I want you to imagine that you need to move out of the home where you currently live and into a home that is significantly smaller.  Now, think about all the things you own.  There’s no way everything you currently own is going to fit in this new place.  What would you do?

Maybe you’d throw away or donate some possessions.  Maybe you’d cram many things into the smallest possible package.  Maybe you’d put some things in storage.  One thing that’s certain is that there’s no way you can bring it all with you.

Now, imagine the part of your current home that is the most packed with things.  Maybe it’s a closet or your garage.  Imagine trying to go through each of the items in that area, opening boxes and containers, examining the contents, and then determining what category it would go in.  Many of the items would have sentimental value, so it would be hard to make a decision.  Can you feel the stress?  The frustration?  The feeling like no matter how much time you spend going through these things, you’ll never get to a place where you’ve gotten rid of enough stuff to make a difference?

So, by means of example, this is pretty much what it feels like when you realize that teaching every single page of your textbook just isn’t going to work and you’re not sure what to do about it.

While well-intended, many textbooks are filled with so much content that there is no realistic way it can all be taught in a single school year.  Once that reality sets in, trying to make adjustments can feel fairly overwhelming.  Let me suggest two options inspired by moving out.

Subtraction Method
Just as downsizing homes by going through each item would be painful and time consuming, downsizing a textbook by going through each part of each section would be painful and time consuming. No matter how much you decided you weren’t going to do, it would never feel like enough. I call this the subtraction method because no matter how much you take away, it feels like there is still more preventing you from your goal of a reasonable curriculum map.
Addition Method
What if instead, you just left everything behind and moved into your new home. Your needs would quickly become apparent. With a fresh start and none of the clutter, you’d have better perspective as to what your needs are. You could walk into each room and make a list of what you’ll need. At that point, you could go back to your home and get what you needed. I call this the addition method because you start with nothing and then add content from your textbook as you identify which parts best suit your needs. This is more likely to reduce the clutter in your curriculum map.
I hope you see how it will be much easier to just move in to that smaller place and then evaluate your situation from there.  I’m not saying that it will be less time consuming or less expensive, but you will certainly end up with a lifestyle that is more functional and better suited to your current situation.

When endless textbook downsizing is more painful than analyzing what parts of the book best meet your curriculum needs, it’s time to think about the Addition Method as an option.

I’d like to know what you think. Where do you agree with me? What do you see differently? Let me know in the comments.


  1. Right now I’m an online teacher and a homeschooling mom. This actually resonated with me because I’ve been a slave to my curricula this year. We just recently did a huge purge of our home (we pretend we are moving once a year and de clutter large amounts). Anyway, your metaphor is perfect!! I’m going back to my kids math refreshed to cut what I know they already know and to add supplements where it’s wither needed or plain fun!

  2. Do you have a framework you use to identify what you should be bringing in from the text-book/program? I teach elementary school, and while I feel somewhat comfortable making decisions (based on some common core tools, that help me see the leverage of a standard), I also know I have a limit of knowledge as to what is best.

    Thank you for your time.

    • Hi Benjamin. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything great. Some people use the Achieve the Core or SBAC Preliminary Test blueprint that separates standards into priority and supporting clusters, but I have many problems with that approach.

      I think the challenging reality is that it probably requires vertical planning amongst you and your colleagues to figure out what the priorities are going to be. Those conversations are very challenging but necessary.

      • We are utilizing Larry Ainsworth’s Common Formative Assessment 2.0. It forces the conversation about what is a priority and what is supporting. We only assess the priority. The thought is, if the students mastered the supporting knowledge, it will be reflected in the priority standards that are being assessed. This is also forcing the DOK level higher as the priority standards are usually the more complex statements. Early stages, we will see after state assessments in a few months!

        • Good luck with that. I’d much prefer that they just reduced the number of standards, but it is what it is for now.

    • Benjamin, my school system has been working on this for a number of years now. I teach high school math, so we met with all the math teachers and a math coach and came up with essential skills for each class, making sure there is no overlap from year to year. We kept our list to around 6 per year. Obviously these aren’t all the items in our curriculum, but our goal is for every student to finish the year knowing these essential skills. It’s not a perfect system but it has helped me determine which skills to focus on most and what I can cut if necessary.

  3. I just started doing this – in fact I didn’t even hand out textbooks to one of my classes. I am using some things from the book and supplementing with other activities. I am doing more BlendEd and combining topics. It is definitely a work on progress, but something that I hope to continue! Thanks for the great reinforcement!

    • Great Deb. I’m sure it’s a ton of work for you but also has the potential to be so much more rewarding. Keep it up.

  4. Thank you for this perspective. I couldn’t agree more! It took me about 3 years in the classroom to understand that the standards are not a checklist and the text book is not a manual. Once I reframed the standards as guidelines for success and the textbook as a resource, my teaching became much more flexible and responsive to my students’ needs. I currently work with Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) as a learning consultant. I try to help teachers focus on using growth data to create responsive lessons and I often hear, “I know my students need this but it isn’t covered in my text book.”, or, “I would love to spend more time differentiating but I have to cover all these standards.” It’s a challenge to shift this mindset, for sure, but your analogy does a great job helping teachers realize that oftentimes less is more.

    • As a consultant though, Im sure tou understand the frustration of being legally bound by our state standards. I completely agree with creating responsive lessons especially after the past few years we have had. There has to be a balance somewhere where I prepare my students according to the standards and their needs. Scaffolding upong scaffolding

  5. I work with predominately “average” students (is there such a thing?). This year I have not used my textbook at all. Instead I have focused on finding learning activities which support major learning goals in each course. As a consequence, my students have worked with higher order thinking and are forced to explain what they are thinking and why because I have the time and means to listen. This means math confidence is actually at a higher level and students are even identifying and predicting the next things they will need to learn. I ask them to measure their own growth by comparing current responses to those earlier in the year.
    At the beginning of every year, I explain to students that mathematics is a language and the study of patterns. This year it really has been.
    I am concerned about a vertical progression of skills and the gaps in student learning this approach may cause. My students do weekly sessions on an adaptive computer program to compensate for anything I may miss. I find this combination surprisingly effective.

    • Figuring out how to best support students is challenging when communities define “best” differently. Is it getting to Calculus as quickly as possible? Is it getting kids of memorize their multiplication facts? Is it getting good scores on the standardized assessments? Is it having problem-solving skills they can apply in life?

      People will have different answers, and the paths to each of these is not the ame.

  6. This is helpful as I move to a new text this year. I need to be ok with understanding which lessons are good and bad by using them then make adjustments. Thank you for this post.

  7. This sounds like a great idea – but what do you do when your textbook is part of a program that the district has spent tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of dollars on and the administrative expectation/directive is to use the resource? And, if the textbook/program is designed to progress from year to year, if parts are taken out, that would/could lead to gaps the following years?

    • So let’s be real here. Every district that buys textbook spends $$$$ and has administrators that expect people to use it. That is not unique. What’s also not unique is that pretty much every book has more content in it than one can possibly teach.

      So what I’m saying is that people get strategic and on the same page about what parts they do use. There may be gaps, but at least it will be easier if most students come in with similar gaps.

  8. In my area, we do bot get textbooks per se’. However the hill I’m dying on this year (and most likely my years to follow) are the higher ups telling me to do exactly this to the standards. I do go by a curriculum and I use the standards and student data to make my determinations of what to add and such. I have the greatest respect for you and would love your thoughts on how this fits with the ideas of our standards.

    • I’m not sure I’m totally following you, Lilly. So your administrators are telling you to strategically choose which standards to teach? If so, that’s actually a great thing.

      I think what would be best would be for you and other people in you school or district who teach the same class to have conversations about this. Maybe start with the easy choices. Some standards that are pre-requisites for future grades or are used in real life will be prioritized. Other standards that are rarely used in real life and not built upon in future years might be cut out. Then the stuff in the middle can go either way.

      Thanks for the kind words and hope that helps.

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