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Curriculum Update

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

Study: Boys Literate in Spite of School

Boys will be boys. Research suggests that boys don't like to read and don't read very well. Two Canadian education professors have shown that earlier studies don't tell the full story.

Their recently completed, two-year qualitative research project went beyond test score data and perceptions of gender to better understand boys' literacy perceptions and practices. What emerged was this: For boys, literacy is a means to an end.

Interviews with and observations of students in grades three to six uncovered how boys take from a text rather than pour over it. Literacy as a social practice--whether it means sharing boisterous comments across the entire room or clustering around a computer game--is about shaping a personal identity and sharing interests with friends.

Outside of school, boys choose active, purposeful reading such as how-to books, fantasy, sports magazines, comic books and graphic texts. Despite the rules and expectations regarding literacy in school, some boys made meaning of school texts by "morphing" traditional school literacies into something more useful to them.

"Visual media--technological literacies--are not going to dissipate. ... It is important that we recognize these in our classrooms," says Kathy Sanford, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at University of Victoria in British Columbia. She co-authored the study, called Morphing Literacy: Boys Reshaping Their Literacy. Recognizing alternative literacies used by students outside of school, she adds, would help them make connections to schoolwork.

"It has become common practice to fall back on the position that ... there's nothing we can do to change boys' and girls' attitudes about literacy, schooling or relationships in a broader sense," Sanford says.

She suggests making time for educators to note and examine situations and circumstances in which gender might play a part. Besides considering alternative literacies, Sanford says teachers should discuss how their own gender influences their teaching and understanding of literacy.

Checkmate, My Classmate!

Chess has been shown to improve visual memory, attention span and spatial reasoning among children who play--often resulting in higher test scores and greater intellectual and social maturity. But does chess belong in the classroom?

Thirty-three counties worldwide that have integrated chess into the required curriculum think so. As does a Connecticut state senator, who has introduced a bill to make chess an elective. Districts wouldn't be required to offer it, but the state would have to establish a chess curriculum. At least two other states have considered similar initiatives, says Rosalind Sciammas, community relations director of America's Foundation for Chess.

While afterschool programs and clubs are common, chess in the curriculum is not, Sciammas says. Programs such as New York's Chess in the Schools have brought the game to some classrooms, but the U.S. has generally been slow to accept the idea. Perhaps it's the perception of chess as a geeky sport, Sciammas points out. Another factor hurting chess: The short attention spans of American youth.

With AF4C's program, chess instructors teach a year-long curriculum and train K-6 teachers to include it themselves in subjects such as math and history. Currently serving greater Seattle, AF4C is hoping to expand to other areas. Groups can apply to form local non-profit AF4C chapters through a challenge grant model.

Teachers and administrators say that chess does wonders for students who have trouble focusing, Sciammas says. As for the ability of young kids to pick up the game, "The kids always beat the teachers in the end."

Report: 'Fear Factor' Holding Back Civics

3:1 That's the ratio of civics-related courses most students took in the 1960s compared to now. It's no wonder that Americans under age 25 are less likely to vote than both older Americans today and young people of the past.

The pressures of high-stakes testing and fallout from budget cuts in civics-related extracurricular programs are two factors working against educators in promoting civic engagement, according to The Civic Mission of Schools, a new report from Carnegie Corporation of New York and The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement.

Another obstacle is the fear of criticism and litigation that might result when teachers address controversial or political topics. Compared to testing and budget issues, this factor is a challenge that administrators have a bit more control over. To help squelch those fears, administrators can:

Allow and encourage educators to discuss complex and/or current events and issues in the classroom. Work with teachers to develop general parameters within which these discussions can take place.

Educate parents and community members about the important role of current events in helping students become educated and engaged citizens.

Experiment with civics curricula that fits the community and its students. Strategies should build on or enhance already established curricula, programs and activities; involve partnerships with afterschool programs and local organizations; and emphasize the role each citizen plays in public affairs during a lifetime.

Enact policies that reflect constitutional principles. When schools protect religious liberty and encourage freedom of expression by students, faculty and staff, they uphold freedom and democracy.

Provide leadership development and recognition for building and district administrators willing to support a system-wide commitment to civic education.

The report also recommends working with the state to discuss civics as a freestanding course at several grade levels, and establishing civic education curricula based on promising, research-based approaches (see box). Suggestions for incorporating civics into reading, math and science programs are included in the report, as well.

Making New Science Books Dynamic

When an American Association for the Advancement of Science study described science textbooks as "full of disconnected facts that neither educate nor motivate," there wasn't much for the education community to celebrate. But a new Center for Curriculum Materials in Science is working on a turnaround.

A five-year, $9.9 million National Science Foundation grant is funding the center, which partners AAAS's Project 2061 with the University of Michigan, Northwestern University and Michigan State University.

The project aims to:

--Develop a cadre of experts in curriculum research and development. Graduate science education programs will now cover analysis, design and use of materials. The Chicago, Detroit and Lansing school districts will implement in-service professional development.

--Create and guide curriculum materials development. Local and national Knowledge Sharing Institutes will bring together teachers, researchers and commercial curriculum developers. Involving vendors as partners is "the one thing that I think will set this project apart from past ones," says Mary Koppal, communications director at AAAS.

Civic Ed Rules for School

PROVIDE instruction in goverment, history, law and democracy. Avoid teaching only rote facts about dry procedures.

INCORPORATE dicussion of current local, national and international issues and events into the classroom, particularly those that young people view as important to thier lives.

DESIGN and implement programs that allow students to apply what they learn through community service activities linked to the formal curriculum.

OFFER extracurriculur activities (and value participation in them) to help all students get involved in their schools or communities.

ENCOURAGE student participation in school governance. The chance for students to participate in managing their own classrooms and schools builds civic skills and attitudes.

ENCOURAGE participation in students semulations of democratic processes and proedures, such as voting, trails, legislative deliberation and diplomacy.

SOURCE: The Civic Mission of School, Carnegie Corporation of New York, 2003