13 April 1999
Recently a large body of middle-school students was assigned an essay in which they would make a rational case for or against the institution of homework. An articulate majority grant that homework is somehow necessary, but a good percentage suggest that one of its major drawbacks is the undue weight of materials they must take home in order to complete the work. It seems at once amusing and alarming to see that for this group of 11- to 13-year-olds, the word scoliosis is hardly ever misspelt, as though it has become a well-used staple of their schoolgoing vocabulary.
Despite their exaggerations, the students are correct in assuming their backpacks are too heavy. The medical profession will allow that anything approaching 15 or 20 percent of the carrier’s own weight is unacceptably heavy a burden for one whose spine is not yet grown to adult strength. This would suggest that a backpack regularly carried at 15 pounds– more common than educators would care to believe (several essay respondents had even weighed their backpacks before, just out of morbid curiosity) –is likely to injure a 13-year-old child permanently. I am sure few school districts want the moral responsibility, let alone the legal one, when, ten years hence, the proof of spinal damage and the cost of its lifelong treatment come back to cleverly implicate a school policy or particular instructor.
We’ve all heard these things before. Unfortunately the advent of the hiker’s rucksack, or backpack, as a de rigueur accessory for the secondary-school student, has exacerbated the problem considerably. Yet one cannot deny, at least through the students’ eyes, the perceived utility of the backpack for carrying a large load of odious gear to and from a place they would rather not be sent. The concept of homework cannot be eliminated either, for if the US is to best the academic standards now being set by other nations, American students will have to accept the fact of independent review and practice outside the classroom.
In spite of the Internet and other forms of immediate, non-printed material, the bound book in some form will likely be around for a long time to come. In itself it is infinitely cheaper and easier to access, transport, exchange, annotate by hand, and reproduce in ready form than other forms of media. Electronic media may be coming down in cost, but let’s face it– not all literature will ever really warrant the electronic process needed to get its text onto ROM, and then require that some form of data transfer apparatus be provided for it and carried round for whenever a reader wants to read on the bus or the beach. Moreover, for the teacher of other than reading subjects, electronic text may not facilitate a means for the student to respond in the way a paper-based worksheet does, nor make students’ independent progress so readily accessible to the teacher monitoring it in the classroom.
No; I would say that at least for a short duration yet, the paper-based textbook-and-response method of student input and output will stay a fundamental part of the secondary-school homework model. To deliver students from the burden of weighty tomes, the answer must lie not in changing to an entirely new type of study material but in the nature of textbooks themselves. One has only to consider the typical secondary-school assigned textbook to see the point. I once taught a 11th-year literature class for which the school prescribed a huge heavy book two inches thick with everything from Beowulf to the Romantics in it. I despised the book and so did the students. I don’t think their hatred stemmed from the matter within the book as much as the thought of having to lug it round all day, although it certainly became an easy excuse not to have brought it to class and, more than once, initiated a change of plan for the day by their sympathetic teacher. Somehow the literature started to seem less important when I had to torture the poor kids into bringing it along.
After reading the middle-school essays, I devised a very logical, cost-effective, and efficient alternative to books such as these. It seems so obvious I can only wonder why it is not widely used, as the evidence suggests it is not. The idea is simple: change the textbook. Instead of providing one huge book with eight centuries of literature in it, why not provide eight books each covering a shorter period? The books would be done in a series, with study questions at the end of each reading from which the student could merely copy out to do his homework. Rather than a hard cover, each series book would have a quality soft cover, possibly laminated to endure half a dozen years of use.
The implications for the classroom teacher are unobtrusive as to be barely existent. At the start of each new unit the last unit-book would be collected and the new unit-books distributed. Thus for each subject the student would be assigned to take home only a 3/8-inch-thick soft-cover book, which would contain all the texts and exercises necessary for the unit at hand in the classroom. Printed at 8-1/2 x 11 inches, prepunched, five or six could be carried by the student in a single 2-inch D-ring binder. Though bulky in itself, any one student’s collection in one easy-to-handle package would never approach the combined weight of five subjects’ textbooks all burdened with information not needed at present which burden the student almost daily.
There would be equal benefits for all subjects, even art and PE. I realise the unit-book idea could tend to perpetuate discrete skill building and lesson planning, which have begun to go out of favour in some schools and mostly with good reason. But for the vast majority of real classroom situations, few lesson plans are so comprehensive that pages from diverse places in the same large textbook are required regularly. Holistic summary could be provided by a data review or concept analysis section included at the close of each unit-book, or in the odd occasion via photocopy– since it is only what the students have seen before anyway. Better would be more teacher-devised assignments such as open-ended essay analysis and synthesis responses, the kind of thing too often overlooked even when suggested in the teacher’s guide of a big comprehensive textbook.
It would be sheer folly for any instructor to merely teach and review a unit in isolation anyway and surely a death-knell for this unit-book idea. But the unit-books are only intended to replace the physical format of the textbook, and not the text-based learning model. They do not preclude the requirement that students take their own notes or accept reading and writing assignments independent of the formal text in whatever form it appears. In my estimation it is only the laziest and most unworthy of teachers who follows the traditional textbook so blindly as to become one with its limitations.
I fear that the greatest drawback to the unit-book idea may lie not with educators but with publishers and the school administrators who buy from them. Any new idea is bound to be perceived as comparatively expensive and hassle-prone at first. But a long run of many paperback books selling for five dollars each, each used by a student only over a five-week period each year, must prove thriftier than one-eighth that order of heavy hardcover books at $40 or more each whose shipping costs alone make them undesirable. In fact since the unit-books are needed only in stages, the wise school buyer will schedule them to arrive one unit per month, so as to spread cost outlay over a school year. Over a period of five years five subjects could be thus integrated into the unit-book plan, at which time the first one may need replacement of texts, and so a school would merely have to ensure that the right books in the right quantities arrive every month, ad infinitum. The ongoing supplier-customer rapport this establishes can only be good in the long haul.
One benefit to the unit-book plan is the ease with which texts can be updated. If and when revisions become necessary, only the affected one of the unit-books has to be revised and re-released into the rest of the set. This must be more reasonable than selling off the ‘old’ stock to less-savvy schools who, when they realise they have just missed getting a newer edition, will feel cheated out of their money and a good chunk of it too.
Another great potential is for the integration of subjects within a level of study. The publisher can produce subject unit texts and lessons which are discrete yet interrelated. With the student having five or six similar-looking, colour-coded unit-books in his binder, he can recognise the interdependency of his subjects unit by unit. When the same terms and concepts are being learned and applied, the reinforcement in all subjects across the board will be overtly positive. The student will correctly spell scoliosis now because he has seen it in his language-arts spelling list and studied its cultural and anatomical aspects in social-studies and science. If just one child never has to learn the word by personal experience, the unit-book concept will have paid its due.
It has long been my belief that a book more easily carried is more likely to be often read. It might seem almost too much to ask, but it is entirely possible that with proper lesson planning, the unit-book concept may help students leave off their wholesale disdain of texts and begin to look forward to receiving a new one every five weeks.
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