You are here


Curriculum Update

The latest developments in math, science, language arts and social studies

Students Help Capture Vets' Stories

Wanted: More than a few good men (and women). Needed: Yesterday. Veterans History Project volunteers are helping the Library of Congress collect stories of people who have sacrificed for our country on both the home front and abroad during times of war. Unfortunately, says program officer Tim Schurtter, 1,700 vets die every day. "That's 1,700 stories that no one is going to know."

Volunteers interview veterans one-on-one to get their perspectives of events. To date, more than 600 of the 22,000 interviews in the LOC collection--many captured by students--have been digitized for online viewing.

Schurtter, hired three years ago to work with interested schools and youth groups, says, "Kids are learning history directly. Hearing it come from the mouth of the person who lived it ... just means so much more" than reading about events. Students, typically in high school, have interviewed family members, neighbors or others with whom they share a connection. Whole classes have visited VA hospitals and VFW Posts.

From a learning retention standpoint, the experience is a step above the ever-popular veteran classroom visit. Yet, Schurtter advises educators to prep students for the interviews. He often tells of a seventh grader's interview with a World War II vet whose battleship was hit by two torpedoes in a row. "We're beginning to sink..." the man says, pausing. The student takes a moment, too. He looks down at his notes, looks back at the vet, and then moves along to his next question: "What kind of food do they serve you on the ship?"

"There's a big part of this man's history missing--he could have been floating for days in the Pacific--but all we know is that he did survive," Schurtter says.

Teachers are asked to remind students that it's all about the person's story. They may not get to every question. Some classes practice by chanting an all-important question over and over: "And then what happened?"

The innocence of youth is also an asset in documenting war stories, Schurtter says. Students are "like a new sponge, and they're soaking up this information possibly and most likely for the first time."

Future Documenters of America

When Tim Schurtter gets calls from, say, a third-grade teacher volunteering to help with the Veterans History Project, he's got to point out that the collection has quality standards. But students in younger grades can begin learning the how's of recording oral history.

Schurtter suggests explaining how knowledge used to be passed down in families and throughout villages. Teaching the basics of interviewing is also age-appropriate. Who knows? In the future, those same students may come back to the project, which is ongoing, and add even more memorable stories to the Library of Congress collection.

Me, Myself and My Math

Do you love or hate math, and why? Describe your favorite math teacher. What have your "real-life" experiences been with math? When students write a math autobiography, there are no right or wrong answers--and no calculators required.

These assignments, which have been used by some educators for years, shed light on what works and what doesn't in math education. They can also help students overcome negative feelings about math, says Cathy Seeley, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

"Students are able to identify an event or situation that might have contributed to their feelings or lack of confidence," Seeley says. Uncovering problem areas can help teachers individualize instruction.

Seventh-grade teacher Alice Douglas has been using the exercise during the first week of school for at least 10 years. "I always tell my students, 'If you dislike math, you have never had the right teacher,' " says Douglas, who teaches at Independence (Kan.) Public Schools' middle school. Autobiographies can also open up communication between kids and their parents, and many parents will refer to them when meeting with Douglas.

In any subject area, these assignments can help students view themselves as active participants in their own learning, says Cathy Fleischer, an English professor at Eastern Michigan University and co-director of the Eastern Michigan Writing Project. Students identify why they feel a certain way--and may discover that classmates feel the same.

Those discoveries are also being made by educators about themselves, as they complete autobiography assignments during professional development experiences, Fleischer explains. "Teachers often teach based on their own ways of conceptualizing subject matter. When teachers write and share these autobiographies, they begin to recognize how others learn--something that really helps in teaching."

--Michelle Lawlor

Storm Brains Allow At-Home Learning

Hurricane Ivan hit Pensacola, Fla.--hard. Every school in the district of Escambia County was damaged, and students missed 19 days this fall. But thanks to quick actions from administrators, the community newspaper and even Gov. Jeb Bush, students received six editions of a stand-alone Newspaper In Education supplement to keep them occupied.

Administrators thought, "We need to keep students actively involved intellectually and cognitively," explains Paul Fetsko, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. Educators also hoped to divert children's attentions away from the devastation. "We didn't want families to just see this debris pile growing day by day. ... It was a sense of normalcy in a time of pure chaos."

Less than a week after the storm, eight curriculum specialists were on task, working eight to 10 hours a day, at first with no computers or air conditioning. "It wasn't ideal. It was a very stressful situation, but so far everybody has their hair," reports M'ache England, administrative secretary to Linda Longacre, the district's director of staff development and curriculum training.

Because of a long-standing Newspaper in Education relationship with the Pensacola News Journal, the team had some content. "But then to design something that was appropriate for each grade level and do that six times within an 11-day period was rather miraculous," Fetsko says. Some topics, such as traffic flow during evacuations and local cleanup efforts, relate directly to the storm's impact.

Getting the papers, titled Survivin' Ivan School, to families meant culling addresses from the district's student database. Gov. Bush put a call in to the postal service to get next-day mail delivery.

Besides core subject and character education lessons, the editions contained parent tips, an answer key and community help numbers. A telephone hotline for parent assistance with the lessons was also included. Regular staffers from the district's hospital/homebound program fielded calls.

When students finally returned to school, individual principals and teachers made decisions about credit for completed work. At the district offices, everyone is all the wiser about handling continuous learning in times of catastrophic incidents. "Teachers are always expected to have a folder for substitute teachers," Fetsko says. "We may have to look at something like that instructionally--not just busy work but something really related to standards." He suggests that other districts--whether they're in a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, forest fire or snowstorm zone--do the same.

New Scale for Measuring Math

It's here--after four years of development and a national field study of 11,000 second to 12th grade students. MetaMetrics, which created the well-known Lexile Framework for Reading, has launched a similar scientific scale for measuring math achievement.

The Quantile Framework represents achievement ranging from reading mathematical expressions to knowing how and why to apply various types of knowledge in areas such as numbers and operations, algebra and data analysis. Scores range from 200Q to 1,700Q.

"We are working with the major high-stakes test publishers to link the math portion of their tests to Quantiles in the same way as Lexiles," says President Malbert Smith. Meanwhile, Pearson Education has released the first product using Quantiles, the Progress Assessment Series Mathematics.

Still under development for MetaMetrics is a scale to express growth in math skills, which teachers and parents can use to predict and measure student progress. Early next year, Smith says, educators will be able to access free (and possibly for purchase) resources for using Quantiles to support teaching and learning.