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Curriculum Update

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

Simulations Cut into Dissection

Along accepted—sometimes dreaded—rite of passage for high school science students may be losing its luster. The act of taking a scalpel to a frog or fetal pig has long been questioned by some students on ethical grounds. But now, with more realistic computer alternatives available, the argument is taking a new twist.

The dissection debate heated up this fall when a Baltimore County honors student refused to dissect a cat as part of her anatomy and physiology class. The student was told to drop the class, but administrators later recanted the decision, citing the district’s unwritten policy regarding animal dissection. “The student was allowed to remain in class and the school invested in several CD-ROMs and videos” as an alternative, says district spokesman Charles Herndon.

Last spring, the School Board of Trustees in Clark County, Nev., adopted a new policy on animal dissection after an eighth grader started a petition and presented it to the board. According to President Sheila Moulton, the board members were impressed by the girl’s presentation. After hearing expert testimony, a unanimous vote approved the new policy, which allows students with parental consent to be assigned an alternative activity.

The National Science Teachers Association defends dissection while advising teachers to be sensitive to students’ beliefs. “Today’s computer simulations offer a way to peel back layer by layer and study anatomical structure,” says Associate Executive Director Wendell Mohling. He adds, however, that simulations can’t replace the multi-sensory experience of dissection.

Dissections are carried out in the vast majority of American high schools, although they’ve reportedly declined since 1987, when the California Supreme Court supported a high school student’s refusal to dissect a frog. According to the Humane Society of the United States, eight states have bills allowing students to opt-out of dissections.

One anti-dissection group, the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, offers an argument even skeptical school board members may want to hear: Outfitting a single classroom with frogs, dissection kits and other materials costs about $1,200 per year, while a digital frog dissection CD-ROM is a one-time investment. —Jennifer K. Covino

“Civil Rights”: Covering the Black Movement and More

Once upon a classroom, studying civil rights meant reading about Brown v. Board of Education and Birmingham, Ala.’s sit ins. Lessons today are often expanded to include oral histories and other primary research presented through active learning techniques. But here’s the big news: teachers have broadened their discussions, going beyond the African-American movement to cover American Indian, Japanese-American and now, in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, Muslim rights as well.

One indication of this expanded topic area is National History Day’s 2002 Summer Institute, which included discussion on a variety of civil rights movements. Spokesman Mark Robinson says this approach reflects the ways that civil rights are taught across the country, although focus areas may vary by region. “States with larger Indian populations tend to discuss the American Indian movement, [while] in urban Eastern cities and Southern states there is much more focus on teaching the African-American civil rights movement,” he says.

David Weiss, president of the National Social Studies Supervisors Association, says, “When [teaching] tolerance and prejudice, you have to include the civil rights of African-Americans and all that exist in this country. ... Even though the African-American movement has basically become synonymous with civil rights, it’s certainly an issue that transcends color.” However, Weiss notes that these expanded civil rights lessons aren’t necessarily invading Black History Month. Instead, he says civil rights for all are becoming part of daily classroom discussion.

Cynthia Mostoller of Alice Deal Junior High School in Washington, D.C., has her eighth-grade American history students use the Declaration of Independence as a reference. “We ‘test’ its principles by considering who is guaranteed the rights so cherished in the American psyche,” she says. A participant in the NHD summer institute, Mostoller says she is using what she learned to lay the foundation for post-Civil War reform movements.

Grant to Swat Math Problem-Solving Bugs

Math education researchers have studied how kids solve computational problems, from the mental models they use to visualize multiplication or how they see these problems as repeated addition, to the predictable errors they make in using strategies to solve problems. But translating research about how children learn math into something teachers can use to help students achieve has been a challenge.

A two-year, $460,000 National Science Foundation grant is funding research to delve further into the strategies children use in arithmetic and help teachers correct unsuccessful strategies, known as “bugs.” Children often use rules they’ve learned for certain math problems and apply them to other problems. For example, a student may compute: 1/4 + 1/4= 2/8 because of previous lessons on adding whole numbers.

“This is one of the first times that we’re trying to use this research in a way that’s designed to help teachers assess [these bugs] for the purpose of instruction,” says Herbert Ginsburg of Columbia’s Teachers College. He’s a specialist in interpreting children’s understanding of math and one of three collaborators on the study.

When the research and evaluation stage of the study is complete, New York City-based Wireless Generation, another co-collaborator, will create a new math tool for observational assessments on handheld computers; the tool will be available using the company’s mClass platform. Ginsburg, who is the Jacob H. Schiff professor of psychology and education, says the tool will help teachers understand not only the problems but also some of the unexpected strengths students have, such as a good grasp of mental procedures.

“The work is important because it helps teachers to understand kids’ thinking. And [this] is one of the keys to successful education,” he says.

Districts interested in piloting the assessment tool can contact Ginsburg at

STUDY: Expand Language Learning for Down’s Children

Does language learning end during the teen years for children with Down’s syndrome? Studies in the past 10 years have claimed it does. As a result, educator expectations of these students’ grammar, speaking and reading abilities may be lower.

Time to reconsider, suggests a new, larger study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Waisman Center, which researches developmental disabilities. For the past six years, comprehension tests and storytelling tasks of 31 young people with Down’s syndrome (5- 20 at the study’s start) measured abilities to understand and speak complex grammar.

The study found that language comprehension skills quickly develop during childhood, but that development slows down as the child reaches the teen years. Language expression skills, meanwhile, continue to improve throughout adolescence. However, the continued development of language expression depends on at least maintaining comprehension skills.

“There should continue to be language work in both comprehension and expression throughout teenage and young adult years,” says Robin Chapman, a professor emeritus of communicative disorders and primary investigator for the study. The study’s results were published in the October 2002 issue of the Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research.

She hopes the findings will encourage educators to extend expectations of students’ complex language skills, such as reading, and to continue to see children as eligible for speech and language services throughout their school years. Skill expectations should also be integrated into practice in vocational programs, where districts often shift teens with cognitive disabilities, she adds.

“Kids with Down’s syndrome can accomplish a lot. Think of Chris Burke [from the television show Life Goes On],” Chapman says. We need to maximize the opportunities so they

can accomplish even more.”