Mario joins Columbus in history

Authors try to lure youths with modern icons

Posted: Sunday, April 01, 2001

School Textbooks: making lessons modern and accurate

When Juneau teachers and several parents meet this week to consider which social studies textbooks to recommend for purchase by the school district, they'll have to consider the role of the Super Mario Brothers.

The characters in the famous Nintendo Entertainment System video game "help the peaceful Mushroom People in their battle against the Koopa turtle tribe," says one of the high school history textbooks the school district may buy.

The textbook even suggests students undertake this assignment: "Compare the video games of today with the video games of 1985, and then make predictions about the games of the future. Keep your report in your portfolio."

Glencoe McGraw Hill, a major textbook publisher, devotes two pages, mostly of pictures, to the Super Mario Brothers in "American Odyssey" as part of a recurring feature on cultural artifacts.

For a district that has not purchased social studies textbooks on a large scale since 1989, such content may be a wake-up call. Teachers, parents and school board members will have to decide if the prospective texts will inform 5,400 local students appropriately about America and the world.

"American Odyssey" was written by Gary Nash, a historian at the University of California at Los Angeles and director of the influential National Center for History in the Schools, which created national history standards.

Nash didn't write the Nintendo pages or the many other special sections in the 1,000-page book. It also wasn't his choice to devote nearly a full page to a poster of the 1933 movie "King Kong." But Nash did include five paragraphs about Columbus and three sentences on the natives Columbus encountered in the Caribbean.

Who took the text out of textbooks? Some critics tie the answer to the way the books are made and marketed.

"There's every factor but pure historical interest, truth or value in selecting what goes into most textbooks today," said David Perlmutter, an assistant professor at Louisiana State University who has written about the textbook publishing industry.

"School textbooks are a political product, an economic product, and as a minor footnote they're an educational product," he said from his Baton Rouge office.

This is how some critics see it:

Only a few publishers can afford to develop textbooks, so there isn't much variety. It takes years to create textbooks, particularly a series of books for many grades. With such a large investment, publishers rely on being successful in several populous states, such as California and Texas, in which statewide boards approve the textbooks that school districts can choose from. California has 400,000 students at each grade level.

As a result, publishers take pains to have textbooks that are neither controversial nor offensive. There's an interest group for every objection, and they lobby in the big states and nationally, Perlmutter said.

Publishers put a premium on a colorful visual format because that seems to please state reviewers and school boards, who flip through the books rather than read them.

Publishers also have to make a textbook that's as simple for the teachers to teach as it is for the students to read because teachers may not know their subject or there may be a substitute that day, Perlmutter said.

"They're trying to make a book that is as homogenized as possible, as dumbed down as possible. It's in their economic interest because that's what most educational situations demand," he said.

Publishers "do make an effort to make it appealing and readable," said Paul Boyer, a historian and author of college and high school textbooks. "Sometimes that's been attacked as dumbing down. 'Where are the good old solid texts of yesteryear?'"

Critics pick up on one feature from a textbook and call it trivial, he said from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "If you read the whole text carefully, you'll find there's a very solid body of information about American history."

To some critics, "American Odyssey" is typical of recent history textbooks in an overabundance of pictures, denigration of narrative, and inappropriate focus on popular culture, as they see it. The book's cover shows a red 1953 Buick Skylark convertible.

"What has happened is that all these pictorials and graphics have gotten out of control," said Gilbert Sewall, director of the nonprofit New York City-based American Textbook Council, which reviews textbooks.

"We really need to refocus on the text and get books that are simply more readable, more legible," he said from New York.

Like other recent textbooks, "American Odyssey" takes up a lot of its pages' space with side features that break up the narrative, which itself is written in small chunks of a few sentences or paragraphs between colorful subheadings.

The start of each unit and chapter is an opportunity for two-page graphic spreads with a few words. The pages that do have narrative are partly taken up by more illustrations.

The book also contains chapter reviews, an atlas and collections of other information as appendices.

In all, a 1,000-page textbook might have the equivalent of 400 pages of narrative. That's one reason textbooks fall prey to "mentioning" telling the reader about something without explaining it or putting it in context.

"Compressing complex and significant topics into a few sentences makes history textbooks hard to understand," Sewall said in a recent report, "History Textbooks at the New Century."

"Why some topics are included and others excluded remains unclear. Details that might fix an event in memory frequently are omitted. Textbooks are vague about things that are interesting and specific about events and people that no one needs to remember," Sewall wrote.

Nash, in an interview from his UCLA office, said he wasn't entirely comfortable with breaking up the narrative with graphics and sidebars.

"But the publishers and some of the learning experts think it's more effective to a visually oriented generation," he said.

Publishers also want textbooks to serve the large number of immigrants, who are learning English as a second language, Nash said.

"This generation's very visually oriented - TV, computer games, movies. So they like to open up a book and it stands out," said Gretchen Kriegmont, a history teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School who likes "American Odyssey."

"I require reading, but I want them to stay interested. When they have the pictures to look at, it helps them stay interested in the reading," she said.

Kelly Morgan, a sophomore in one of Kriegmont's world history classes, said the textbooks' design doesn't distract her. The use of illustrations "shows you how the people lived and what they have to go through," she said.

But Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School teacher Amy Lloyd said some textbooks' design is overwhelming.

"The busy stuff is not good for kids who have problems focusing. The kids get lost," she said. "They don't leave with knowledge. They leave with stimulation."

Nash believes the illustrations in his book are very useful.

"Some of the visual material conveys what would take a great many words," he said. "And I think it also draws the kids in and gives them a sense of what it was like then."

Boyer, author of "The American Nation," a high school textbook being considered in Juneau, said visual materials supplement the text.

His book includes a "powerful" photograph of survivors of the Holocaust.

"That conveys a kind of sense of the reality when you talk about the Holocaust you cannot convey in the text," Boyer said.

A graph showing the growth of single-parent families "very vividly conveys a lot of information in a clear form," he added.

Nash also helped write a kindergarten-through-grade-eight social studies series in the early 1990s for Houghton Mifflin that became a model for a new look in textbooks and a new way to create them. The practice was followed in creating "American Odyssey."

Designers and editors worked together to block out each page before anything was written. They asked what each chapter was trying to accomplish and figured out the best mix of words and images to do it.

"It was exhilarating," said Nash. "These visuals are carrying a good bit of the story, a good bit of the pedagogical (instructional) load."

The pictures' captions nearly always ask the students questions and force them to "decode" the picture, he said.

Besides providing content, such as through graphs or maps, illustrations can engage students' emotions, create empathy and appeal to different learning styles, publishers say.

Conceding the value of illustrations, some critics are concerned they've come at the expense of verbal information and challenging reading levels.

The textbooks in the Houghton Mifflin series were designed to keep the text in relatively small chunks, broken up by headings, said humanities researcher James Andrew LaSpina in a book about the series' creation.

LaSpina quoted a project coordinator who said the books consciously were built to be used for previewing and reviewing a topic rather than for continuous reading.

The reading that goes on in that kind of visual and verbal format is the kind generally used with computers, LaSpina said in an interview from Los Angeles. "We scan information and go through a lot quickly," he said.

LaSpina said students need to be able to understand images, and these new textbooks can help in that. But they pose a dilemma for schools that want textbooks to be challenging reading, he said.

"We do want it to be at a reading level most kids can access," said Charla Wright, curriculum director in the Juneau School District. The district can buy higher-level materials as supplements, she said.

Karen Wixson, a reading specialist who reviewed the Houghton Mifflin series, said she didn't object to the reading level or the combined visual and verbal approach.

"But it certainly has to be integrated, and I didn't see it," she said in an interview from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where she is dean of the School of Education.

And because the publisher commissioned writers to work on individual lessons, the books didn't always cohere, Wixson said.

"One expert didn't necessarily know what the other was writing," she said.

At the lower grade levels, publishers do use more of a committee approach to creating textbooks, Nash said.

His name is on a third-grade history textbook published by Houghton Mifflin, but he said he didn't write any of it. Instead, he talked with editors and the writers (who were former teachers), provided historical sources, and revised drafts of the text.

"At that level there really are no true authors. These are publisher team-produced books. But that changes by the time you get to fifth grade," Nash said.

Some critics of textbooks fault the committee approach.

Textbooks with a strong authorial presence seem to draw the reader closer to the text's subject, suggested Richard Paxton, who specializes in the psychology of teaching and learning history.

"But who writes textbooks? It's often hard to figure out now," he said from the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh.

The title pages of today's textbooks suggest they're put together, not written, by teams of content reviewers, multicultural consultants, professors of education and editors.

"The editors are the creators of the book. I don't even like to use the term author," Perlmutter said.

The anonymous tone of these textbooks gives the impression that history is a done deal, that there's nothing for students to think about, that they should just memorize, Paxton said.

But Boyer, a textbook author, said creating a textbook is a collaboration because historian-authors know factual material, and editorial specialists know how kids learn and the most effective way to reach them.

The multicultural reviewers don't have veto power over the text, Boyer added. He said he's never encountered pressure to avoid offending an interest group.

But he supported the use of reviewers because a textbook aimed at a broad market, such as the American high school, "needs to be sensitive to the full range of students."

Eric Fry can be reached at

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