Tech Tools

Free at last…free at last: Throwing away the textbook and how EdTech can help

One Manhattan, NY school abandoned all textbooks in 2017 due to their “antiquated content.
Image source: http://www.nypost.com

I had the perfect opportunity…and I failed. One hundred percent missed the mark and failed as a teacher.

There is a class that I will always look back on and think, “It could’ve been so much better.” I was blessed with a French 3 class of four students (yes, I said “four”). While I had tried abandoning the textbook once in the past, it had been daunting. At the time, I was a young teacher who put more work into the units than the students and I still wasn’t satisfied. I had not attempted it again but realized a few years back that something had to change.

My class of four was bored. They were bored. I was bored. It felt like the longest seventy minutes of every day. They were polite and did their work but no one was excited or fully engaged. I tried every tactic in my teacher toolbox and felt like everything fell flat. It was not that way in my other classes, however, I was noticing a complete lack of listening skills across the board. Writing was strong, reading and speaking were mid-level, with the exception of the few that had consistently raised their hands to answer questions since their early days of French 1. Things had to change.

Step 1: Take the plunge.

Image source:
www. keepcalmandcarryon.com

A few years ago, students and I rejoiced when I made the move to not be chained to chapters. I had some ideas but also the fear that it would turn out to be the same as my original experience. Fortunately, experience and planning quickly made it seem like the perfect answer. While this will always be a work in progress, the level of student engagement and ownership of their work was immediately noticeable. That was certainly the best payoff of all.

Step 2: Develop a plan.

I had a lot of activities that I thought would be great for a non-textbook setting but quickly realized that a lack of organization could make this experience disastrous. I focused on the basic language skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking), and structured my units from there. I also crave routine so, for example, by regularly scheduling speaking assessments on Thursdays, I had consistency across all levels. This helped me check all my boxes by the end of the week that each skill had been addressed.

Develop a plan:

  • How will you determine units?
  • How will you determine sub-themes within each unit?
  • How will vocabulary be organized when they no longer come from a photocopy?
  • What grammar and cultural content will be included?
  • In what formats will I present materials if I don’t have a textbook?
  • What resources will I draw on and give to the students?

Again, routine works for me so I tend to have a similar pattern of how I approach each unit. Unit lengths average two weeks but sometimes lend themselves anywhere from one week to maximum three weeks.

An example of semantic mapping to help build vocabulary as well as guide writing and discussion.
Image source: http://mavoigt.weebly.com/uploads/3/7/0/0/37001781/252049374.gif

Deciding units and sub-themes:

  • I always have a starting unit in mind so that I am ready for the beginning of the semester.
  • Students write their interests on paper and I compile them into a Poll Everywhere to narrow down units or vote which one we will embark upon first. There tend to be common interests but when I have several varying topics, I use Google Forms for students to vote on their top three.
  • Each unit begins with brainstorming sub-themes in partners or small groups. Whiteboards fill up faster than you can say “Allez!” so limit the time before you go down a rabbit hole of sub-categories.
  • Common sub-themes along with student votes for or against help start to shape the unit. You will also need to help your students realize that some of their extremely specific sub-themes may not have a place in this unit. But don’t restrict all their fun. When the sub-theme “bizarre foods from around the world” literally has your students bouncing in their chairs and saying, “Oui, Madame! Pleeeaase…,” you let that one in.

Developing a vocabulary list:

  • I use semantic mapping, a tool strongly recommended by AP CollegeBoard throughout all levels, to brainstorm unit sub-themes and the vocabulary list. Students work in pairs to develop an English list of words they would like to know based on the sub-themes. I input the English words into a collaborative Quizlet and students divide and conquer to add their French terms. Make sure to double-check their spelling and accents!
  • How to create a class Quizlet: Add a study set –> Create a new set –> Only editable by me (top right), change to “Certain Classes” and choose the correct class. Your students will now be able to edit the set so you can divide and conquer the list. Make sure to double check their spelling and accents!

Developing grammar and culture:

  • I maintain the same grammar as I normally would for each level. I use Google Docs to create guided notes that can either be printed or used digitally. Students can use their own digital copy (made under Google Classroom) and edit via i.e., Google Docs or Notability.
  • Cultural content is dependent upon the determined units, pursuing that topic in the Francophone world via literature, news articles, France24 or RFI publications, YouTube, etc.
  • I frequently use 1 jour 1 actu (the same site as my routine opening to class of 1 jour 1 question for listening practice).
  • See my Grammar Activities (The Curious Creator) page for more ideas!
Guided “skeleton” notes given to each student.
Image source: Padrah C. Gatewood

Deciding presentation format and resources:

  • This is where I put in too much time and effort on my first attempt at throwing away the textbook. Let them research and use different forums to present!
  • This is my Weekly Speaking Assessment (Master Template). It is a collaborative doc where students contribute an original question for each sub-theme. These are the weekly Thursday speaking assessment questions. No hiding the ball and there is complete student ownership (with a little proofing par moi.)
  • Impromptu speaking presentations: A Level 3 music unit required daily group presentations outlining a French or Francophone artist, a brief biography, his/her influences and who he/she has influenced, and a sample song link posted to the shared class Google Doc. Students worked in groups of two to three and had ten minutes to prepare their brief presentation.
  • Create Google Slides to guide discussions and maintain focus. (This is very helpful to give background and prompt discussion for the between units movie weeks.) When you are without a textbook, it is easy to bounce around and lose students in the process. Alternately, have your students create and present their own Slides for an engaging class discussion.

Additional resources:

  • Ditch That Textbook – 30 Interactive Google Slides Activities for Classroom Excitement – This is only one of the goldmine articles posted on this website. You will not believe the wealth of resources and ideas to start ditching that textbook.
  • Throw Away Your Textbook – This site was created by a Spanish teacher who felt frustrated after seven years of teaching with a textbook. There are a variety of resources for inspiration as well as “True Stories from the Trenches.”
  • Common Sense Media – A major concern that might cross your mind when sourcing supplemental resources is if they are school appropriate. This website vets materials for you with a page for teachers and parents.
  • Google will change your world: If you’ve not already dove into the world of Google, make this your New Year’s resolution. Being a Google Certified educator, I understand how easily Google can 1) organize my life (emails, docs, classroom, quizzes…you name it), and 2) the creativity and ownership I can promote in my students.
    • A future post to come about all things Google and how to become certified!
  • Let’s not forget the abundance of resources out there (Nearpod, Edpuzzle, Flipgrid, Seesaw, Book Creator, etc.) that can help create engaging activities or help you write a quick reading exit ticket.

Step 3: Enjoy the process.

Plan but don’t overplan. Make your students do the work! After everyone adjusts to the idea of learning without a textbook, your students will take ownership of and pride in their work. There will be increased learning with more engagement and an overall more meaningful and enjoyable experience for everyone. Isn’t it worth trying at least once?