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Curriculum Update

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

The Sound of America

The hills (and valleys and highways and byways) are alive with the sounds of music and more. But the National Geographic Society is betting that students can learn to listen for those distinctive noises that define a community, with or without an Austrian governess around.

The society's Geography Action 2004 program, Cultures: The Sound of Place, explores the sounds of America through one- to three-minute sound portraits of communities across the country. To capture an area's place in time, students might portray anything from seaside locals haggling at a fish market to construction equipment breaking ground on a new subdivision in a growing area. The project can help "kids to start opening their ears and thinking about place in a very different way," says Program Manager Ian Signer. "So many things presented to students are static bits of information. You're reading things that somebody has written somewhere about a culture. This is one of those rare opportunities for students to create their own primary source."

The project, which is aligned to several national geography standards, involves 32 geography action coordinators representing different states. The teachers have partnered with each other and trained with National Public Radio production professionals to use mini disc recorders, microphones and audio software used to exchange sounds remotely. This year, their classes will brainstorm to come up with the most distinctive sound representing their geographical area. Beyond the physical boundaries (delineated by zip code), students and teachers are being given broad license to decide where and what to capture, says Barbara Chow, vice president for education programs at NGS.

The portraits will be available on the Geography Action Web site in the spring. The site currently includes lesson plans on culture and can help classrooms anywhere to get started in recording and sharing their own sounds of place.

Reading Coaches Take on Leadership Role

Just what is a "reading coach"? That's hard to say, as the title can refer to anyone from a volunteer working with students to a state-certified reading specialist offering professional development for teachers.

The International Reading Association's new position statement, The Role and Qualifications of the Reading Coach in the United States, defines a reading coach as someone who provides professional development and support for teachers to implement programs or methods. Duties have shifted away from direct teaching and toward leadership roles.

Responsibilities fall under three categories. Level one tasks are low risk and informal tasks, such as developing curriculum with colleagues and helping to assess students, while Level two and three tasks include analyzing student work, modeling lessons and providing teacher feedback.

In hiring coaches, the IRA says districts should seek those who:

Are successful teachers at the level they wish to coach

Know reading processes, acquisition, assessment and instruction

Have experience working with teachers to improve methods

Are effective, experienced presenters

Are able to master the complexities of observing and modeling in classrooms.

The statement recommends coaches be supervised and receive continuous professional development. Principals should be trained to understand their relationships with coaches.

--Michelle Lawler

Opening a Blind Eye

Reaching the smallest minority groups is no easy educational task.

So it's not surprising that visually impaired students, who tend to make up a tiny fraction of a district's population, often don't get their needs met in schools.

Eugene McMahon, executive director of the New York Institute for Special Education, used to wonder why educators tend to write poor Individual Education Plans for students with blindness and visual impairment. Since joining the corps of trainers for a two-day seminar that's now been held in 25 different states, McMahon says he's had his premise validated; these educators simply don't have the right information.

The seminar, called Improving Educational Services for Students with Visual Impairment: What Every Stakeholder Needs to Know, is reaching state and district administrators of special education who have no particular expertise in blindness. It's based on a book of educational service guidelines for blind and visually impaired students co-created by The National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

"A big piece [of the training] deals with ... making sure children have the same materials as their sighted peers in an appropriate, accessible format at the same time. And that happens nowhere," McMahon says. "Visually impaired kids should have access to the general curriculum." Besides the NASDSE guidelines, attendees receive resource information on assessment for these students and other topics. Strategic planning issues, such as how to get materials in Braille or large print to children on time, are also covered.

McMahon's hope that training will be replicated for others is seeing the light of day in some states. Shortly after Ohio's state training session, one of the special education directors for a regional unit of school districts included a piece on visually impaired student education as part of the region's regular staff development.

Scientists Gain Celebrity Status

Entertainers and sports heroes inspire kids to go for the platinum and gold. But scientists have that same superstar quality, and U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham wants to make sure students see it. "It's time we start putting our science leaders on the same footing as other celebrities," he announced at a recent event launching a new Department of Energy initiative, Scientists Teaching and Reaching Students. The effort includes:

Each of the department's 17 national labs inviting 1,000 fifth graders and 1,000 eighth graders to its sites annually for math and science appreciation days

A new Office of Department of Energy Science Education

Upgrades to and promotion of the Ask a Scientist Web resource

A summer program bringing K-12 teachers to seven national labs for extensive training with scientists and engineers

Sending scientists from the labs out to local schools, especially at-risk middle schools, to provide hands-on experience in science classes and to discuss career opportunities in the field

Crafting ways to draw better attention to the accomplishments of scientific leaders

Hosting an annual "What's Next?" expo to highlight new areas of science and technology research.

What Works in Middle School Math

With the steady stream of new studies on programs, products, practices and policies, how is an educator to know what research is a catch? The U.S. Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse, established to help differentiate between weaker research/promotional claims and high-quality research, has begun releasing its first topic reports.

Middle School Math Criteria is the initial report on interventions for increasing K-12 math achievement. Of the 70 studies found on this topic, the WWC determined, as of mid-July, that one study (Expert Mathematician, a constructivist math education program) meets the evaluators' evidence standards and another study (on I CAN Learn algebra and pre-algebra software) meets the standards with reservations. Twenty studies are still under review, and the remaining 48 were screened out for relevance and validity reasons. The report will be updated, and additional reports on elementary and high school math curricula are in the works.