A Textbook is a Collection of Programs

In honor of Israel’s 60th birthday (and the upcoming publication of Artzeinu: An Israel Encounter) we’re going to be taking some space in the TAPBB to talk about some real Israel issues. This is the fourth in a series of essays about how Israel fits into the school curriculum.

by Joel Lurie Grishaver

Who wants to teach Israel from a textbook?

Israel is an exciting, real place full of interesting people and cool things to do and see. If our goal is to get our students excited about Israel, then what teacher in their right mind would pull out a textbook to teach Israel?

Textbooks sometimes get a bad wrap. Some educators are afraid of them because they think that teacher will have their students read them out loud. Some teachers don’t like them because they are afraid it takes away their freedom and flexibility. All of those can be valid concerns. But we make textbooks because we believe in them. This essay is designed to explain how we imagine our textbooks being used, and to illustrate how textbooks can be part of engaging, interesting, and exciting experiential learning.

Textbooks, good text books, offer a lot of advantages in today’s congregational school environment.

  • Textbooks provide context. Lessons that take place without an anchor rarely hold structure for the students. Teachers’ or curricular writers may have a sense of scope and sequence, but those are difficult to convey to students without a printed source.
  • For teachers, textbooks offer the same advantage. They represent a platform on which they can stage lessons.
  • Textbooks can also move a lesson past the obvious. They find texts and information that take tens of hours to find—that no teacher can provide within reasonable preparation expectations.
  • Textbooks honor visual learners. Not everyone can learn effectively orally. Textbooks convey information in a visual format.
  • Textbooks allow more to be learned than has been taught. Working only from the events that the classroom teacher creates puts all of the burden on the teacher. Nothing can be learned that is not specifically presented. An activity will hit only one aspect of a subject, textbooks have the ability to expose and convey all kinds of sidebars and photo-captions. The simple truth is that books can be read, and reading only takes the reader. Textbooks offer more than can be included in any configuration of activities and lessons.

Textbooks need to be envisioned not as endless pages but as a series of activities or events that jump off the paper. Let’s agree:

  1. The extensive reading out loud of the text by students is not a good classroom activity.
  2. The use of ten to twenty classroom minutes to have students read a chapter silently is not an effective use of the limited time we have available.
  3. The assignment of portions of text to read at home is a process not likely to be successful in today’s climate.

This means that we have to be creative in our use of textbooks and that textbooks need to be designed to support creative usages. Let’s start with a simple example. In Artzeinu, our new Israel book, you’ll find a sidebar on Meir Dizengoff. The sidebar is three paragraphs and two questions long. Imagine the following lessons segment:

Set Induction: Where is the coolest place to hang out in your neighborhood? What does the word “hang” tell us about the meaning of “hanging out?”

First Activity: Students read the three paragraphs. The first introduces Meir Dizengoff. The second tells a funny anecdote about his declaring the beach of Tel Aviv as the new harbor facility. The third introduces Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv and the verb l’hizdangef (Hebrew slang for hanging out).

Second Activity: The first question asks, “What about Dizengoff’s personality made him a perfect first mayor of Tel Aviv?” Answers include: Thinking big. A good sense of humor. Vision. Etc.

Third Activity: The teacher sets up the four corners of the room as: Yaffo, the Tayelet, Shenkin Street, and Dizengoff Street. Graphics of each of these are downloaded from the internet are placed on the walls with blue tack. The teacher reviews/introduces what happens in each of these places. All four are found in this chapter. The teacher asks students to move the corner where they most want to l’hizdangef. Once students are in the corner they are asked to write a short song about their place and what they do.

Closure: What do we learn about a country who names “hanging out” after a historical figure?

The simple lesson here is that the textbook is not a lesson (or a lesson segment) but rather the resource that generates a lesson. We have specifically designed our text books to be platforms for active classrooms. Let’s give a second example, also from Artzeinu. In the middle of the Masada section of the Dead Sea chapter you will find the Elazar Ben Yair Speech from Josephus’ The Jewish War. It is the speech attributed to him just before the mass suicide. Imagine: The teacher has (1) given a lesson about Masada using her own slides from her visit. (2) Working in Hevrutot, students read the speech and discuss the questions underneath. (3) The last question is: “Suicide is against Jewish law. Do you think that the Sicarii on Masada did the right or wrong thing?” Why? The teacher divides the class in half, gives them a few minutes to prepare and then stages the debate.

Here is the point. Every time you use a textbook, that usage should terminate in a “program.” What is a program? We use Mel Silberman’s definition, “active learning.” Chapters should be broken down into learning units, each with its own set induction, use of the text, active learning experience and closure. When it happens like that, good textbooks (and not all textbooks are good) make it possible to have a richer, more complete, more involved classroom that any teacher can pull of on his own without unreasonable hours of preparation.