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Curriculum Update

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

Missions to Mars

After months of travel, two NASA rovers have landed and begun exploration of the Red Planet. Here on Earth, educators are creating adventures for students to embark on some Mars expeditions of their own.

There's the Mars Student Imaging Project. Teams of students in grades five and up are working with scientists, mission planners and educators from Arizona State University's Mars Space Flight Facility to image a site on Mars using a visible wavelength camera. The camera is aboard the Mars Odyssey spacecraft currently orbiting Mars.

Meanwhile, the Mars rovers are helping to promote robotics. Fairbanks (Ala.) North Star Borough School

District, for example, recently held a Lego League tournament featuring an obstacle course based on the Martian landscape. Student teams created working robots using computers and Lego parts, and then designed their own mission plans for conducting experiments and collecting and analyzing data. The winning team went on to win a state event and will represent Alaska at a national tournament next month, says organizer Morgan Gray, a teacher at Tanana Middle School.

Dan Barstow, director of the Center for Earth and Space Science Education at the nonprofit organization TERC, says that "at some point every year, every student should have some kind of engaging experience doing science. Right now this Mars story is a wonderful opportunity for doing that." TERC's MarsQuest Online Web site,, was developed in collaboration with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and includes interactive activities and a live image feed from the Mars rovers.

Educators' interest in covering Mars tends to peak whenever NASA is successful in discovering something new, Barstow explains. "What we understand about Mars certainly relates to what we know about Earth," he says, adding that NASA's Web site got more than a billion hits within a few days of the first rover landing. "It is clearly engaging the public. Kids are naturally excited about it."

Pictures Worth a Thousand Words

A teacher tears an interesting editorial cartoon out of the morning paper and uses it to spark a classroom discussion. Editorial cartoons as supplemental materials in social studies and other subjects isn't new, but the tried-and-true method for finding a good cartoon is changing.

A dwindling industry for cartoonists--which means less editorial cartoons for teachers to choose from--is one reason. Joel Pett, editorial cartoonist for the Lexington Herald-Leader and winner of a 2000 Pulitzer Prize, says newspaper mergers and tightened budgets "have cut [the number of cartoonists] in half in the last 20 years."

In addition, the cartoons themselves are undergoing a transformation with more watered-down content. In one December week, Pett points out, USA Today and the New York Times published different cartoons of someone holding Michael Jackson out of a window and shaking him. While funny and news-related, the topic had no point, Pett says. "If you look at all the great cartoons of history, most of them aren't funny. ... They're not little jokes about what's going on in entertainment."

For teachers on the hunt for intelligent editorial cartoons, there is some good news. In the past year, examples of cartoons and ideas for using them in classrooms have become easier than ever to locate online. Cartoons in the Classroom, for example, offers lesson plans for Newspapers in Education participants. Although the site is mainly accessible through NIE Web sites in four cities, more than 6,200 copies of lesson plans were downloaded between the site's September launch and the first week of January, says site author Felix Grabowski. "We hope to show that the value of newspapers and political cartooning continues even in the Internet age," adds Grabowski, who is also president of Online Publications Inc., NIE Online's parent company.

Two popular classroom activities for cartoons include having students analyze their meaning, and asking students to write original captions before seeing published ones. Cartoons "often get a wide variety of interpretations," says Pett, who frequently speaks at local schools. "The intent of the cartoon is often misjudged, not just by students and teachers but by readers. But that's OK. There's nothing the matter with a discussion about ambiguity and sarcasm."

Virtual Author Visits a Reality

Ninth graders at Somerset County (Md.) Public Schools' Washington High had lots of questions for author Cynthia Leitich Smith. They had just read Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins Children's Books, 2001), Smith's story of a girl who experiences the death of her best friend. After learning that young Smith had herself dealt with a friend's death, the students embarked on a tour of the Kansas town where the story is set.

Costly field trip destination? Not today, as technology provides nearly endless options for students to visit with authors --virtually.

E-mail, chat rooms and Web cameras are considered the most common methods of connection. Satellite television, which allows several locations to link simultaneously, is also getting attention.

"Students are able to form personal connections with these authors ... and see for themselves a person who makes his or her living in the arts," says Toni Buzzeo, co-author of Terrific Connections with Authors, Illustrators and Storytellers (Libraries Unlimited, 1999). It may be the ultimate cyber-connect.

Interest in the Web site may be one indication of the emerging trend. Founder Nick Glass says thousands of people are using the site, which includes audio and video interviews with authors. The resources help "personalize a book and share the spirit of reading," he says. Electronic chats between students and authors are also encouraged by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, which has offered authors tips on making them happen.

The reasons for a virtual visit extend beyond its novelty. In-person visits add up fast, when you factor in hotel and travel expenses. Per hour, virtual visits cost about the same, up to $150. Extras, such as practice session time and materials requested by the school, are affordable.

Jane Kurtz, Buzzeo's co-author, says she's surprised more schools aren't connecting with authors in this way. Glass believes many just haven't thought of it yet. "This is a paradigm shift in how to introduce children's books," he says.

As with in-person visits, virtual visits can make a big impact. From Maine, author Jennifer Richard Jacobson has connected via Webcam to a Ware County (Ga.) School System third-grade class. Based on Jacobson's chapter book Winnie Dancing on Her Own (Houghton Mifflin Children's Books, 2001), the activities presented were later used as a pre-writing exercise for students' own stories. And thanks to teacher Holly Lee, each student took home a personal copy of the book. See related information below.

--Joe Ann Barton-Hinrichs

Cup Stacking Stacks Up Student Interest

Cup stacking is the new game in town, and phys ed teachers are gearing up so students can play. As non-athletic as it sounds, the sport has been shown to increase hand-eye coordination and ambidexterity. Competitors, who were mainly elementary students but now include those in middle school and high school, stack and unstack 12 specially designed plastic cups in predetermined sequences.

Pola Metz, executive director of the World Cup Stacking Association, says she knows of about 13 statewide cup-stacking tournaments held last year, in addition to the annual World Cup Stacking Championships, held each spring. The number of schools with active programs has more than doubled in the past two years, to about 6,000 schools this year, says Metz, who is also a specialist at Speed Stacks, the company that makes the cups and timing devices.

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