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Want to Teach on a Higher Level? Drop the Textbook!

By Angela Bunyi on November 12, 2009

This year has been one of the most challenging years in my teaching career, and I am happy to say that this is a good thing. It has also been one of my most rewarding school years to date. Why? Teaching in a school that places an emphasis on learning outside of a textbook, worksheet, and scripted curriculum creates outside of the box planning and thinking. When you finally put the textbooks away, and I mean really away, you find that you have to really rely on those higher level teaching skills. Group-work, hands-on, music, movement, the works. This kind of learning is not only more fun and meaningful for my students, but for me as well. I'd like to share my five tips on managing the curriculum standards without relying on a textbook.

Photo: You won't find these directions on solving algebra problems like this in a textbook. I am including information on ordering the hands-on materials for this unit.

Textbook Disclaimer: This is not an anti-textbook post! In fact, I have at least four different math programs in my classroom, and I have used each of them at some point this year. However, I can't remember the last time I saw a student excited about something they were reading/working on in a textbook. I can quickly think of faces excited today over lessons that did not involve a textbook or workbook, though.

Tips for Managing a Curriculum Without a Textbook

Tip #1: Small Group Work

Working with a gifted population that can come to you already knowing the "3rd grade curriculum" really makes working through a textbook a totally unrealistic plan of action. Instead, we have to base a lot of our curriculum on pre-tests results and alternative resources (which may or may not come from a textbook). We also rely on working in small group settings across the curriculum in order to meet everyone's needs. This means reading, writing, spelling, and math are taught in a small group setting every week. This can be quite a challenge, but it is very rewarding to work in a small group setting so often. Today I addressed adding and subtracting unlike fractions, finding the LCM, and turning improper fractions (also called rational numbers) into mixed fractions. For another group we addressed comparing unlike fractions. This was all based on the previous day's work. Because most of this is above our grade level, we relied on dry erase boards, fraction strips, and calculators instead.


Photo: We are fortunate to have reliable weekly help for small group instruction. Here, a group of seven students work with two parent volunteers on word problem solving strategies while I work with another small group on algebra. On Fridays, all groups are managed by a parent or me. 

Tip # 2: Solicit Parent and Peer Help

Along with soliciting parent help in the classroom, I had a parent help organize one of our social studies units. How can you bring a government unit alive without a textbook? How about having a parent organize and plan government speakers for your class? We have had several senators, a judge, and city council members speak, and even have a federal level speaker planned for the future. I know I learned more about how our government works from these visitors than from anything I found in a school textbook. The bonuses included being able to answer student questions of interest and having educational items to take home (brochures, pamphlets, pencils, etc.).

In addition to this, I have found myself asking for help more than I ever have in my career. Luckily, there are plenty of good teaching ideas to share. I have borrowed ideas from kindergarten through 6th grade. Moving beyond the textbook can be a great way to begin collaborating with others, and I am so happy that I have needed to do so.

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Photo: Government is brought alive with a visit from a Tennessee senator.

Tip #3: Hands-On Matters

This is sometimes the most challenging, but most exciting part of my job planning. How can I bring in something to make my lessons hands-on? I find myself asking this most for math planning, but it works across the curriculum. From algebra to lessons on schema, I try my best to bring a tangible link to learning.

And proving that I am not anti-textbook, I was happy to see the manipulatives provided by Investigations. I use the hands-on materials frequently. 

To learn how you can make your science curriculum fully hands-on, try reading an archived post from my blog last year, "Science Inquiry and Science Notebooking." It includes several videos and photos.

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Photo: Students work in small groups with a parent to reinforce the skill of measuring angles. Students also made "angle-a-tors" with paper plates and brads.

Tip #4: That Howard Gardner Guy . . . He Knows What He Is Talking About

I have found myself stopping and checking to see if I have incorporated some of Gardner's multiple intelligence research into my planning.

Naturalist learner? We have written outside by the birdhouses several times in the past week or so. 

Musical learner? Rockin' the Standards, Mr. Duey, Songs of Higher Learning . . . get to know them. They rock. Honestly.

Interpersonal/intrapersonal learner? We worked on our individual spelling lists today, but students had the option to work with their "study buddy" or on their own. Students often have a choice to work how they best see fit.

When I am creating lesson plans, I find that this is a rather important component to our learning week.

I also wrote a post on incorporating multiple intelligence theory and reading/writing practices, "Combining Reading Strategies and Multiple Intelligence Research," last year, for more on this.

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Photo: Students used a hands-on approach to learn perimeter and area before tackling volume. We also used a song from Rockin' the Standards that really helps to teach these skills.

Tip #5: Internet and Professional Literature

And last but not least, there are my good trustworthy friends: the Internet and professional literature. Without these two resources, I don't know what I would do on a day-to-day basis. From Scholastic resources (the Mayflower links are amazing) to a professional book recommended by our school librarian, I feel revitalized when I learn about new methods and practices I can use in the classroom.

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Photo: I am not afraid to "borrow" ideas, even anchor charts from other teachers or authors. Anchor charts become an important feature in your room when you don't rely on a textbook. 

Some Links of Interest

Are you interested in what I am ROUGHLY teaching this year? My year-at-a-glance not only has a grid for the school year, but also lists my favorite resources on the second page. I stress that students determine the pace and content in our classroom.

Wow! Can your students solve problems like this: 2(3x+1)= x+22? They can! Please click on the following link to see a video on how your students can solve complex algebra using a hands-on approach.

Songs of Higher Learning: Tons of music with printable lyrics. Many songs are geared for the upper grades. Many songs available.

Mr. Duey: Takes a hip-hop/rap approach to learning content across the curriculum.

Rockin' the Standards: 4th grade teachers, these musicians focus on math content songs. Very catchy!

Comments (12)

Hey Amanda,

You bet I have had to deal with a lot of pressure regarding state testing. Does it ever seem to end?!? In fact, my current school and last school both have some of the highest test scores in the state. No pressure there, right? In my situation, it is a push to make sure all students are in the advanced category in every subject. Thinking about that task almost gives me a panic attack!

Regarding worksheets and practice sheets for reading- Yes, I try to incorporate 1 traditional worksheet in a week (usually as a warm-up) with another being higher level. Suggestions: ~Sorry for not going through my library to answer this, but there is a great resource written by the author of Mosaics of Thought. It offers leveled reading passages with higher-ordered reading comprehension strategy questions. I think it is worth looking into (Blue and gold book) ~ If your school uses Thinklink through Discovery, they have some great online practice probes that can really focus in on your students' problem areas.

Hope that helps!!!



Hi Angela,

This information is so helpful. You have helped me improve in a lot of areas.

My question is about high stakes testing. There is a lot of pressure in my state to prepare students for the state test. Have you had to deal with that before?

Do you ever use worksheets or practice books to practice objectives/skills for reading? Any suggestions?

Thanks, Amanda


Great to hear this is being used on a large scale. It really makes algebra so easy to grasp!!!

Happy holidays,

Mrs. Bunyi

I love Hands on Equations!! Our School District has been teaching this program for many years now-we were even given fromal training and our own classroom kits. Way to go Angela!


You're welcome. I have always felt my strong suit is under the literacy umbrella, but I feel alive with math this year. The small group and lack of textbook teaching makes a big difference, but even our whole group lessons are fun now. Tomorrow, for example, we will complete density testing using the formula and scales. This involves measurement, mass, division, multiplying to find volume, and reading decimals to determine density of cubic figures. You don't find that in a textbook lesson, and I am loving it!

Glad I have helped you...


Hi Angela, I so enjoied your post. I really like the idea of your mid-week assessment. This gives so much more direction for the students learning. Where I did my student teaching math was taught haphazardly as the teacher drudged through the workbook. Sadly, our CSAP scores clearly reflected our instruction. However, I am excited to teach in my own classroom next year after I complete my MA in education with a specialty in reading and math. The group work you do with your students has inspired me to make math more enjoyable for my kids. I have always been afraid of math myself, but I don’t want to bring vibe this into my classroom. Thanks for sharing. Tracy


I am so sorry for the late reply. We have had some problems with notifications, so I just noticed your question.

Anyway, good question. I do have that link, and it is not posted on my site. The direct link is: www.mrsbunyi.com/moon.html If you access the Scholastic blog, I have directions on making the moon transporter (or so I think). There is also a video showing how it works on the above link.



Hi Angela, First, I wanted you to know how super happy I am to have you (and Beth) online again this year! I love what you do in your classroom and "borrow" many of your ideas.

Question: On your website at your previous school, you had a link to some awesome resources about teaching the moon and its phases. (Your really clever "Moon Phase Transporter," which I really want to make, among other cool things that I can't recall at the moment!) I'm wondering if you could point me in the right direction....

Thanks so much!


I will fix that shortly. My website changed, so anything from the archived blog has links that don't work. If you visit www.mrsbunyi.com you can find my current downloadables. I'll swap out the links tomorrow for you and others.



Hello Elisa,

For math I was in the same boat about managing small groups. I even wracked Beth's brain on how she manages this as well. Both of us rely on parent help to manage one of our groups, and that is an important factor. For me, I do not use small groups every day. Monday-Wednesday I instruct whole group with a focus on hands-on, group work, and textbook free instruction. By Wednesday I make sure to provide a formal assessment to see how students are doing with our current skills. Based on this, I create 3 math groups for Thursday-Friday. Each rotation lasts 20 minutes, 1 hour total. Here is the actually small group plans from today:

Me: I reviewed comparing unlike fractions with one group, converting fractions into decimal and percentage without fraction strips or a calculator for another group, and adding unlike fractions for another group.

Parent Helper #1: The parent followed up with adding unlike fractions for the group that addressed it with me, reviewed division for another group, and introduced GCF and LCM for another group. Yes, I am that lucky...

Parent Helper #2: She used a decimal game found in a Singapore math manual (I provided it for her). She created all the materials needed for the game.

On Thursdays when I don't have a second parent, students usually through a computer site or complete independent practice at their desk. However, I have even had kids take a clock and go on a scavenger hunt around the school for geometry shapes, with the limit of being back within 20 minutes.

With all this said, it is MUCH easier than it looks here. Maybe I am lucky, but my students seem very open with telling me what they need help with each session. That makes my job a lot easier.

I hope that helps. Let me know if you have any other questions.


Hi Angela,

I really enjoyed your post and am slowly trying to change my methods in teaching. I tried downloading the posters from your multiple inteligences and reading workshop blog but wasn't able to. Please help. Thanks!

Angela, I feel like this post was written for me lol! I have a cluster of gifted students this year and am finding that I need to teach using small groups in order to differentiate my instruction. I have a hard time wrapping my head around it in math though. How do you manage the small groups in math? I mean, what are the groups doing who you haven't met with? Thanks for your posts, I always enjoy reading them.


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