Schools choose to put history books on the shelf and go digital

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Duane W. Gang

NASHVILLE – Social studies textbooks are fast becoming history.

In a growing number of school districts in the United States, education officials are refusing to purchase new versions and instead encourage teachers to find alternatives – from websites and interactive videos to primary sources.

Nashville Public Schools plan to spend $ 1.1 million this year on digital social studies materials and will add to that in the years to come, spokesman Joe Bass said.

The school district has asked teachers to use the alternatives to teach history, geography, and other social studies.

“The textbook shouldn’t be the primary resource for teachers,” said Jay Steele, academic director of Nashville Public Schools. “It is a resource only, and it is one of many resources.”

Educators and experts say moving away from traditional social studies textbooks is a smart move and a sign of the times. More and more students are using electronic devices and digital resources are increasingly up to date.

“If teachers are given enough professional development and the resources to include things like primary sources in their classroom, this is the most effective way to teach history,” said Fritz Fischer, professor of history and director of history teaching at the University of the North. Colorado.

Teacher Paul Beavers, left, chats with his ninth grade students during a world history class at Hillsboro High School in Nashville, Tennessee on Tuesday, August 19, 2014.

Indeed, Paul Beavers, a world history teacher at Hillsboro High School in Nashville, uses a host of resources in his classroom. He even creates a 2-minute podcast using his iPhone for students to review each lesson.

In a recent freshman class, he showed videos of archaeological sites and used an interactive online quiz he created to help students explain the link between agriculture and invention.

Students took notes on laptops, saved documents to Google Drive, and plotted questions and answers on an interactive online map. They came together in small groups to draw their own conclusions.

Not relying on a social studies textbook means it can tailor its curriculum better, Beavers said.

“It allows me to be at the top of my game,” he said.

The change seems to resonate with students.

A ninth grade student takes a note during a world history class at Hillsboro High School in Nashville on Tuesday, August 19, 2014.

Alex Skavron, 15, says he likes having less to carry in his backpack and can email his notes home. Visual aids and videos make learning easier.

“It’s 10 times better,” he said. “It’s not just a picture in a textbook. It bothers me.”

But 14-year-old April Proctor still prefers a book. There is less to write and she said she doesn’t have a computer at home. Still, she said, the change made the classroom more interactive.

“Everyone has the opportunity to speak,” she said.

Similar stories are playing out in classrooms across the United States.

In Fairfax County, Va., The school district adopted new social studies textbooks in 2009-2010. But the textbook is no longer the central focus, said Alice Reilly, district social studies coordinator.

“We have a mix of everything. We use multiple resources,” Reilly said. “We have textbooks. We have online textbooks. We use library databases. We use a wide variety. That’s where the trend is going.”

April Proctor, a ninth grade student, leads a group discussion during a world history class at Hillsboro High School in Nashville, Tennessee on Tuesday, August 19, 2014.

In Iowa, 100 of the state’s 338 school districts have one computer or tablet per student. In these districts, students access half to three-quarters of their social studies materials digitally, said Stefanie Wager, a social studies consultant with the Iowa Department of Education.

A host of primary sources are available online, either through the Library of Congress, National Archives, or state resources, Wager said. “You don’t really need to have the traditional manual,” she said.

Not relying on traditional history books reduces the potential for “textbook wars” where locals oppose certain conclusions, said Fischer, former chairman of the National Council for History Education. Using online materials and primary sources allows students to draw their own conclusions and teaches them critical thinking, he said.

But Fischer said he was a bit suspicious of the moves as well. If a school board has a detailed plan for what materials to use and invests money in professional development, then moving away from social studies textbooks can be fruitful, he said.

But some teachers may never have worked with primary-source materials, or haven’t done so since college. Without training, “it’s going to be a disaster,” he said.

“The devil is in the details of exactly what they’re going to spend their money on,” he said. “If all they are doing is spending money on tech gadgets or prepackaged material that a publisher has developed, that is not fair.”

Gang also reports for The Tennessean. Contributing: Joey Garrison of The Tennessean

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