Thursday, September 3, 2009

The truth about textbooks...sort of.

Today I finally had a chance to read an article that my mother brought to me weeks ago. On July 19, The Oregonian published an article by Bill Bigelow, a local teacher, called "Schools foster climate illiteracy." Quite a scary title -- especially for such a green, environmentally-conscious state! The Oregonian must have wanted to catch the eye of its readers and scare them a bit, because this was the feature story of the opinion section of the paper that day. In this article, Bigelow takes textbooks to task for downplaying the threat posed by global warming. He also says that school district leaders who are in districts where these textbooks are used are complicit in the miseducation of our children, at least when it comes to the issue of global climate change, as if there was a national or corporate plot to make sure that the future generations are ignorant of their impending doom. A bit harsh, I must say. Or is it? And who is to say when a newspaper article is educational and when it is just inflammatory?

First of all, like I teach my students, it's important to understand the author when looking at a text. All authors have biases -- that's part of being human -- so it's important to recognize the bias and how it influences what is written. In this case I know that the author has been teaching social studies for as long as I have been alive, that he is passionate about his curriculum, and that his published curriculum is very liberal in its stance on issues (workers' rights, human rights, etc.). I appreciate his passion -- and I own several of his curriculum guides and have used pieces of them as inspiration for my own lesson plans. But I have noticed that there is a "slant" to his works, and sometimes I feel a bit judged, as if what I do to provide multiple perspectives and teach kids not to condemn one side of a situation outright (without being fully educated) would be looked at with derision. Perhaps my feelings about the author have colored my interpretation of the article (of course they have!), but I still take issue with a few points mentioned in the article and would like to call for clarification here.

There seems to be an assumption in this article that classes labeled "Global Studies" and taught in the social science department should focus on the issue of global climate change. When Portland announced that it was changing the name of Global Studies to "Modern World History," in keeping with the textbook chosen and the Oregon State Standards, the author's cry was "Then who will teach about global warming?" My question is a bit different: should just one subject area be responsible for incorporating lessons and awareness about climate change into the school year, or should our approach be more comprehensive? In recent years we have shifted to looking at reading and literacy as important enough to be addressed in all subject areas and classes. Is global climate literacy important enough for us to take this approach?

Oregon State Standards use this language to encompass a climate change standard at the high school level: "Evaluate the impact of human activities on environmental quality and the sustainability of Earth systems. Describe how environmental factors influence resource management." This is a science standard. It also says "Analyze and evaluate the impact of economic, cultural, or environmental factors that result in changes to population of cities, countries, or regions." This is a social science standard. There are several more standards in the social science section that also address the issue of the human impact on our physical environment. Obviously, if we as educators are doing our jobs well, we address all of the standards in our area. How we address them varies, just as how the students learn or interpret the data presented may vary. Yet it is precisely that variety, that range of opinion and interpretation, that makes life a rich and interesting tapestry -- and our ability to listen to differing opinions and learn from them makes life beautiful.

The issue of multiple perspectives brings us to textbooks. Bigelow harshly criticized some of the widely used textbooks (such as those published by McDougal Littell) because of their lack of information -- or sometimes misleading information -- about global warming and climate change. Yet the larger question should be whether we should rely solely on textbooks as our source of information. Textbooks were written by men and women, who by their very human nature must be fallible. A more balanced perspective (on any subject) should be provided, and that can occur through the use of additional material. The claim is that Portland Public Schools encourages teachers to stick with the textbook alone, as if the authors of the textbook have some sort of divine omniscience. If that is the case, then it shows that the district is a bit short-sighted. While it is extremely important to have "everyone on the same page," especially in a large district where students might transfer from school to school during the school year, that does not mean that teachers should have to rely on the textbook alone as their guiding light. Not only does bringing in additional resources into lesson plans provide students with much-needed multiple perspectives, it teaches our students a more subtle lesson -- always question authority, and don't rely on one place for The Truth. Look to many places for information and then make an informed decision about The Truth of the matter.

Obviously, the article caused me to start thinking -- and perhaps that was its sole purpose. If that is the case, then it succeeded. If it had more lofty aspirations, then this editorial, like the textbooks it criticized, is guilty of missing the mark.

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