Boo, Textbook

I'm not a fan of my world history textbook. While I can accept that the scope of the history of the world is so huge that a brief overview is the best one can hope for, so much is stuffed into each chapter that it makes my own brain bulge, and I can't even imagine what it would do to my students'.

We don't really have time to stop and focus on things for more than a day, so I feel like I'm not teaching anything that STICKS, like my students might remember hearing a name, but won't remember why, or who that person was, or why s/he was important.

For example, we are currently studying the Enlightenment, and our most recent section dealt with the Scientific Revolution. In 90 minutes, I had to talk about Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Boyle, Newton, some guy who invented trigonometry, another guy who made advances in anatomy by dissecting human bodies, yet another guy who invented the decimal system, some guy who's the father of modern chemistry, a woman who wrote a book, Francis Bacon, the scientific method and Descartes. DESCARTES.

So, basically, I had to boil each of these people's discoveries down to a one sentence summary, which is IN NO WAY enough to truly illustrate their importance or their effects on history. And I feel like a bad teacher because I'm not taking the time to make sure they understand exactly WHY we still talk about these people, or why their discoveries/theories/inventions are important enough for them to learn about hundreds of years later.

Oh, and that brings me to my next complaint, which is this: the chronological pattern seems to be completely arbitrary. I prefer to talk about things in order but, in one chapter I might talk about China from 1000 B.C. to 1788, and the next chapter might be about Louis XIV--and nothing else. So not only are we jumping from continent to continent (which is not really a problem), but also from time period to time period, which is more confusing. Things could be more organized, is what I'm saying.

My other complaint is the PC aspect. I fully identify as a feminist, and I'm down with the whole civil rights thing. But sometimes it's obvious that the writers had to DIG in order to find an important non-white/non-male historical figure. For example, the aforementioned stuffed-to-the-gills chapter included information about this woman who discovered the Comet of 1702, which HAS NEVER BEEN SEEN AGAIN. Yet the section describing her Amazing Discovery was longer than the section about Newton and the laws of motion, which I had to Google so I could 1). understand them myself, and 2). teach them in simple, understandable language.

In my own opinion, there was just too much information stuffed into one section--not a chapter, but a SECTION of a chapter--to enable students to fully comprehend these massive, abstract concepts. In addition, this information covered a time span of 1500 years! I have no doubt that my students think Ptolemy and Newton lived at the same time, because I'm not altogether unsure of that myself; it all runs together after a while.

On the plus side, I learned what Boyle's law is; I asked my science teacher friend Michelle to explain it to me in words of one syllable and I think I've mostly got it. I asked lots of questions, which led to the following:

ME: So when you don't poke a potato and it explodes in the microwave, is that Boyle's law?

MICHELLE: No, that's Charles' law, which states--

ME: Charles' law? Well, it's not in my book, so screw 'im.

There was also this exchange:

ME: I didn't know Francis Bacon came up with the scientific method.

MICHELLE: There's more than one scientific method, so Francis Bacon didn't really come up with--

ME: Oh, I think the Glencoe World History book would beg to differ.

MICHELLE: Well, [So-and-So Jones] also has a version--

ME: But it's not in my book, so screw 'im.

Oh, and guess what's on the list for tomorrow:

John Locke and tabula rasa
Isaac Newton (again)
Montesquieu and separation of powers
Voltaire and deism
Adam Smith
John Wesley and Methodism


1 comment:

Nancy Flanagan said...

Loved your post--loved it.

Here's the money quote, I think:
"We don't really have time to stop and focus on things for more than a day, so I feel like I'm not teaching anything that STICKS, like my students might remember hearing a name, but won't remember why, or who that person was, or why s/he was important."

Why, oh why, do we teach history in this way? Why don't we focus on themes, waves, trends? I'm sure there are strict content constructionists out there who believe that kids can't perceive great themes until/unless they know a whole lot of facts. But I think the reverse is true: nothing sticks (past the test) unless you actually care about it and can fit it into your mental model about how the world works.

I'm pretty left-wing and feminist, but I think what kids need to know about history is that it was written by men. It's not that women weren't doing things--it's just that recording what women were doing wasn't even considered. You can find lots of parallel examples of that unconscious marginalization throughout history to drive the point home. "Some lady wrote a book" is demeaning and actually reinforces the idea that women were neither seen nor heard in the great sweep of Things That Happened.


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