Pennsylvania Teachers Design Social Studies Course from Scratch

Technology plays a big role in North Hills Junior High 8th grade social studies classes, where everything from lesson plans to textbooks and teaching materials can be found online. Even the curriculum being followed in the Pennsylvania school is completely unique — it was created, along with the electronic textbook being used for the course, by the teachers themselves.

The original idea to shift social studies classes to an online curriculum was raised three years ago by teachers Rich Texter, Joe Welch and Larry Dorenkamp. The three approached the district official in charge of curriculum, assessment and social programs, Jeff Taylor, and laid out their plan to create a course based around academic materials that the trio was designing.

Jeff Taylor was enthusiastic, and gave not only his go-ahead, but also worked with the district to secure a $43,000 grants for the purchase of MacBooks and iPads that the school would need to make the plan a reality. The idea to create all the textbooks completely in-house came a bit later after the teachers discovered Apple’s publishing tool – iBookAuthor – that allowed them to completely design an interactive, digital textbook – for free. The books went into use for the first time this fall.

“We liked the idea that there were a lot of bells and whistles you can include in the iBook. [Students] can have the book read to them. If they are struggling with a word, they can put their finger on it and get the definition, and we are able to put interactive presentations in there,” Mr. Texter said.

The teachers said the “bells and whistles” keep the students more engaged in the material than a traditional textbook.

Designing their own course materials provided the teachers an unprecedented amount of flexibility to create a course that met their students’ particular needs. It also promises to provide savings in the future, as anyone can update and tweak the book at will without purchasing a whole new set.

The district paid Texter, Welch and Dorenkamp $8,500 to write the text, while purchasing enough traditional textbooks to cover all students taking social studies would have cost more than $40,000.

In North Hills, Mr. Taylor said, other faculty members are monitoring the eighth-grade social studies curriculum to see if the model could fit their courses.

Mr. Texter, Mr. Welch and Mr. Dorenkamp took turns writing chapters in their textbook. The teachers also chose interactive graphics and quizzes to include in the chapters.

Using the social studies iBook took little training for students, many of whom already were familiar with Apple technology because they own either an iPod Touch or an iPhone. The teachers said about 15 to 20 percent of the students own their own iPads.

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