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Curriculum Update

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Language Arts

BANNED BOOKS: Q&A with Librarian and Educator Pat R. Scales

Q:Book censorship in the U.S. is on the rise. What factors contribute to this, and what risks does a teacher take when he or she uses banned books?

A:Book censorship has been occurring in public schools for years, but we now have a better way of tracking the cases. For this reason, it appears [to be] on the rise. Organized groups, from the left and the right, have made book censorship their mission. They use the media, the Internet and the political arena to convey their message. Teachers feel at a risk because administrators pressure them to teach "safe" topics. But, there is no such thing as a "safe" topic. What offends one person may not offend another.

Q:What benefits make the challenges of teaching banned books worthwhile?

A:The primary reason is to nurture intellectual growth by sparking open and honest discussion. It is up to the teacher to help students learn to value literature of all genres. We cannot teach them to "think" without first allowing them to "see."

Q:How can introducing frequently banned books help students understand the U.S. Constitution? Why is this knowledge especially important since Sept. 11?

A:It is important to help students see that everyone's view counts. Tell them the issues that people have with these books, and engage them in open discussion. Every time we listen to a student's opinion, we practice the principles of intellectual freedom, a freedom granted to us by the First Amendment. In the wake of Sept. 11, we as Americans are at risk of losing many of our civil liberties in the name of security. Students must understand the Constitution before they can fully realize this threat.

Q:What strategies could educators use to introduce controversial books in the classroom?

A:Pre-reading activities or discussion should establish the context of the book. For example: Beforereading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor, students should engage in a discussion about racism and bigotry that existed in the South in the 1930s, the setting of the book. They might also discuss current issues of racism. Keep to the context of the book, and then apply the themes and issues to life today.

Q:What have you discovered about the connection between banned books and the "fear of the unknown"?

A:Most censors don't read the book they are challenging, so they develop false fears. I have found, in working with parents of middle school students, that they are less likely to challenge a book when they have read the entire work. For this reason, I started a parent literature group in the 1980s. The parents read and [discussed] the books their children were reading.

Q:In what ways can administrators work together with teachers and librarians in making book choices?

A:There is always power in teamwork. Administrators must encourage such teamwork and trust their faculty to select books that are age-appropriate, and to develop novel units that encourage critical and creative thinking. Teachers know their students best, and [they] should be allowed to adjust novel choices based on the maturity of [each] class. Librarians know books and should be an invaluable resource for teachers when making novel elections. Every school district should have a book selection policy that everyone follows. Once a decision to use a novel is made, the administrator's job is to support that decision, even in the wake of controversy.

Q:You have said that the freedom to read should go along with the freedom for individuals to rejectbooks. How might students be offered choices in language arts classes?

A:Most students will reject what they aren't ready for. And we must allow them to reject such books in recreational reading as well as in the curriculum. If a student or parent voices an objection to a particular novel, the teacher should offer an alternative novel without compromising literary quality.

Pat R. Scales is director of library services at the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and a universitylevelchildren's literature instructor. She writes teacher's guides to literature and is the author of Teaching Banned Books: 12 Guides for Young Readers (American Library Association, 2001).


Should Algebra be Mandatory?

Algebra for all? California is the latest of a growing number of states to view algebra as a course for every student, not just the college bound. Last year the state Department of Education announced algebra will be a high school graduation requirement beginning with the class 2004. And California's standards-released in 1999-include the subject as an eighth grade course.

Lee Stiff, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, agrees. "It's certainly a good idea for all kids to have some opportunity to learn algebra," either through a course or through algebraic thinking skills in other classes, he says. But Stiff says he's not certain that the subject is suitable for all eighth graders.

In California, there is concern that districts need more time to improve the quality of teaching before students can be held accountable to the higher standards. "You have to have the staff development for the teachers because they may not be equipped to teach the standards," says Tom Lester, a mathematics consultant for the California Department of Education. While the state provides professional development funding, Lester acknowledges that it's not enough.

As for the eighth grade course standard, Lester explains that not all eighth graders are currently taking algebra. "The [K-7] standards have to be implemented to transition kids to be ready for algebra in eighth grade," he says.

Meanwhile, some districts are pushing to raise achievement levels of students caught in the middle by: allowing students who fail the first semester of the course to start over in the second semester; offering a six-week summer math academy for middle school students; and hiring math coaches to help teachers implement strategies such as lecturing less and asking students to explain their reasoning.

Mathematics & Science

Co-Mentoring: Beyond One-on-One

Collaborative action research, study groups, facilitated peer support, reciprocal classroom observations and electronic networks. Thanks to a mentoring program where new and experienced teachers learn both oneon-one and with others, this is the stuff that mentoring is made of.

Based on this concept of mentoring, the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance's Northern New England Co-Mentoring Network will partner 60 mentor teachers from districts in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont with beginning mathematics and science teachers.

Established with funding from the National Science Foundation, the hree-year initiative addresses the need to support and retain qualified middle and high school teachers while building strong teacher leadership. Beginning with spring meetings in each state and a summer institute where experienced teachers will receive formal mentoring training, this network aims to develop a supportive learning community among teacher mentors, new teachers, higher education faculty and science and mathematics reform leaders. Mentors will also share their new skills through school- or district-wide learning communities-helping schools to create long-term, ongoing professional development practices.

Social studies

U.S. Economics Assessment on the Way

What do high school graduates need to know about the economy? That's the question being asked in the development of a framework for the first nationwide economics assessment, a project of the National Assessment of Educational Progress that will hit schools in 2005.

NAEP's Assessment Governing Board awarded a $971,000 contract for the initial stages of the project toWashington, D.C.-based American Institutes for Research. Participating subcontractors are the National Council for Economic Education and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Just 13 states currently require students to take economics courses, and an additional three states mandate a course offering, says Claire Melican, NCEE's vice president for program administration. "Our greatest goal would be [for schools] to see that economics is important, and we'd like to see more states mandate economics," Melican says, citing a survey that found parents want economics covered in schools. Standards for teaching economics have been adopted by 48 states.

The project committees-curriculum experts, university economists, high school economics teachers, parents and others-have met to create a framework that will be finalized this month. Focus groups are being planned, Melican says, and later this spring the framework will be posted on NCEE's Web site for administrator and teacher review.