45 minutes to complete these 4 pages "effectively"? A textbook example of how willy-nilly scheduling with coursebooks amounts to potential abuse...
It's the topic of the week (or month), these plugged versus unplugged and coursebooks versus no coursebooks false dichotomies. I've blogged pretty rabidly about teaching unplugged recently, and thought it would be interesting to return to a slightly pro-coursebook stance for a bit. Okay, well a moment at least...
You see, in all the blogobates going on at the moment, it has occurred to me more than once that coursebooks get a bad rap when it is the poor ways in which coursebooks are viewed and used that ought to be coming in for a bit more of a hiding.
There are many ways that coursebooks can be poorly utilised at best and completely sabotaged at worst, but in my experience it is teachers' and schools' scheduling of coursebooks that causes by far the most disasters.
Very soon after my own coursebook series hit the stands and started being used in schools, I got this amazing urge to not only see them in use with real classrooms, but actually teach with them myself. To that end, I returned to a private language institute I had worked for in the past (and they had just elected to use various strands from my series) and got back into the classroom. This wasn't a sort of "celebrity dip" -- I signed on for a full spring term and an intensive summer session. I came in as a run of the mill teacher (like everyone else working there) with no special say or influence in terms of how my own books would be scheduled or used in the school's system.
That was deliberate. I really wanted to see how my coursebooks would be viewed and used by a typical school, from the same vantage point as any other teacher.
The first demonstration of coursebook abuse happened in the spring term with Boost! Writing classes. This was an example of what I call: "Coursebooks are just attached pieces of paper with things to keep students busy and teachers out of trouble, to be turned on or off much the same way taps are."
Midway through the term, when learners had finished unit 6 of their 12-unit Boost! Writing level, the principal decided it would be a good idea to level up a little over half of her entire school enrolment. Some parents had been complaining that their children didn't appear to be making rapid enough progress. So, without consulting any of the teaching staff, the principal waved her bejewelled wrist and "made it so." The levelling up criteria? Level up anyone who hadn't levelled up in a while.
Not a big deal, you're probably thinking. In most cases it probably wouldn't have been. But Boost! Writing was designed in a couple of ways that turned this flick of the pen decision into something of a curricular disaster.
Of all the skill strands I wrote, Boost! Writing was the one that best exemplified a belief in following a very careful building process, one that presumed it would be helpful and advantageous for students to master certain basic and accessible skills before being asked to do bigger and harder things. This reflects my belief about teaching writing in particular. It's nice to be able to handle sentence level writing before you're asked to write 4-paragraph essays. It's useful to learn how to brainstorm and plan and build effective paragraphs before having expository, compare/contrast or argumentative writing topics of an academic nature thrown at you.
But suddenly, here I was with mixed classes - 4-5 learners continuing on in the book from the first half of the term and 7-8 brand new students who had been given a lightning lift in level. These new students had completed the first six units of the previous level coursebook, but none of the current one (where, midway through the term, we were due to commence Unit 7 of a 12-unit book). So not only had they not been given a chance to improve and apply and consolidate their skills from the previous level, they had completely missed all the careful building and preparation skills from units 1-6 in their new level and coursebook.
Now sure, this wasn't a complete disaster (unless you happened to be the coursebook writer!). There were ways to work around this and handle it, but it caused massive headaches for all the writing teachers at the school (well, those who actually cared about whether their learners were really learning to write or not...).
And for the learners... Well, those students who hadn't levelled up (and were keenly aware of all the now-missing students who had) had to slow down and wait for the newbies to get a grip on missing 12 units in a 48-unit system overall. And the new students, still flushed with pride at their sudden promotion, found themselves in that inspiring situation where they don't have a clue what is going in the book, and get that motivating experience of being asked to do a 4-paragraph full page piece of writing when all they've really learned to do so far is an outline and an email to someone called "Bob in Berlin" (okay, I made up that last bit, but hopefully you get my drift).
But I'll assume for now that levelling up half an entire school midway through a term and a set coursebook schedule isn't exactly a common practice, and move on to what I consider to have been a more serious fiasco...
The summer intensive session arrived. Four weeks and 20 X 45-minute lessons to complete all 12 units and 6 review units in a Boost! Speaking coursebook.
If anyone had looked at the teacher's guide or the online resources (which included sample schedules with rationales explained for them) -- and I am almost 100% sure no one in a decision-making capacity at that school actually did -- they would see that I recommend 4 lessons of 45-60 minutes for each unit as an optimum schedule (including time for teachers to do other activities or use any of the copious supplements available for further practice and consolidation), and no less than 2 lessons of 45-60 minutes.
But we had one 45-minute lesson per 4-page unit, plus one lesson for each review unit, and the remaining days for a mid-session and final test. Because, in essence, someone in management had counted the number of pages in the book and divided it by 20, and figured 4 pages per lesson was an optimum schedule.
And the books had to be completed. Finished, with evidence on the pages. Oh, and checked by teachers. Oh (Oh?), and because of all the grammar and reading homework set from other classes (you know, the really important stuff!), we weren't really supposed to be allocating any of it for homework. And what teacher in his/her right mind enjoys giving students extra homework when they're already up to their necks in it? (Don't answer that question, some of you!)
I can't begin to tell you how saddening it is for a coursebook writer to see his books used that way. It was all a blur. The learners never had a chance to really get a grip on anything, much less consolidate it, and while I think I did find ways to make it effective and enjoyable, there was never any time to do the things I've found that learners and teachers often love: extending, adapting, getting out of the coursebook and expanding in ways that see the students explore and take more ownership of what they have been learning.
It was like watching 6 months of my writing life being put through a paper shredder. It was literally a case of seeing some units that took an entire week to write being chewed up in 45 minutes.
Well, in the end I did just cheat and ignored the school's scheduling policy. I gave the learners answers to fill in for a couple of units that they'd told they weren't (as) interested in, and got a couple of precious extra lessons in where we could do other stuff...
But as a coursebook writer, I don't design materials with the expectation that teachers will have to be outright sneaky or put themselves at risk in their quest to find the best ways to use the most relevant and enjoyable materials in the books.
But here's the other thing...
*Some* teachers actually really liked doing the units that way, according to that fast-forward schedule!
"Oh, your books are great. Don't have to plan anything, and the kids are flat out busy for the entire lesson!"
This was the Jekyll/Hyde moment for me as a coursebook writer. Dr. Jekyll, wandering the staffroom in the daylight hours, smiling benignly and being humble at the praise, reflecting on how teachers should be able to apply coursebooks however they see fit, and on how the most crucial goal is to help teachers, however they end up finding -- in their own way -- what you've made to be helpful.
Meanwhile, Mr. Hyde was chafing at the bit and desperate for nightfall to come, so he could go bounding across rooftops pulling at his hair and bellowing "Bloody cheese crust! "Busy"??? Busy doesn't automatically mean enjoyable or effective! Those units are starting points -- you're supposed to treat them like seeds, not prepackaged salads! Even if you want to stick to what's there, it will need extending and recycling and renewing to have any real impact. You like my books because you don't want to plan anything and because learners are too bloody busy to show you that they're not actually learning very much, and not really having all that much fun at all!"
Okay, so those two sets of examples might come across as being pretty extreme, but the "this many pages equals this many lessons and we want a book that guarantees busy-ness (and business, I guess) without much planning or extra effort or inspiration from me" in particular is, I think, more common than some people would be comfortable to admit.
But this hopefully all goes to show two very important issues:
(1) Coursebooks are often judged in ways that are negative, according to patterns of usage that are not only completely beyond the sphere of control (or influence) of the writers, but also very often in stark contrast to their original intentions and recommendations;
(2) You might want to think twice before inviting a coursebook writer to come and teach using his/her books at your school!