Matt Miller joins Justin Baeder to discuss his book Ditch That Textbook.
Interview Notes, Resources, & Links
- Get the book Ditch That Textbook
- Visit Matt’s website, DitchThatTextbook.com
- Follow Matt on Twitter @jmattmiller
- Download Matt’s free eBook with 101 strategies for integrating technology
About Matt Miller
Matt Miller has spent more than a decade teaching technology-infused lessons in public schools. As an author, blogger and education speaker, he encourages teachers to free their teaching and revolutionize their classrooms with mindset, techniques and curriculum to serve today's learners.
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Justin Baeder: Welcome everyone. Justin Baeder here, and my guest today is Matt Miller, author of “Ditch That Textbook.” The book, and the blog have been on my radar for a long time, and Matt, I want to welcome you to Principal Center Radio.
Matt Miller: Thank you. I’m so excited to be here.
Justin: This book is based on your experience, in your classroom. I wonder if you can take us, just briefly, on the journey that you’ve gone through over the last couple of years that led you to the production of this book.
Matt: It has been quite a winding journey, I will tell you that. I’m a high school Spanish teacher in west central Indiana, and I’ve been teaching for almost a full 11 years now. In the first few years of my teaching career, I would teach very traditionally.
I guess traditionally is one way to look at it. I wasn’t even a very good traditional teacher, I just did things the way that a lot of my teachers used to do them. I knew there were textbooks. I knew that a lot of time textbooks had workbooks.
There were worksheets. There were just a lot of those standard staples of the average class, and so I relied on those pretty heavily. I actually enjoyed making my own worksheets. Not that they were super engaging, but I did an awful lot of that, and for a long time, that’s just what I thought that teaching was.
I would veer away from the textbook for a little while, but I started to find that my kids couldn’t speak Spanish, which is a problem, if you’re a Spanish teacher. In what I call, “A calculated moment of frustration,” I’d been thinking about it for a little while one day I just opened up this big, tall cabinet in the back of my classroom, and I said, “OK, your books go in here.”
My students started taking their books over there. I’d dabbled a little bit in teaching without my textbooks. After that, I started preparing these study guides, which had everything that my students were going to be accountable for, for the next week.
I started handing them out to those. They were in paper at first, and then eventually we went to the Google Apps for Education, so I started delivering them through Google Docs, instead. We started doing more Internet based things. We started creating more, doing conversation more.
It hasn’t been easy, and it’s been some work, but my students seem to at least enjoy class a lot more. They are much better speakers of Spanish, and I enjoy what we do better, too.
Justin: Matt, that definitely sounds familiar, that feeling of the textbook not really connecting with students, and not really being the best guide to how we need to spend our time in class. Did you get any pushback from administrators, or from parents, or from students, when you told kids to put their books back in the cabinet?
Matt: A lot of people ask me this question, and I wish that I had this story of, “Yes, and I had to fight back against the administrators, and I had to put those parents in their place.” I don’t have a story like that. [laughs]
I was very fortunate, and very blessed, to have supportive administrators, and parents, for that matter. I think the overriding sentiment with all of them was that they wanted the best education for their students, and if I found a way that I thought was going to deliver that better, then they were all for it.
I have yet to have a principal tell me, “You know, we bought those textbooks. You really need to use them.” I haven’t had any of that yet.
Justin: Everybody knows textbooks are not what we envision as the highest, and best, view of instruction. I just feel like they’re kind of a safety net, but we don’t want them to be a ceiling. We don’t want them to hold us back. Is that where you’re coming from?
Matt: Yeah, absolutely. If you ask any teacher what some of their best activities are, that they’ve done with their students, or their favorite moments with their students, it’s not going to be, “Yeah, my favorite moment was when we turned to page 109, and we answered all of the odd questions.”
Matt: [laughs] That’s just not going to happen. It’s when we break away from it, and we start to get creative, and we think about the kids in our class, and what their desires are, and how we know that they learn best, and we factor in where they are in the learning process, and we start to custom make things.
That’s when we start to get those memorable expenses that the kids are going to remember, and that’s going to keep us passionate about teaching. I just found that the textbook can be a source of reference, if you really need it to be, but most of my best teaching has come when I tried to break away from it.
Justin: Matt, let’s talk about what it looks like in your classroom, because obviously putting away the textbook is only the starting point. What did you do in your class to make things truly different, and what does that look like, if you can take us into your classroom?
Matt: Yeah, absolutely. The backbone of my classroom is my class website. My class website has sort of become like my dynamic, ever changing textbook. When I make these study guides out of Google Documents, that I was talking about before, a link to those gets put onto my website.
All I do to make that website is, it’s just done in Weebly, which is a free website creator. I highly recommend it. It’s super easy to use. It’s just drag and drop interface. I created my website off of that, and my students will actually…We have Chromebooks in my class.
I have a cart of Chromebooks, so everybody can have one. We’re not fully one to one. My students will basically go get a Chromebook out of my cart, and will go straight to my class website, and open up the most current study guide. They just know to do that.
In addition to that, I’ll put links to maybe news articles in Spanish that I want us to look at, or a practice activity that I want us to go out and do, or I can add pictures of what we’re doing in class, or if I wrote a really good reference that they might want to come back to up on the board, I’ll just take a picture of it with my iPad, and just stick it over on the class website.
The website is really become the hub, and that’s kind of like our home base. Then sometimes we’ll veer off of that home base, and go to other places. Sometimes it will be a Google hangout that I’ll lead, up at the projector.
I’ve actually had students do individual Google hangouts with students from another country, where Spanish is spoken. That’s been a cool experience. We do a lot of creating with Google Apps. One of my go to tools there is Google Drawings, there’s just so much you can create there.
Then just another handful of great creation sites, like WeVideo, and PalTune, and Quizlet. I could go on, and on.
Justin: The tools can and will change, but I think the theme that I see running through your book is just one of relevance, matching the tool to whatever you’re trying to accomplish, whatever your students need. You can be so much more agile with that if you have a website, if you have this collection of study guides, versus a textbook that was written probably over 10 years ago, by someone that you don’t know.
Matt: It’s not that hard, these days, to stay relevant, too, because you said tools will change, and that’s definitely the truth. I’ve found, by being connected on Twitter, that’s, if I could preach, the big thing that a teacher could do to take their teaching to the next level.
I still think that getting connected to other educators is the best thing. That’s just a place where I’m constantly seeing new ideas, new tools, new philosophies about education, new people that really help me to drive all of that forward.
It’s not that I’m really smart, and I’ve dreamt up all of these ideas on my own, it’s finding that source of good ideas, and putting those in play.
Justin: Matt, as you’ve seen your studies succeed with these digital resources, and the new approaches that you’re using, how has your role changed? If you start your career with traditional textbooks, just kind of going from chapter 1 to chapter 30, that puts you in a particular role, and if you stop doing that, I would think that would change your role.
How have you seen that shift, over time?
Matt: I’ve seen that change a lot, in my teaching career. Before, when I was relying so heavily on my textbooks, it was like, “Here’s the prescribed vocabulary. Here are the prescribed topics that we need to talk about.”
Now I can branch away from that, by not focusing on this print textbook that is…It’s set. It’s like set in stone, almost, once it’s printed. Now I can customize the vocabulary to my students’ needs, and interests, and we can take off on different routes based on their interests, as far as activities that we do.
If they’re musically inclined, there are ways we can go that way, and if they’re…Whatever their skill set is, we can go that route, so we’re putting things in their wheelhouse, so that whatever their strength is, we can build upon that, so that that’s what they’re comfortable with. They can produce things that they’re really proud of.
Justin: Matt, it’s clear that you’ve explored a lot of new territory, and found a lot of success in that, as you’ve described in your book, Ditch That Textbook.
What advice do you have for administrators, to both not be in the way of teachers going through a similar process in their own practice, and in terms of actually supporting people to move to make instruction more relevant, to take advantage of technology, and to really step out of that gatekeeper and deliverer of information role that we’ve traditionally seen ourselves in?
What can leaders do, to make that happen in classrooms?
Matt: I have a couple of ideas. Knowing my perspective, I am a classroom teacher, and have been, and have never served in an administrative role, but I have served under a handful of different principals, some better than others.
One of the biggest things that they could do is create an atmosphere that lets teachers know that if they’re going to take a risk, if they’re going to take a chance on doing something differently, that that’s OK.
I know, in a lot of places, some teachers are just terrified about doing that, because they’re afraid that if the students don’t succeed, then it shows up on their evaluation, their evaluation goes down, eventually their job becomes in jeopardy.
They want to jump out and try something different, try something innovative that they’re excited about, and they think will have great gains for the student, or will maybe help the student to develop into a more rounded, better individual, but they’re not willing to do that, because they’re nervous. That atmosphere hasn’t been promoted.
Another thing that has been huge for me is whenever I have administrators that are visible, where I know that they’re connected with the classes. Not necessarily that they come in and observe all the time, but just that they’re out there, they’re asking about what you’re doing, maybe throwing in a little bit of advice, or asking some questions.
Really just being invested in the teachers, and invested in what they’re doing. That’s just a little thing that can go a long way, is to maybe just go and pat a teacher on the back, and just say, “You know, I trust you, and I want you to do what you think is best for the kids, and if that means taking a little bit of a risk, then I support you.”
Or just asking that follow up question, or just throwing in some sort of comment that shows that you’re paying attention. I think a principal giving a teacher their full, undivided attention is one of the best gifts they can give.
Justin: We think in terms of permission, but attention is almost like a prerequisite to permission, isn’t it? Just noticing the value in what people are doing.
Matt: That really validates my work, whenever somebody who’s really connected to my situation pays attention, and shows that they’re paying that attention. That’s huge for me.
Justin: One of the nice things about being a connected educator, being on Twitter, and seeing into other people’s classrooms, is that we can all pay much more attention to what other people are doing, in a way that I think raises the possibilities for everyone.
We can learn from each other. We can grab great ideas from anywhere. I have to say, Matt, I’m very impressed with how many of them you’ve organized together in Ditch That Textbook. Thank you so much for joining me on Principal Center Radio.
Matt: It’s been great. Thank you so much, Justin.
Announcer: And now, Justin Baeder on high performance instructional leadership.
Justin: High performance instructional leaders, what did you take away from my conversation with Matt Miller about Ditch That Textbook? Right there at the end, he said something that was easy to miss, but I hope you heard it, because I certainly did, and it’s the importance of paying attention.
If I think back to my time in the classroom, I was a middle school science teacher, and one of the most terrifying feelings I ever had as a teacher, was this realization that a lot of the time, no one was paying attention to what I was doing. I could do just about anything I wanted, whether it was innovative, or whether it was terrible, and no one would really notice.
The biggest gift, and the biggest support we can give our teachers is to pay attention to what they’re doing, to recognize when they’re trying something innovative, to be supportive even if those attempts fail, and to just be in the picture as instructional leader. I think as instructional leaders, we see our role as guiding, but often we don’t need to tell people what to do.
We don’t need to push people in the right direction, we just need to pay attention. There may be times when we need to encourage people to take a risk. There may be times when we need to talk people through a failure, and let them know that failure is what creates success over time. It’s through that process of trying things, and figuring out what works, and what doesn’t, that we get better.
Instructional leaders, my challenge to you is get in the classrooms. Don’t just get into classrooms to fill out a checklist, to fill out a form, and to provide feedback, get in the classrooms to listen, to pay attention, and to encourage.
Announcer: Thanks for listening to Principal Center Radio. For more great episodes, subscribe on our website at PrincipalCenter.com/radio.