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Curriculum Update

Research, trends and developments

Online Textbooks Becoming More Popular

First, we saw textbooks on CD. Then publishers began offering online subscription services that featured updates and corrected mistakes as well as provided links to resources and virtual field trips. Today, however, districts are choosing to receive the entire textbook online. "Teacher resources used to come in a box," says Janey Kaufmann, K-12 science coordinator for the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Unified School District. "Recently I saw a resource kit on a flash drive that a teacher could wear around her neck." Kaufmann says online textbooks simplify test creation; teachers can make multiple versions or modify questions just by clicking.

Barbara Reinert, a seventh-grade science teacher at Copper Ridge Middle School in Scottsdale, Ariz., has used online textbooks for a year. Her students do their homework at the school or public library or at home, and she says that access has not been an issue. "The kids love that it's not just a picture in a book," she says. "They can click on items in the picture and get detailed explanations and can listen to pronunciations and definitions."

If your district is not ready to abandon its physical textbooks, you might be interested in what's at the Vail School District in Arizona. Superintendent Calvin Baker says his teachers have moved away from "the standard march through the textbook, chapter by chapter," and are using the Internet to find the best tools to teach every lesson. He says it's like downloading one song instead of buying the entire album. "Rather than getting a whole set of textbooks, teachers can find the material they need to teach specific standards."

Another interesting option is Classmate Math's "textbooks with the teacher inside." Each lesson in these online offerings features a video of a teacher going over a problem. "Students can't learn math from a book," says Mike Maggart, the company's CEO. Kelly Ward, an eighth-grade Algebra 1 instructor at the Duchesne Academy in Houston, likes that the practice problems in the Algebra 1 Classmate provide verbal explanations for all of the steps in the practice problems. "My students watch the video examples and do the practice problems for homework the night before I teach the lesson," she says. "Instead of doing the nuts-and-bolts they've already mastered, I can do enrichment activities or delve deeper into the subject."

Arts Education Experiencing a Mini Renaissance

At last, good news for the arts: Washington State is debuting the country's first performance-based arts assessments and three Miami-Dade County Public Schools are participating in a unique museum program to improve statewide exam scores.

Washington's performance-based assessments are the result of statewide legislation requiring K-12 students to be assessed in dance, music, theatre and visual arts. AnnRene Joseph, program supervisor of the arts for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction for Washington, says it's the only state conducting individual performance-based evaluations. The assessments, which measure instruction and not talent, integrate the arts with other subjects. For instance, students might be asked to create and perform a dance and then write a short essay about it. "When students respond and reflect, that's when they learn," says Joseph.

Students at three magnet schools in Miami-Dade Public County are enjoying structured museum trips that support their studies. Helen Blanch, administrative director for Schools of Choice, says she wanted to move beyond the yearly or twice-yearly museum field trip and teach children about creating exhibits. The district received a U.S. Department of Education grant to allow museum educators to work with a curriculum-writing team to determine which standards could be taught through certain collections.

Each school has different partners. For instance, Southside Elementary works with the Miami Art Museum, the Historical Museum of Southern Florida and the Children's Museum. Every nine weeks, the kids turn their school into a mini museum and explain their projects to visitors. Students at Shenandoah Middle are working on a collaborative book based on conflict resolution.

"We're developing a generation of museum-goers," says Marie Mennes, curriculum support specialist for Schools of Choice, who hopes to continue the program once funding ends by hiring a teacher who can train other teachers in object-based learning.

Blanch admits it was risky for children to spend time away from school and not lose ground in preparing for assessment tests, but says that recent essays show that the children's language skills are blossoming.

For administrators who want to start similar programs, Mennes suggests talking with local museums, as they are continually looking for outreach opportunities.

Related Information

Oxford Makes History with its New Textbook Series

"Kids love to read a good story, so why not give them a textbook that reads like a novel or short story?" asks Nancy Toff, vice president and editorial director of school and young adult publishing for Oxford University Press. This philosophy drove the creation of alternative history books for its middle-school history/social science program. Instead of one huge book, the company developed several small books for ancient history, medieval/early modern history and U.S. history. The latest offering, The World in Ancient Times, is a nine-volume set for sixth-graders. Each mini book was co-written by a scholar and a children's fiction author. "I found the format stimulating and most of the students liked it as well," says Marsha Yoder, a teacher at Lawton Chiles Middle Academy in Lakeland, Fla. "It made history seem more real and they related to the human aspect as opposed to a recitation of facts."

U.S. Students Need More Global Education

Recent surveys conducted by the Asia Society and the National Geographic Society show that U.S. students are woefully uninformed about other world regions, languages and cultures. Some districts, however, are trying to remedy this situation. Here are two of the winners of The Goldman Sachs Foundation Prizes for Excellence in International Education:

Richmond Elementary School, Portland, Ore.

As part of its Japanese Magnet Program, the 300 students spend half the day learning in Japanese and half the day learning in English. Each grade is team-taught by English and Japanese instructors and Japanese culture is woven throughout all disciplines.

Newton North and Newton South High Schools, Newton, Mass.

The mandatory two-year world history course for grades nine and 10 covers Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Sixth- through 12th-grade students can study Chinese, French, Italian, Russian or Spanish and each language includes a study-abroad option facilitated by partnerships with schools in China, France, Italy, Mexico, Spain, Cuba and Russia.

Algebra Classes For Parents

The Baltimore County Public Schools recently helped parents become more involved when it invited them to take a refresher algebra course. The invitation was in response to the fact that Maryland's current freshman class will have to earn one credit in algebra/data analysis and pass the state assessment in that subject. "The classes were very successful," says Charles Herndon, a district spokesman. Nearly 40 adults attended each of the three sessions, which covered everything from graphing calculators to the importance of high school assessments. "We wanted to let parents know how different math is than when they were students," says Herndon.