Talking with Students About Writing Textbooks

Last month a friend and I had the opportunity to talk to some middle-school students about writing science articles. Apparently one of the social studies teachers down the hall heard there was a writer in the house and requested my services to talk to a couple of her classes about writing social studies textbooks. The students had the assignment of writing a sample page from a textbook about American history, specifically the Mexican-American War of the 1800s. The school doesn’t typically use textbooks, which is interesting in itself, but the bulk of their assignment is below.

The Assignment

McAuliffe does not use textbooks in their curriculum.  However, most schools do, and you will encounter these next year in the 9th grade.  We want to get you ready for that using a critical-thinking growth mindset.

When a school chooses a textbook, there are a lot of things to consider.

  • Who writes history? Why?  Do textbooks written in the South differ from those written in the North; or those written in the countryside differ from those written in the city?  What other perspectives, if any, are present?
  • Can you write every little event or fact about a historical person? How does the author pick and choose what is “important”–and just to whom is it important?
  • How are the images chosen? Is color more important than black and white?

Your Task:

You have learned about the concept of Manifest Destiny and closely investigated the United States and Mexican War.  You have also learned some contemporary issues based upon the history.  Now you will synthesize what you have learned and take on the role of historian by writing your own textbook entry. You will have to think critically about this enduring dilemma in the construction of knowledge: history is shaped not only by those who live it, but also by those who write it down. Your textbook entry must meet the criteria that professional writers have:

  • Bolded vocabulary terms with definitions
  • Clear subheadings to break down information
  • Photographs of artifacts with captions/Maps with captions
  • Insets with contemporary connections (based upon the Dakota Pipeline or US-Mexico Wall Articles)
  • Insets with at least 3 critical thinking questions
  • Relevant quote from a primary source document
  • 400-500 words
  • An Author’s Note explaining your perspective and why you chose the information you did

Things to consider:

What is the perspective of this page? What facts am I going to show based on my perspective? What images will I select to illustrate my perspective? What is the tone?

Where I came in

The teacher (Jennifer) wanted me to talk to the class about two general areas:

  1. How bias is incorporated into social studies texts.
  2. How to do things like layout and proper image selection.

I went with a 20-minute format: five minutes or so of me blathering, and 10-15 minutes of Q&A. Jennifer was good with that, and I was scheduled to speak to two classes–some of the same kids I spoke to about science writing previously.

Without touching on any hot-button issues, my comments were structured something like this.

MacAuliffe Social Studies Textbook Inputs


Before we talk about history textbooks, we need to have an idea in our minds about why we study history in the first place. Ask: Any ideas?

Looking for (or say): We learn history to understand what people have done in the past and why so that we can make better decisions in the future.

Given that purpose, any textbook you write should reflect that purpose. The tricky part is putting together a narrative that explains why history unfolds the way it does. We weren’t around 500 years ago, so even when we have written records from that time, we still have to guess at what really happened (tell a story, in effect). Those guesses about history are where we introduce bias.

We need to understand that we’re dealing with two types of bias:

  • The attitudes of the people living in the past.
  • Our attitudes about how we see history in the 21st century  (and how people should behave) as well as what we mean by “better” decisions.

There are many ways to interpret history. Some of the perspectives people have used include:

  • History is all about the choices made by great individuals. OR…
  • About culture and groups. OR…
  • About who conquers whom. OR…
  • How technology shapes what we do. OR…
  • Philosophy and religion determine how people act. OR…
  • Geography and resources determine what people do. OR…
  • A combination of several of these factors.
  • Or we might believe that history is a series of random accidents and all we can do to keep things straight is memorize dates and events.

All of these ideas shape what we put into a history book and in what order. An introduction to your textbook should explain your perspective on history: what is or are the most important points? How will you tell your story?

Once you know what you want your audience to learn and do, your bias will determine which facts you concentrate on and in what order.

If you believe that individuals are the most important factor in history, you would focus on the biographies of prominent people.

If you believe history is determined by geography, you might start out with a description of the area being discussed.

If you believe philosophy or religion or culture or groups are the most important things, you would start be discussing one of those.

And so forth.

Bottom line: if you want students (your textbook audience) to understand what happened in the past so they can make better decisions in the future, you need to define what you mean by “better” and then structure your book accordingly. Then you need to provide details that back up your case. This is a good segue into…

Layout/Visual Content

  1. Images should depict, reinforce, and amplify what you want your reader to learn:
    1. Example: Lists/charts for chronology, maps for geography, pyramid or inverted pyramid graphics for hierarchies, charts showing economic activity or population growth, etc.
    2. Images should reflect the content: if you’re talking about people, show people; if you’re talking about technology, show vehicles or tools; if you’re talking about culture, show examples of the arts or public ceremonies.
  2. Not too much clutter—no more than 3 graphics on a page.
  3. Captions should explain the source, meaning, or context of an image, not just say what it is. For example, don’t just include a picture of a horse with the caption being “a horse.” You would want to include some text explaining why horses or that particular horse are important to your story.


As before, the students’ questions and manners impressed me (I was not nearly so polite at that age). They were asking practical questions about how to write, how to handle images, and how to incorporate some of the ideas I’d espoused during my talk.

I received a nice note from Jennifer afterward thanking me for my time and offering me feedback should I want it (you bet! I only do guest speaking like this about once a year).

It will be interesting to see what the students come up with in response to the inputs they got from me and my buddy Dave. Lacking the patience for teaching full time, this “guest speaker” route might be the way to go. I’ll probably charge for my services in the future if I get a request from a professional organization, but I don’t have it in me quite yet to charge schools. Anyhow, this is something I do. Maybe I’ll even do some good with it.



About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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2 Responses to Talking with Students About Writing Textbooks

  1. Larry Kunz says:

    Bravo to you! I don’t know how you packed all of that content into 5 minutes (not by blathering, I’ll wager) but it was great. And it sounds like you hit your target.

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