Textbooks! Textbooks! Read all about ’em


Yesh Nikam and Natalie Sweet

From choosing online textbooks, to no textbooks, to textbooks with prices skyrocketing in the hundreds, the way teachers decide which textbooks to use is multifaceted, and there are many different factors to consider.

One consideration that goes into the decision making process for each department is how accessible textbooks are to the students, physics teacher Dr. Jane Wesely said. This year, she and some of her colleagues are choosing to use electronic textbooks instead of physical ones, she said.

The physical textbook is way more expensive than the electronic one, which is one reason Wesely chose to use online textbooks for her class, she said. She also uses online textbooks for the physical convenience of her students. “I don’t want a student walking back and forth all around campus with a very heavy backpack,” she said. “That’s just painful!”

Teachers also consider the quality of the material in the textbook, Dean of Faculty and biology teacher Dr. Matthew Wallenfang said. Wallenfang doesn’t expect his students to sit down with a dense science textbook and read for 45 minutes. He prefers textbooks that contain more engaging elements, he said.

“What I typically look for in a textbook is one that has really good art program,” Wallenfang said. “This means that the diagram and pictures do a really good job of explaining concepts to the students; Since I’m not an artist, I want students to have a good sense of that.”

Another important aspect of textbook content for Wallenfang is high quality supporting materials, like good chapter end summaries and questions at the end of the book, he said. “These materials will help students digest the information they’re getting in class, which is incredibly important for learning,” he said.

On the contrary , the English department has an open curriculum, which means that teachers have the liberty to craft their own syllabus, English Department Chair Vernon Wilson said.

The English teachers are in constant conversation with each other about the books they assign, and at the end of the year, they reconvene to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of them, he said.
English teachers assign five to six books throughout the year, which include books with voices of various genders, socioeconomic levels, ethnicities, and races.
Unfortunately, as Wilson acknowledged, English classes are often unable to start or completely finish the last book on the syllabus.

“That never feels good for a teacher; it’s always unfortunate,” he said. Wilson hopes that if students have at least partially read a text, they can have stimulating conversations, and maybe they will come back to it later, he said.

While many students spend the last few weeks of summer navigating MBS Direct to find their class materials, the school provides textbooks for certain departments and classes.

While the school does not provide the Spanish textbook, it lasts for two years. However, when a Spanish textbook switch does occur, most teachers try to help the students out, World Language Teacher Diego Argibay said. “In the past, if we switched the book and the students still had the previous book, the department would provide the book for them because the idea of the old book was that they could use it for a couple years.”

When a department cannot provide textbooks to students, some teachers go the extra step to remove the burden on students to buy their own books. Argibay is one of these teachers: in his Advanced Placement Spanish class, he has removed the grammar book as a requisite.
“I have five to six copies in my office [for] reference; if you need a copy, you can borrow a copy,” he said.
Though purchasing classroom sets for each textbook is possible, students prefer to annotate their books, something that cannot be done without personal textbooks, Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly said.
For the majority of classes, textbooks are not given to students by the school. Helena Yang (11) believes that the school should provide more textbooks to students. “It’s pretty common at other high schools,” she said. “Many of my friends have books handed out by the teacher, even English books.”

As the price of textbooks rises, students are developing their own unique hacks to help save money.
Mia Calzolaio (10) does not buy her textbooks from MBS, the website that the school suggests for textbook purchases. Instead, she prefers buying them from Amazon. There, her textbooks are delivered faster.

Similarly, Hunter Willoughby-Spera (11) also prefers to buy his textbooks from sites other than MBS, but at times, he cannot find the textbook elsewhere.

“I’ve tried to buy some of my textbooks on Amazon to save money, but they are just not available on the site,” he said.

MBS does have several advantages, despite longer delivery time. Registrar Chris Garrison ’04 feels that one advantage of buying textbooks through MBS is that it gives students an alternative method to buy their materials. “It’s a pretty good system in my mind because it does give families the opportunities to find other ways to get their books,” he said.

Another reason why the school uses MBS to buy textbooks is to give more options to families. Before the school switched to MBS, students would pick up their textbooks from the cafeteria a week before school started. However, this system eventually became logistically challenging, so the school decided to make the switch to purchasing online, Garrison said.

Alternatives to buying through MBS are not popular among every student though. Elijah Shaham (11) always buys textbooks through MBS Direct to ensure that he receives the right book. “Different versions of books have different orientation of pages, especially in English, and having the wrong version of a book can make class really tough to follow,” he said.

Another way students attempt to save money on textbooks is not immediately buying them once they receive their schedule. Willoughby-Spera waits until after the first day of school to buy textwbooks just in case teachers change their list on the first day of classes.

Aidan Resnick (11), however, buys textbooks as soon as he receives his schedule. “If I wait until the first day of school to buy my books, chances are I’m going to be behind in my schoolwork since teachers assign homework [from textbooks] immediately,” he said.

On a national scale, buying used textbooks is a common way students purchase their class materials. According to an infographic from the Applied Educational System in 2017, 67% of students bought used textbooks. However, used textbooks seem to be less popular at the school.

Yang says that the difference in cost between the used and new version is often small, and, Shaham feels that the difference in quality between the versions is not worth the tiny price difference.
On MBS Direct, the difference between the used and new copy of the textbook that Geometry students are required to buy is twenty seven dollars. The textbook that all Precalculus BC Honors students buy has a difference of thirty one dollars between the used and new versions.

Calzolaio was also provided with a chemistry textbook, but she still had tobuy books for her English, history, and Latin classes. “The prices add up,” she said.

As the price of textbooks has increased 88% from 2006 to 2016, the College Board expects high school students to set aside $1,200 for textbooks. This can prove to be a major burden for some families, which the school’s financial aid program attempts to mitigate.

Families with financial aid are directly contacted by the financial aid office the week students buy their textbooks, Garrison said.

“For Upper Division students, all Financial Aid recipients receive a book allowance of some amount,” Director of Institutional Research & Enrollment Management Lise Moreira said.
The amount varies based upon the level of Financial Aid the family receives and is issued as a voucher from MBS. If the book allowance is less than the total cost for the books, the parent/guardian pays the remainder, she said.

The assignment of textbooks is primarily decided by each academic department, and the Department Chair communicates the textbook information directly to MBS, Garrison said.
While the Spanish department’s primary concern is not the cost of textbooks, Argibay is proud of the school’s financial aid services. “The school does aid students with their supplies,” he said. “That’s the great thing I know about Horace Mann.”

This issue regarding the price of textbooks is very personal for Argibay. Coming from a humble background, he understands the circumstances that families face. “I remember my first year [in college], I had to spend hundreds of dollars on textbooks. It was a shock,” he said.
The administration’s decision to not provide textbooks for the upper division is also controversial among students.

Shaham understands the logistical challenges behind having the school provide textbooks for all students. “I understand the plight of students that can’t afford textbooks,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s reasonable for the school to pay for the textbooks of all these kids. There are a lot of students, and it’s ultimately going to come out to a lot of money.”

On the other hand, Calzolaio and Yang both believe the school should be able to cover the cost of textbooks for students. Calzolaio is especially critical of the school’s ability to spend money elsewhere but cannot lend out copies of the textbooks to students.

The cost of textbooks varies on a multiplicity of factors, and students are beginning to observe trends based on subject, grade, and class level.

Yang noticed that overall, math and physics require only one book for each class, but this book is over $100. The high prices do not necessarily translate to frequent use. While Resnick uses his math textbook frequently for homework problems, he relies on his physics notes much more than his physics textbook.

English books are comparatively less expensive than other subjects, but the class requires so many books that it evens out, Shaham said. On the other hand, Devin Allard Neptune (10) and Calzolaio both felt that they ultimately spent the most amount of money on their United States history class this year.

Other students also felt that as they got older, they began spending more money on textbooks.
Willoughby-Spera noted that as he began taking elective classes, he began spending more.. The new version of the textbook that his Latin American history class requires is 200 dollars. Yang also noted a similar phenomenon – she spent around 100 to 200 dollars her freshman and sophomore years but 300 dollars this year as a junior.

Spending money on textbooks has become a normality for Willoughby-Spera, who said he hasn’t received textbooks from school on a regular basis since middle school.

While many factors contribute to which textbooks teachers choose, for the Spanish department, the cost of materials is not a main priority, Spanish teacher Diego Argibay said.

“The cost is not one of the first things we think about, unfortunately, and we should,” Argibay said. “Language only needs one textbook, but textbooks are incredibly expensive, easily over 100 dollars.”

In contrast to the costly price many students pay for textbooks, not all classes require a textbook. For example, Spanish Seminar does not have a textbook. Instead, the class studies a compilation of articles, Argibay said.

At times in the past, the Spanish department would provide students with certain books like La Hija Del Sastre, a book that all Spanish 3 students are required to buy, but that has stopped now, Argibay said. While the Spanish department rarely provides textbooks for their students, Argibay does think doing that is feasible. “It’s definitely a possibility and something we should look into,” he said.

While most high schoolers have gotten used to buying textbooks for most of their classes, the Middle Division (MD) runs a different system for buying textbooks.

All of the textbooks that are required for MD history are provided by the school, MD History Department Chair John McNally said. This is true for all departments in the MD , as the students are given the books for the year and their parents are given a distributed fee, Kelly said.

The reason for doing this is part of a larger goal that the department and division has in becoming more equitable, McNally said. The department budget can handle the cost of textbooks, many of which are under $20, so there’s no reason for the students to buy them.

“We only use one formal textbook in 6th grade that is over $100 and we have students turn them back at the end of the year to reuse for the next year. It makes things more fair for the students since all MD students take the same three history course,” he said.

There are a series of reasons why the Middle Division system differs from the Upper Division’s. The textbooks in the MD do not turn over with the frequency they do in the Upper Division, Kelly said. Also, the MD courses are standardized, so the textbooks are standardized as well, he said.

However, the Middle Division is not the only place where students don’t have to buy textbooks. The majority of public schools in the country provide textbooks for their students and even Poly Prep, another New York City private high school, has the price of textbooks included in their tuition.

The administration is mindful about the cost of textbooks in the Upper Division, but is not sure how the school would be able to absorb the cost of textbooks without increasing the tuition, Kelly said.

Despite the varying opinions amongst the students regarding the book-buying process, Kelly is satisfied with the current system in place, and doesn’t see the need to change it unless a reason arises. “While it’s not perfect, it gets the job done,” he said.