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Curriculum Update

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

Picture Books Worth A Thousand Words

You really can judge a book by its cover--a picture book, that is, says Keith Younker, an English teacher at Southridge High School, part of Indiana's Southwest Dubois County School Corp. Today's visually intriguing picture books can help students understand history and sophisticated concepts and ideas. Even juniors and seniors in Younker's classes have been learning through picture books for years.

For example, Henry Hikes to Fitchburg (Houghton Mifflin, 2000) introduces transcendentalism and encourages taking a break when needed--or, as the bear character based on Henry David Thoreau does, stop for blackberries while racing a friend to town.

Meanwhile, in Williamsburg-James City (Va.) County Public Schools, fifth graders are using picture books in the Looking to Learn program to explore how images can expand stories, create moods and act as visual modifiers.

While educators are rarely skeptical once they see the connections that can be made with these books, sometimes students themselves are a tough sell.

"A few wondered why we'd be working with books for kindergarteners," says Noreen Bernstein, youth services director at Williamsburg Regional Library and developer of Looking to Learn. But one child's post-evaluation shows a changed outlook: "This makes me see better visual images when I read longer books now," he wrote. The curriculum, which is similar to Bernstein's middle school reading remediation program using picture books, was honored with a 2004 Giant Step Award from Thomson Gale and School Library Journal.

Bernstein and Younker are hardly the only ones touting the benefits of picture books for older students. About four years ago, Younker started noticing increased attention for these books at National Council of Teachers of English conferences. "I think I re-alized it was a bit more serious when it went out of the realm of art, starting to look at picture books as content, not just as pretty pictures," he says.

Another draw is the effect these books seem to have on students. Younker's classes will sit on the floor around him as he reads aloud from a selection in his 100-plus-book classroom library. And Bernstein has heard of high school teachers who found that reading these books aloud gets students to settle down to work.

The books can be valuable pro-fessional development tools, too. Younker introduces his teacher writing workshops with a read-aloud. "I get smiles and nods from elementary teachers. I get folded arms from middle school teachers. And I get raised eyebrows from high school teachers," he says. But the stories have helped teachers in the workshops and in his cross-curricular study group to, for example, learn to accept change and to understand racism's affect on students.

Despite the impression these books are making, Younker isn't surprised by the reactions of children's booksellers at NCTE conventions when he browses their picture book displays. They're thrilled to see secondary teachers, he says, but "they think I'm buying books for my grandkids."

Long-Term Plans for Teacher Shortage

In California, students in low-income areas are nearly three times more likely to be taught by under-prepared teachers than students from more affluent areas. A new science and math teacher education initiative at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo aims to change that--and become a model for other communities.

Launched with a $7 million private donation, the ongoing initiative includes a fellows program for teachers who commit to working two years in under-represented school districts, as well as an intensive summer institute to help teachers update content knowledge and skills. An endowed professorship in science and mathematics teacher education is providing curriculum development leadership, building partnerships with schools and creating a model lab classroom for teacher education.

An American President, Up Close

Nick Sheldon's seventh graders got to meet Teddy Roosevelt this year. Well, a Roosevelt re-enactor anyway. Through a Web cam, the students from Schenectady City (N.Y.) School District's Mont Pleasant Middle School asked the former president about his life and leadership role.

Checking out 20,000 hours of C-SPAN video archives came next--only they got a little help on that assignment. With a mouseclick, any student or teacher can view short video clips hand-selected by Sheldon's Points of VIEW project team, which consists of eight teachers, two administrators and some tech pro's from four local districts.

Using interactive video conferencing and a grant from the cable industry's Cable in the Classroom initiative, the team has spent two years developing a POV Roosevelt curriculum. It's designed as a week-long mini-unit for middle and high school classrooms. Teachers can use the existing curriculum or build off the model by choosing another president or even an author, Sheldon notes.

The aim is to engage students--and teachers. "As opposed to someone at the other end saying, 'This is a good document or footage to use,' [teachers are] directly seeing and fitting. It makes a big difference," says John Falco, Schenectady's superintendent.

Whether educators chalk it up to the technology, the content or the cross-district collaboration, POV students are absorbing the material better. Sheldon and a colleague (with nearly identical background) tested that theory with two units on presidential roles. He used POV materials with 120 students, and she taught 150 students using his former, more traditional lesson plans. Then came the test. Sheldon reports, "Her students did well but mine did noticeably better,"--5 percent to 8 percent better. A high school study had similar results.

And students give POV a thumbs-up. More than three of four say they learned more than they would have from an ordinary class.