Three years ago my school district invested in a new, highly structured math program. At the same time, the central office vowed to invest in its teachers. Those taking on the program got the opportunity to co-plan with others teaching the same grade level. Because I love teaching math and like collaborating, I agreed to be part of this centralized bid to support student success.
The school board approved the purchase of the Connected Mathematics 2 series, published by Prentice Hall. The back of the textbooks promised: "Classroom tested, proven effective!" The publishers claimed that the curriculum as packaged would spiral elegantly through three grade levels and leave no gap in anyone's understanding. My heart sank at our first collaboration meeting. The hired consultant took up all the talk time and then handed us teacher's editions and proclaimed that we had nothing to worry about: 70 percent of the content in the books matched state standards, and all we had to do was open the books to page one and follow the pacing guides he'd provided.
During my first year of teaching, I learned what an asset a textbook can be. I taught in a school without books. I wrote every single math, language arts, social studies, and science lesson, and also taught music, physical education, and art. My students moved on to 7th grade, their skills improved, and I required a weeklong solo stay at the beach to recover. (I watched daytime television and did jigsaw puzzles.)
Since then, I've also come to realize that a textbook can provide continuity for students. There's no way, however, that textbook authors can know what happened in my classroom the day before yesterday. Nor can they listen to my students' stories in order to connect academics to the daily and local struggles of their families and community. I want to teach responsively and with hope for a better future for my students. Textbooks, published by corporations that have much to gain by maintaining business as usual, aren't likely to press students to envision a future any different from the past and present. I want students not only to master the concepts and procedures that will be on the next standardized test, but also to be able to use the mathematics they learn to examine how race, environmental issues, and economics affect their lives and their world. If I'm to do that, the textbook can come along for the ride, but I've got to be in the driver's seat.
The students I teach live in Tumwater, Wash. Ours is the smallest of three towns surrounding the state capital, Olympia. Interstate 5 cuts our county in half and connects it to Seattle just an hour's drive to the north when the traffic is not bad. When I first moved here 20 years ago, log trucks rumbled to the bay and plywood mills lined the waterfront. Now, with the easy reach of the deep-water ports of Tacoma and Seattle and the loss of most of our Western Washington big trees, ship-to-shore container trailers and warehouses outnumber log trucks and mills. Most people work for the state, in the service sector, or in the trades. Some commute up or down the freeway. We have few private schools. Almost everyone goes to public school, and families tend to trust teachers with the task of teaching their children to read, write, and do mathematics.