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Curriculum Update

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

Tsunami Spurs Cross-Curricular Connections

In the first school week after December's tragic tsunami, nearly 30,000 educators logged on to to view a video about tsunami formation. "As soon as it happened, educators saw it as a teachable moment and began [scouring] the Web for resources," confirms Gerry Wheeler, executive director of National Science Teachers Association.

And when word got out about the British 10-year-old who saved an entire beach of tourists because she had learned the early warning signs of tsunamis in school, it likely made the mission of educators all the more meaningful.

Skipping ahead in the curriculum was a tactic science teachers used upon return from the break. Tsunamis can be found in many earth science curricula, but generally as an adjunct to plate tectonics, earthquakes or water behavior, says Wheeler.

Teachers relied on multiple resources to complement their textbooks, digging up high-tech online simulations and videos and linking math and science with bathtub experiments to simulate 100-foot waves.

Curriculum administrators can encourage teachers to go beyond the surface of tsunamis and the disaster to explore related issues in science and society, says Wheeler.

In East Union, N.C., schools, Middle School Science Coordinator Lori Peyton immediately began sending teachers current events e-mails that include photos, satellite images and teaching tips. All 70 middle school teachers addressed the tsunami, says Peyton. Many shared non-fiction articles and online resources with their students.

Science teacher Joanne Cape relied on these resources and more to extend tsunami lessons. After scouring the text for background on earthquakes, tsunamis and population dynamics and sharing videos about tsunamis, Cape guided students through an interdisciplinary project. Student groups researched topics like food distribution and disease control and completed papers with plans to tackle survival challenges.

Principals can help get their schools involved by encouraging teachers to analyze an event through different lenses, notes Wheeler. Consider that:

Math comes into play as students explore transportation and logistics.

History students can research other disasters or explore the long-term effects of similar events.

Language arts serves as the basis for community engagement or fundraising projects.

Many educators are reinforcing lessons with fundraising events benefiting tsunami survivors. For example, pint-sized philanthropists at Quogue Elementary School in New York peddled handmade crafts and raffle tickets to raise more than $5,000 for UNICEF.

--Lisa Fratt

Bio/Math Duo

Recent advances such as the sequencing of the human genome have resulted in emerging fields of biology. And biological ideas inspire new information science concepts and methods. Because higher education is exposing students to mathematical and biological sciences connections more, it's time for high schools to catch up.

High schools have made some progress in this area, say Fred Roberts, director of the Center for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science, a consortium based at Rutgers University that's been involved in math-science interfaces for more than a decade.

DIMACS's Bio-Math Connect Institute takes it a step further. The annual summer program allows teachers of both subject areas to develop classroom materials and plan interdisciplinary follow-up activities for their schools. It's the second BMCI but the first time math and biology teachers will be paired. As one math teacher who attended in 2004 said, "I now have the knowledge and confidence to bring specific examples of how math is used in current biology research."

Literacy's Hot (and Cold) Spots

The hottest literacy topic for 2005 is one that experts believe shouldn't be. "Scientific evidence-based reading research and instruction" topped the list of 28 areas rated by 25 literacy leaders, mainly from the U.S. But with so much emphasis on this type of research, they say qualitative and correlational studies are being ignored.

Respondents of the annual survey rate topics based on how much attention they're currently receiving. Besides "hot" and "not" ratings, experts cast votes on whether each topic "should be hot" or "should not be hot." Jack Cassidy, director of the Center for Educational Development, Evaluation and Research and an associate dean at Texas A&M University- Corpus Christi, conducted this year's survey along with Drew Cassidy, who also teaches at Texas A&M. Results were published by the International Reading Association's Reading Today.

First used in 1996, the survey aims to encourage more in-depth investigation of topics receiving attention (see Very Hot Topics list). Discrepancies between the "hot" and "should be hot" lists can help educators more actively advocate for the best literacy practices. Topics that experts believe should sizzle but that were not labeled "hot" are: family literacy, literature-based instruction, motivation, multicultural literature, reading/learning disabilities, technology and writing.

ESL Redeux: When Sign Language is First

Thirty-two deaf and hard of hearing students in Albuquerque, N.M., are learning literacy skills by writing in their native language--American Sign Language. The Hodgin Elementary School students use SignWriting, a written script of American Sign Language created by Valerie Sutton. Sutton, director of the Center for Sutton Movement Writing, developed the written form of ASL in 1974 and has expanded it to 27 other countries.

Cecilia Flood, SignWriting Literacy Project Director for Albuquerque Public Schools, says deaf students often struggle with reading and writing English because they've never heard the words aloud. But they're able to grasp SignWriting symbols because they have been communicating in that language all their lives. ASL, while used in the U.S., uses word orders and grammatical constructions not found in English.

"The written component of ASL has so much power,'' says Flood. "I had a fifth-grade deaf child who spent four or five years struggling to acquire written language. School was not a happy place for her. When I introduced sign writing this girl just blossomed."

Not everyone in the deaf community agrees that deaf students should spend their time learning SignWriting. Albuquerque is the only U.S. school district using the script in their curriculum for deaf students. Similar to debates about bilingual education, some experts say deaf students should be spending the time they have at school learning to write and read English.

Flood maintains deaf students can't fully grasp English--which is really their second language--until they can fully read and write in their native language. "Unless you have a strong language base you can't assume kids that are deaf can acquire the written component of a language they cannot hear,'' she says.

According to Gallaudet Research Institute in Washington, which studies literacy among deaf students, deaf high school seniors score, on average, just below the fourth-grade level on standardized reading tests.

Along with the written script of ASL, Sutton has helped develop a new SignWriting dictionary called SignBank, which is available as a free download. A FileMaker Pro database, SignBank allows students to search for a sign or a word in any of 27 sign languages, including ASL.

--Fran Silverman