Textbooks Are Great, But…

books are great, but

Textbooks are Great, But…

Every once in a while as a teacher you encounter one of those classes or days. Your students are all glassy eyed and wilting and you know you have to teach something relevant but the coursebook is just not getting the job done. In these cases, it may be a good idea to close the book and look for inspiration elsewhere. Especially if you have taught this lesson or concept many times before, it should be relatively easy to close the book and follow your teaching instincts to a successful lesson. Let me share with you three times that this has worked out pretty or very well for my students and my classes.


1) Grammar Tenses.

It was a hot Spring day in a small classroom with a large class and no air conditioning. The lesson was about various tenses in English and I could see that everyone was just too hot and tired to focus on the textbook or the typical grammar exercises. So, I drew a line on the board and labeled it “Past, Present, Future”. I told them this was the present and future history of Korea and that they were to create their own list of items from the past, present, and a possible future. Once they had done that, they discussed it in groups.

Next, I added a chart with different time increments (5, 10, 20, 50, and 100) and told them to make some predictions about what Korea will be like in the future based on these time frames. They discussed them with a small group this time, and then we discussed them as a class. As the predictions got further away from the present, they got more and more outlandish and the energy and laughter got louder and louder. No one ended that class tired or uninterested and many said afterwards it was the best class we had in that term.


2) The Haunted House (Narrative).

Last Winter, I taught a class for incoming Freshmen and on my way to class I passed by an old house that was kind of mysterious in that it had signs on it including old signs advertising English classes with native speaking teachers as well as classes or club meetings. It also had yellow caution tape wrapped around it and warnings from the police and local government office not to enter as it is was unsafe. It is covered in vines and also has broken windows and fading paint, so it is obviously abandoned.

As it was writing and speaking class, on the day we did narratives in the book I mentioned this house and its mysterious appearance and atmosphere. I drew a map, as we had just done directions the previous week, and told them to go there and take a picture in front of the house during their break. After the break, they all came back excited and ready to share their stories of what happened there. Their homework was to write up the story of the house and the results were far from disappointing. From unhappy ghosts who tried to drive away students studying there to a serial murderer who joined an English Club and killed off the other members because they spoke better English than she did, these were some of the best examples of writing from the students in this program that I saw. Despite the early start and long class(9-12), everyone had something to say and write about this and was eager to share it.


3) Problem and Solution Lesson (Critical Thinking):

Just the other day, as the weather was looking nice outside, I entered my Reading, Critical Thinking and Discussion class. It was the day after a long weekend and everyone was looking a bit rough as a result. The lesson was about a Malawi youth who invented a windmill to help save his family from starvation and his TED talk. While the students were interested, we finished the reading and related questions in less than half the class. So, I pulled up a couple of other videos of young inventors and had them compare the videos and the approaches each inventor took to solving problems like lack of power, cleaning water, and scaring lions away from their village’s animals.

Then, I told them to work in pairs or small groups and find one problem in their society and at least one possible solution. After they did this, I told them to present their ideas to a neighboring team and finally we listened to some of the groups. Their problems ranged from social problems to cultural and other problems and their solutions were both expected and novel. Everything from a floating house that rises during floods to laser umbrellas to scare away rodents was proposed. While I don’t think it was a home run of a lesson like the other two, it was an active and engaged class for most students when it could have been a so-so lesson from the book.
Ultimately, teachers have to learn to trust their instincts and put the book aside to try out something new and untried on occasion. Your ideas may not work every time, but the students and you will probably enjoy and remember that you tried something new even if it falls flat.

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  • Karl Millsom says:

    Some excellent specific ideas here, and a good overall demonstration as well of how to develop activities outside of the textbook. Here in Indonesia, a major problem across the board is far too heavy reliance on textbooks, so your ideas would be extremely valuable here.

  • Tory says:

    Thanks Karl! Glad you found my ideas useful!

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