Make "Boring" Books Better
As finite sources of information, textbooks are inevitably imperfect guides to a subject. The information provided may have gaps, be outdated, or provide insufficient detail — or the book's writing may be dry and unappealing. Use these tips to expand the scope of your child's textbook, and also allow him to build on the text on his own terms, across subjects. Moving beyond the book lets his curiosity be his guide.
To enhance language arts skills:
- Grow a Glossary. Make sure your child understands every word in her book. Although most provide glossaries, these often only include technical words specific to the subject (astronomy, baroque, coelacanth). Create a glossary of other challenging words that can be useful across disciplines (attribute, broaden, correlate). When your child finds a word that she doesn't understand, have her define it on an index card. As she builds her collection, keep them in alphabetical order for easy reference. Or, she can create a digital document using a word-processing program and update it often.
Get Closer to the Source. Textbooks have to cram a lot of facts into a small space and therefore gloss over illuminating nuances. Books are reduced to quotes, panoramic views are cropped to thumbnail-size pictures. Use the library and the Internet to get a better and more complete feel for the material.
An excerpt from the Constitution exposes your child to certain famous passages, but seeing the full text reveals more insight into the Founding Fathers' larger vision, their historical context, and the ways in which the document has been amended over the years.
To boost math and science skills:
- Picture This. Encourage your child to visually organize information that he finds unwieldy. Pie charts, line graphs, bar graphs, maps, Venn diagrams, and timelines are all useful ways to manage lots of information. Many schools encourage paper and pencil methods, but it's never too early to introduce your child to computer methods of data organization, such as simple spreadsheet software.
- Two Rights Don't Make a Wrong. As your child may know, sometimes there's only one way to solve a problem, and other times, there are many. Even if her teacher insists on a certain method, knowing alternate routes will encourage flexible, agile thinking. Keep a notebook of math solutions that were correct but performed differently. This way, her method will be just as legitimate as the means proposed in the textbook.
- Create More Problems. Challenge your child to write and solve math questions modeled on the toughest in his chapter. Making his own advanced problems will help him use his knowledge beyond the comfort zone of the text.
To build social studies skills:
Unlock Time. Read newspapers and magazines to stay in-the-know on all subjects (and don't miss Scholastic News, especially for kids). Every textbook is out of date, whether it was published ten years ago or just yesterday. New presidents are elected, galaxies are discovered, and countries are created.
Help your child create timelines for relevant subjects, or consolidate all the new milestones to create an inter-disciplinary view of our time. Keep an eye out for especially "cutting edge" subjects like biology, technology, and exploration.
- Walk in the Text. Visit places that are mentioned in the textbook. Although a picture is worth a thousand words, nothing can beat an actual trip to the site where the picture was taken. Many schools use field trips as ways to connect students to the curriculum. Try to find places that your child hasn't visited yet. Near home and on vacation, look for smaller, more specialized sites.
- Seek the Smaller Voices. Find primary texts such as speeches or diaries from "faces in the crowd" — people who were not recorded as "historical figures" but still provide an revealing look at the events of their time. Although the Dear America series is fictional, it offers a compelling window to the past, with the added appeal of kid protagonists.
- Enter Controversies. Discuss a historical argument to make history come alive. What evidence do we have of English oppression in the colonies? Were revolutionaries right to be outraged? Controversies allow your child to weigh moral considerations that are a part of daily life, past or present. Have her gather facts in order to decide whose version of the truth she finds more compelling.
- Connect With Today. Compare controversies of the past with current public questions. Identify the ways in which today's society has progressed, regressed, or stayed the same.
To foster artistic skills and creativity:
- Find Interpretative Forms. Connect the dots between art and life. Have your child find artistic representations of certain time periods, ideologies, or scientific concepts. Listen to jazz to understand the jubilance of the 1920's. Look at posters to experience war propaganda. Wrap your head around a sculpture of the Big Bang.
- Form Your Own Interpretation. Put the textbook's material into your child's own creative hands. This allows him to discover what makes the facts meaningful to him. Try short stories, drawings, paintings, sculptures, songs, or dances. Attach the artwork to a paper textbook cover or display it near the desk where he does his homework.
Make Your Own Textbook. Have your child create a reference book — think of it as a scrapbook of information — that follows her own curiosity and mode of research. For example, an interest in math may lead to algebra or trigonometry. A love of cats may reach across disciplines to a textbook including both feline anatomy and Egyptian symbolism.
Learning need not stop with the vision of the textbook author. Textbooks simply point to the many places a body of knowledge can lead, and it is the student's job and privilege to seek this information out. If your child describes the text as "boring," challenge him to find a way to make it fun!