Embracing the grey area

September 24th, 2012 | Filed under: teaching

Last year I started my first international school teaching job here in The Netherlands at a school implementing the Middle Years Programme. I was so excited! Concept based curriculum, theme-based units, opportunities to incorporate all sorts of texts and assessments, no mandates or state standards to worry about! Just a framework within which I was expected to bring students to a general set of objectives in the subjects I teach, which are English and technology.

Now, there are few “MYP textbooks” out there. And if you talk to most teachers working in the program, many just use their own resources, gather materials from a selection of books, use the Internet, etc. It’s great to be able to do that. Last year I decided not to order any textbooks and instead focus on getting short stories online or from anthologies, use our sister school’s library, etc. 

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives

In short, it was exhausting. I’ve been trying to think about why this was so hard for me and I’ve come to a few conclusions:

  1. There is no curriculum – I’m writing it. This freedom is both exhilarating and overwhelming at the same time. Everything was an option, which sometimes froze me in my tracks. 

  2. I haven’t been teaching that long. Veteran teachers have that expert knowledge that comes from years of experience – they know what texts are great for which age group and can work from those experiences. I have a few of those I’m coming from, but not nearly enough to make planning a breeze. It’s still a big learning curve for me.

  3. Scouring the Internet for resources isn’t as easy and relaxing as it seems. In addition to planning MYP units (very labor intensive for those new to it), crafting assessments and task-specific rubrics, marking and starting up the school, searching for resources online late at night to fit my unit question was painful. It wasn’t enjoyable.

So this year I made a decision to purchase some textbooks. A selection of literature textbooks to add to the resources I purchased last year (short story collections, a few novels) and the resources we have at our neighboring school library. For a second I cringed as I made the order – am I failing in a way? Am I taking the easy way out?

I think most of the negativity towards textbooks comes from the fact that they try to sum up an entire course in one book and we know, as teachers of our subject, that’s just not possible. Who do they think they are? Really?

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by textbookrebellion

And don’t get me started on the corporate nature of textbook companies, the up-selling, the price of these things, etc. There are a lot of reasons to talk trash about textbooks. But, just like timed writing and test preparation, I’m finding they have their place. 

So, I’m sitting here on a rare Friday off, sipping some tea and flipping through a collection of myths and folktales in one of the textbooks. During my student teaching, myths and folktales was one of the first units I taught and I loved it. My MYP 1 students (6th graders) are studying oral traditions and storytelling before they compose their own myths to read to our primary students. I’m enjoying what I’m finding in the textbook. There are a few activity ideas I hadn’t thought of and some great guiding questions I could use in discussion with my students. That doesn’t mean I’m going to assign the question list for homework or anything like that, but I’m picking and choosing. And not feeling dirty about it. These textbooks are for me – to the students, nothing much has changed. 

As new teachers we’re confronted with a lot of issues and controversies about which we’re supposed to make an opinion, right there and then. Just by scrolling through my Twitter feed I’m confronted with hot button issues, words I’m supposed to stop using, new euphemisms to embrace. I had a lot of strong opinions about what is supposed to happen in a classroom and how a teacher is supposed to do things. That was before I actually worked in a classroom. I’m realizing, somewhat begrudgingly, that there’s a lot of grey area in what we do.

So here I am, flipping through a textbook, and loving it. It’s not the answer. It’s not replacing my planning. It’s not my easy way out. But it is a part of what I do and I’m not going to feel bad about it. In fact, I kind of regret not ordering them sooner. 

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5 Comments on “Embracing the grey area”

  1. 1 Heather Perrin said at 10:32 pm on October 4th, 2012:

    This is the second post of yours that I have been assigned to read. You have become so inspiring to me. I thought it was brave of you to lead your conference, but now that seems easy in comparison to teaching in another country. Teaching in the Netherlands has got to be awesome. Keep up your hard work, it will pay off in the end.

  2. 2 Ann Burgo said at 3:43 pm on October 22nd, 2012:

    Mary, I am a student in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama in the USA and I would not feel bad either using a textbook either. I believe that where education and curriculum development is concerned, anything and everything goes. Get your information from the internet, textbooks, or the teacher next door. There is no stealing of ideas. If it will make learning fun and easier, use whatever you have at your disposal to share knowledge and help another. Ann

  3. 3 Michael Morris said at 4:37 pm on November 13th, 2012:

    Ms. Worrell,
    My name is Michael Morris and I am a student in EDM310 at the University of South Alabama. I love what you had to say in your post. I agree that there are many grey areas in education and as a 1st year teacher, it is extremely difficult and time consuming to start from scratch. Textbooks have made teachers lazy because they are using them all wrong. Textbooks should be used as a teachers guide, like you used them in your classroom. Textbooks can be extremely helpful to teachers when they are using them to guide their instruction, not as their sole instruction, which is what many teachers in the United States have turned to. I don’t think that textbooks should be thrown out and replaced with technology, rather the two should work together to create effective instruction and allow interaction in the classroom. Thank you for sharing your experiences in your post.

    Michael Morris

  4. 4 Jamie Baxter said at 10:29 am on September 23rd, 2013:

    Ms. Worrell:

    My name is Jamie Baxter, and I am an EDM310 Student at the University of South Alabama.

    You have been an inspiration to me, and I have learned a lot from your blog. I have got overwhelmed with a few assignments I have had in college so far. We have to write lesson plans, and there is so much information to use that I get very overwhelmed. After reading this post, I see that you can not only use the text book, but also find your own sources for information. I enjoy reading your blog and look forward to the next post I am assigned.


  5. 5 Laura Andrews said at 1:14 pm on November 6th, 2014:

    I really enjoy reading your posts. Like the others have said, you’re really inspirational and so brave for taking on this little journey in your life. I totally agree with you on ordering the textbooks. They’re just good to have and add a little more to the lesson. Having a new book to look through is just a lot of fun. You’re also still using your own sources and ideas which I think is great and something to keep in mind when I’m a teacher too.

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