine yesterday: how to build a better teacher? I don't know all the details, but my strong feeling is that the answers lie in the areas of tradition, apprenticeship, intellectual heritage, collaboration, review, educational husbandry -- building a teaching culture.

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