Former elementary-school science teacher Kerry Matthews believes textbooks should make up only about 10% of a teacher’s curriculum, she shares in this opinion article. Matthews writes that she often used materials she found in the library, instead of the textbook. She describes how she helped her students learn about erosion through videos from WatchKnowLearn.org, an organization she works for as a technology trainer for teachers.
Using other resources helps teachers individualize their students’ education and helps students retain the knowledge and concepts defined in textbooks.
The fifth-grade science textbook I used when I taught at Center Hill Elementary School in Olive Branch was written at a sixth- or seventh-grade reading level. Some of my students couldn’t read at grade level, much less one or two years ahead. Others were reading at an 11th-grade level. In each case, the textbook frustrated them.
Instead, I gave each student reading-level appropriate materials I found at the library. Without the frustration or boredom bred by a textbook that didn’t account for their individual needs, these children were able to embrace the concepts we were studying.
Textbooks are also the least interactive way to learn. We cannot expect a child who has mastered an iPad by age 5 to power down and abandon that knowledge (and it is knowledge) at the door.
One of the concepts I taught my fifth-graders was beach erosion. Center Hill Elementary is six hours from the Gulf of Mexico. Many of my students had never seen the ocean; the largest body of water some of them had ever seen was the pond in front of the school. They had no idea of the power of lapping waves, so had a harder time grasping erosion. A one-dimensional picture in a textbook wasn’t going to help them understand it.
I wanted my students to see how erosion happened and if I couldn’t take them all to the beach, then I was going to somehow bring the beach to them. I knew videos could help. With the help of the website WatchKnowLearn.org — a project of the nonprofit Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi — my students watched a video of waves crashing against the shore. We brought in beach chairs and umbrellas, and sand so students could feel sediment.
It was fun — and every one of those students left that day knowing how to define erosion, sediment and deposition. They hadn’t simply read about it, but saw it and felt it.
What were the results of this seemingly radical experiment? For three years in a row, my fifth-graders had the top scores on Mississippi’s standardized science test.
My principal, Rebecca Dearden, was essential to my classroom’s success. She supported my approach when, perhaps, others would not have. Her school is one of the Blue Ribbon Schools designated by the U.S. Department of Education. Its scores are ranked fifth overall among Mississippi schools (not just elementary schools — all schools). How? She’s not afraid of using alternative educational resources or letting her teachers find unique solutions rather than forcing them to adapt to a cookie-cutter approach.
I’m no longer in a classroom. I now teach teachers about technology resources, and work for the website I once used to help my students, WatchKnowLearn.org. The site provides educational videos — free of charge — to teachers, and is the brainchild of one man who wanted to give back to teachers, parents and students.
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