The Juneau School District soon will get its first new social studies textbooks in more than a decade, and every student will have a copy to bring home.
"I've got a freshman. This is the first social studies book I've laid eyes on," said parent Kristine Harder, who is looking at some sample fifth-grade textbooks for the social studies curriculum committee.
"As a parent, I've been very concerned for years that we don't have books. It's very difficult to follow what your children have been learning if you don't have a book in the backpack to pull out," Harder said.
Over time, Juneau's supplies of social studies textbooks have dwindled to classroom sets, and some of the books were so old or poorly regarded that teachers didn't use them.
Debbie Hull, a social studies teacher at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School, said her old geography book refers to East and West Berlin. "It's good for climate zones," she said gamely.
The world history textbooks at Juneau-Douglas High School were so old they were no longer accurate, said Dzantik'i Heeni Principal Les Morse, who taught social studies at JDHS from 1990 to 1997.
"You think history is just going to be history, but there are new discoveries in archaeology," he said.
Juneau social studies teachers have developed other materials and haven't relied on textbooks for assignments, partly out of necessity and partly because they want to appeal to different learning styles with a varied approach.
"My sense is we've gotten away from the text is all you do in the classroom," said Paula Janowiec, a sixth-grade teacher at Floyd Dryden Middle School.
Many social studies teachers use textbooks for reference, as atlases, and as sources of vocabulary and a shared foundation of information. They supplement that with other commercially made materials or make their own, and they use library books and the Internet.
That's just as well, say both critics and authors of textbooks.
"You can live in rural Alaska and if you have a modem you have over 2 million historical documents at your fingertips," said James Loewen, a University of Vermont professor emeritus of sociology who wrote a book blasting American history textbooks. "So you don't just have to take the textbook's word on why the South seceded, for instance."
"I've always felt a textbook is simply one component of what happens in a class," agreed Paul Boyer, author of one of the American history textbooks under consideration in Juneau.
"You can have a wonderful textbook, but unless you have a teacher who uses it creatively, you're going to have an unsuccessful class," he said from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Harder, the parent, is concerned the new textbooks don't provide enough information. That leaves students dependent on whether the teacher supplements the text with something substantive, or chooses projects like making posters, which she doesn't favor, Harder said.
Gary Lehnhart, who teaches American government at JDHS, thinks well of his textbook but doesn't use it much and doesn't expect students to read it.
"I'm not a big textbook person," he said. "I use them mainly as a resource, to do research in. I've just found there are other ways to deliver a course and make it more relevant to kids than to use a textbook."
That may include talking to government officials, or reading news stories, or running a mock schoolwide election to see how the Electoral College works.
"I attack the public library, too," said Dzantik'i Heeni teacher Amy Lloyd. "I just returned 24 books on the Middle Ages."
For lessons on ancient Greece, Hull has used the Internet, activity books, library books and created her own materials. "It's just whatever we can dig up," she said.
Teachers will continue to do that sort of thing, Lloyd said, but with new textbooks they won't have to rely on lectures to convey basic information.
Having copies for every student means teachers can assign reading at home rather than take up class time, and parents can see what their students are working on in class.
Lloyd said take-home books would lead to more homework and allow for deeper lectures in class based on what students have read at home.
Some teachers, though, prefer to have students read in class so they can answer the kids' questions and guide them. And some teachers won't use textbooks as sources of homework.
The textbook purchase also allows the school district to standardize the texts among the schools. All of the elementary schools will use the same texts, as will both middle schools, and courses of comparable difficulty at the high school.
"We're going to send them to high school with some common knowledge for the high school teachers to build on," Janowiec said.
Charla Wright, director of curriculum, said it will take two years to buy all of the new textbooks, which typically cost $50 each. The school district expects to pay about $190,000 for textbooks and $43,000 for atlases and maps. The first books will be in place next fall.
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