New is the old forgotten. The coursebook.

Back in the sweltering (even if somewhat less so) heat of Tokyo, there is an urge to publish something. Jet lag is still on with all its effects, paired with a cold, which naturaly prevents one from typing anything new from the drafts. I know there have been blog posts, discussions, comments on the topic of coursebooks recently, so I guess coursebook is the word.
That’s why I decided to share something on the topic that I wrote 18 months ago for the TeachingEnglish Blog (original here), unedited but with my sidenotes below. Revisiting it now, when my teaching situation has changed so dramatically, looks worth a post on a lazy summer day.

*****
Coursebook is a promise.

Many times I’ve heard teachers say “Look! These new coursebooks are so good. I don’t understand why our students are not thrilled to open them, marvel at colourful pictures on these glossy pages, soak up every task and exercise! I wish I were a student myself and had to study with this textbook on my desk.”

There’s something slightly unhealthy and even obsessive about the relationships of English language teachers and bookstores. I’ve been in this team buying up armfuls of hot-off-the-press books for classroom use myself for many years. Undoubtedly, a coursebook is more than its content, clear layout, friendly guidance, and those nice on the touch pages that teachers cannot resist. A coursebook is always a promise. Every NEW(!) version of a coursebook is always a promise of something better, of something more.

A NEW Coursebook has better CD recordings.
A NEW Coursebook has authentic dialogues in many more accents.
A NEW Coursebook has a NEW e-book.
A NEW Coursebook has a DVD with a set of videos selected for each topic, and maybe even extras.
A NEW Coursebook offers a broad-minded view on many issues.
A NEW Coursebook comes together with a helpful grammar guide.
A NEW Coursebook Teacher’s Guide supplies plentiful extra ideas and photocopiable worksheets.

An app to accompany the next NEW Coursebook would be great. And surely more, much more to come to fulfill the ongoing, reassuring promise of a coursebook.

Coursebook is change.

This story sends us back to my years of working in a small private school on the outskirts of Moscow. At that time around 50 pupils constituted the whole body of those who I and my colleague, my university groupmate at that time as well, got to teach. The story in a nutshell would be us setting a goal to change over for the “foreign” coursebooks for the children in that school. I’ve recently shared in my blog the full story of this brave endeavor we took on, so I’ll just say it was successful and change that happened was greeted with support from parents and lively enthusiasm from children. At that point we managed to break away from an outdated methodology, pervasive in the textbooks, omnipresent in the libraries.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but my guess is that the majority of Russian people who have ever learnt or taught English in the recent 50 years know a handful of English language coursebooks with mentions of “comrades” in the texts. These have gone through several editions in the years of the new history of our country, but even now, buying books from Russian publishing houses one can still feel a subtle scent of that unexciting for language teachers past. Books in a library in one renowned university look sad and still very much Soviet, even if they were published in the 90s or this past decade. To students, who learn English reading about the adventures of some professor Ivanov accompanied by grammar and vocabulary exercises that follow his gripping experiences, these books are no harm. Rather an explicable reason for snarky comments and general sneering. To some teachers, who have to use the afore-mentioned adventures to teach the changing and ever transforming language, these books may cause frustration. Indeed, flipping through the yellow faded pages one can see any coursebook of a modern format, design and style as a very welcome change.

No coursebook is liberation, choice and effort.

I don’t teach with a coursebook and I haven’t for quite a while. Luckily, I’m in no situation when I’m pressed to blindly follow a particular one. There’s some good sense present in the places where I teach, which I’m really thankful for. Interestingly, adult students that I get to teach exhibit a similar kind of common sense… and maybe even more than that. It won’t be an exaggeration from my part to say that not a single adult student I’ve had in my class in the recent 3 years wanted to have coursebook based classes. I don’t have to look more than 4 days back for another example of this attitude. The student I just started teaching last week in his expectations for the course ahead expressed and clearly argumented his position. He doesn’t see the use of a coursebook necessary, but at the same time he wants to be aware of the steps we’re going to take, be able to track his progress, and have a balanced language diet regarding topics and activity types. This attitude and precise understanding of goals resonate with my own view of teaching I’m most comfortable with. So, once our students are so aware of their needs, isn’t it time for teachers to be getting more flexible and let our teacher selves off the hook of that coursebook we have so comfortably got used to?

It’s quite true that I’ve developed a certain apprehension towards being imposed with a rigid system of any sort. For me coursebook-less teaching is a selfish conscious choice. It’s a challenge, it’s a continuing mental activity, it’s a practical reason to be observant, it’s an excuse to be always in search for learning opportunities. It is simply more attractive for my *active* mind. Coursebook-less teaching certainly adds hours of preparation, but in another, more enjoyable and creative way. It teaches me to react to the world around me. It forces me to be looking deeper into my students’ learning, analyze it and always be ready to adapt. Teaching from my students’ needs, negotiated, immediate and emergent, allows me to have the whole weight of responsibility for my class and share it with my students.

I don’t feel knowledgeable or in any way “expert” to give tips and advice on how, why and what you should be doing in your classroom with your students. As long as it’s clear in your own mind why you’re doing this or that, how materials you use impact learning and get reflection in the actual progress your students make, I strongly believe you know better.

*****

Obviously, context dictates its rules, which you abide by, find loopholes in, adjust, or disregard completely, vent and rebel against. With the transition I made (am making) came new reality of facing textbooks, not the first time but over again. One term of school year being over, I feel ready to share my thoughts and impressions about teaching students both with and without a prescribed coursebook.

1. Out of the eight types of classes I teach, three follow a given syllabus. The coursebooks (two levels of Go for it! and Engage) were absolutely new to me so at first I was excited to look at how they differ from the titles that are commonly used in Russia. I found them at times more ridiculous and cluttered than I’d known coursebooks to be, inconsistent, too. I can’t think of a reason why “salsa” should be given as a unit vocabulary item for music genres to modern Japanese teenagers, no offence to salsa lovers. Anyway, none of that came as a shocker. As I tried to find my way around those pages to make sure my students would learn the material in a natural and somewhat enjoyable way, I doubted my choices so many times. It suddenly got hard to link lessons and make it a flow, even though coursebooks are supposed to make it exactly easier, right? More importantly, I felt the weight of responsibility for the students to be learning (as opposed to covering) certain things within a certain number of classes, but that amount is just not enough. Some students cannot possibly cope. An unsurprising, chronic problem a teacher faces again and again. Bottomline: I was rarely sure last term my students went out of class with a solid piece of learning.

2. Out of the eight types of classes I teach, two are the courses I design myself – Culture course and Social Media course, with an emphasis on safety and privacy issues. I am lucky to be given absolute (within common sense) freedom as to which materials to use and how to structure the courses. No coursebooks are involved in those classes, and that is still both liberating AND demanding at the same time. The responsibility is there, and tripled by the fact that what students are exposed to in our very limited classtime ultimately comes down to what I, as a teacher, see right. We can approach the same material from different angles, do more in-depth work on improving our writing skills, devote time to error analysis and correction, notice weaknesses/ strengths/ points of interest and modify the rough syllabus I have prepared. All this time I should be careful we don’t overdo and overdrag it. This whole process of working together to help the course emerge is challenging but it brings so much colour to my routine. By writing lesson summaries in our Google Doc we keep track of lesson topic progression and development. I think students trust me to make the decisions that would ensure they are learning something new and relevant every class, that I will do my best to make our time meaningful. I hope.

When talking about the use or uselessness of coursebooks, I want to remember to put students themselves into the picture. That, in fact, should be true about anything we discuss that concerns teaching. I will put myself in this picture now, because I can. As a mostly unsuccessful student of Japanese, but one owning a couple of black-and-white coursebooks, I can admit that the realization that you have a book and structure *of whatever sense and quality* to guide you is reassuring. The initial interest and excitement, though, do not progress smoothly into actual learning time, for me personally. In other words, I like having a book, but learning with it is a chore I am trying to avoid.

By no means is mine an example to lean on to in making judgements and conclusions. This post is also going to lack a logical wrap-up. Thanks for reading.

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9 thoughts on “New is the old forgotten. The coursebook.

  1. Marc says:

    Liberating and demanding. Lest anyone think that teaching without a book is just to give oneself an easy life.

  2. A really interesting post, Anna and one which reflects my thoughts now before the beginning of the school year. I have taught both with and without a coursebook and it’s true that the latter has been much more liberating as Marc points out, yet so stressful and overwhelming at the same time. It was however what I call productive stress, a sense of alertness and a way to keep in touch with reality as it is. I also feel though there is a way to be equally creative when teaching with a coursebook provided a) your teaching environment is supportive of you adapting the material to best suit your students’ needs b) the coursebook is itself open to change. I feel things become more demanding when teaching exam classes where the pressure for coursebooks and exam materials is higher, but I still want to believe we can find a way to get the best of both worlds.

    • annloseva says:

      I am with you, Maria. I haven’t had to teach regular exam classes but now when I am in this system and we need to study for tests, I feel pressure all over.
      Your last line speaks my mind, too.

      Thank you for the comment!

  3. pboc1969 says:

    The sad thing is that you sit next to me at work. Therefore, when you blog and then persist that I read your entry, you are sprayed with my thoughts and comments. So, no need to enter anything here. But, I will just to add support to my ‘turning left and speaking’ reaction.

    Your thoughts, ideas, planning, administration, and reflections are all good. Whether they are universal or deeply personal is another thing. The blog is yours! You have the right to say what want you say, how you say it, and when you say it.

    Be confident!

    You know my thoughts already

    • annloseva says:

      I do, thank you for sharing them, it was something I hadn’t thought much about before.

      I should think of a new way to push my posts your way, something that would ensure no immediate conversation.. that would be sad for me, too, though..)

      Thanks again for caring enough to talk about it and comment!

  4. Zhenya says:

    Hi Ann

    Thank you for this post – several things resonated with me:

    1) your mention of ‘comrades’ in the Soviet books made me smile (sadly): I would add that oftentimes those books have vocab that is only used in those books (go in for sports, do beds/make beds – these are only a few that were learned/taught at some point of my high school/college years)

    2) This part made me nod in agreement: ‘For me coursebook-less teaching is a selfish conscious choice. It’s a challenge, it’s a continuing mental activity, it’s a practical reason to be observant, it’s an excuse to be always in search for learning opportunities. It is simply more attractive for my *active* mind’ – I have never met you in person, but something is telling me that (a) you have used a variety of course books in your teaching career before and (b) you value your students’ needs and care for them to achieve their goals, therefore, you don’t need a book to support/guide you as a teaching professional. I respect, value and support the choice of yours!

    Having read your post, I can formulate my belief that teaching without a course book is a great professional development opportunity for a teacher. For a very experienced teacher seeking challenges and opportunities to explore the profession more. I think coursebook-less-ness works for those of us who have become (somewhat) confident in our teaching skills, and are now ready to see how materials development in combination with lesson planning might ‘blend’ together. I totally agree that students need a ‘system’ that shows them the progress they made and areas to work on (and it is our job as teachers to show that it is not the course book that can give them this ‘control’ of their learning)

    Thank you for the post that made me think!

  5. annloseva says:

    That’s a very interesting way to look at teaching without a coursebook. I appreciate your formulating and sharing your belief! I think teachers of any level of experience might benefit from some training on how to go along teaching without relying on those pages.. And your comment also made me think if what I do is even remotely enough or good to show students their progress.. If there was anything to refer to for helping out devise a flexible “system” to serve that purpose and support coursebookless teaching, I would SO like to read it.

    THank you so much for your wonderful comment!

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