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Curriculum Update

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

History Teachers: No Time for Term Papers

Nearly all (95 percent) history teachers report that writing a research term paper is important or very important to learning the subject, and eight of 10 (79 percent) think district and school administrators agree. Yet, 81 percent of teachers never assign papers of more than 5,000 words, and 62 percent don’t assign papers of 3,001-5,000 words.

The main reason for these findings doesn’t surprise Will Fitzhugh, editor and publisher of The Concord Revie, a journal of history student essays that commissioned the study of 400 secondary school history teachers. Despite the research, analytic and writing skills major term papers build, 82 percent of teachers said it’s very or somewhat difficult to find the time for reading and grading them, not to mention the extra help students often need while completing the assignments. Many teachers also feel these papers take too much time away from other instruction.

So, educators are more likely to assign shorter essays, opinion papers and summaries of readings. Of assignments that do require research, papers and essays of 3,000 words or less are most common. This means students may never read a complete non-fiction book, Fitzhugh says. They may also miss a fundamental step in college preparation and the experience of feeling like the class expert on a particular topic.

Of teachers who do assign research papers, nearly six in 10 say that grading them cuts into personal time. “If administrators care about long-term papers, they have to ask teachers to work on them,” says Fitzhugh, who recommends finding a way to provide “two to three reading days at the end of the term to do [grading of the papers] justice.”

Statisticians Reach Out to Schools

In technical subjects like biology, where the “cutting edge” is often in the news, the opportunities for realworldclassroom connections are obvious, says David C. Hoaglin, a statistician who has been partnered with a high school math teacher through an outreach program of the American Statistical Association’s Boston chapter.

Because Hoaglin’s field is less visible, he says schools can gain by promoting contact between practicing statisticians and students. Through a growing number of partnership programs being implemented throughout the country, ASA is offering its support in that endeavor.

For example, Adopt-A-School allows a practicing statistician to team up with a local school to offer lectures, presentations, career advice or other activities, explains Megan Kruse, public affairs/careers coordinator at ASA. Local chapters are also encouraged to organize career days that introduce students to jobs in statistics. The organization’s Committee on Minorities in Statistics has also been making an effort to forge a relationship between students and statisticians, adds Monica D. Smith, education coordinator at ASA.

“My main focus is on what I can contribute,” says Hoaglin, who works at a Cambridge business research and consulting firm. Besides explanations about statistical applications and theory, he offers examples of actualsurveys and data analysis from a variety of fields.

“I always think it is a great experience to get the students interacting with real-world applications of our curriculum,” says teacher David Bookston. He and another statistics teacher at Needham (Mass.) High School have been working with a statistician from Bayer Corp. this year. “Practicing statisticians bring excitement about the subject and can answer questions that our students have about what lies ahead for them.”

Forensics on Fire in Schools

We hear a lot about forensic science these days, whether it’s by watching the latest crime television hit or CNN. But teaching forensics is not just a fad, says Evan Shapiro, senior vice president at Court TV. It recently made its new “Forensics in the Classroom” curriculum available for free online. “It’s been a useful tool in getting kids engaged in science for a long time. It’s just now that popular culture has caught up to it,” he says.

At a recent regional convention organized by the National Science Teachers Association, Executive Director Gerry Wheeler says a growing interest in teaching forensics was evident. These sessions “were just filled to overflow capacity. It’s part of the growing concern to try to find some relevance to the students as they learn basic science,” he says. The challenge, Wheeler says, is to zero in on the science and not stay at the superficial level when introducing forensics.

And, if interest in two 2002 forensic science educational conferences is any indication, forensics will be sticking around in schools for some time. According to Jim Hurley, director of development at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, there were more than 200 inquiries and 120 middle and high school teachers attending the first conference, and the second conference had 150 teachers indicating a strong desire to attend and 81 attending. AAFS hopes to offer two annual conferences in the future. During the past year, Hurley says he has received more than 800 requests from teachers from every state about curriculum, forensic science experts and lab activities.

Suitable for all grade levels but mainly middle and high school science classes, forensics activities can mean anything from identifying a “mystery powder” to DNA analysis, Wheeler says. He recommends avoiding “gory stuff” such as O.J. Simpson’s murder trial and other infamous cases, or getting parents and administrators on board before covering them.

The Court TV curriculum ( was created through a partnership with AAFS for high school chemistry classrooms. The unit introducing footprint casting, which uses a case of a car found at the bottom of a river, has gotten the most positive feedback, says Shapiro. Teachers are encouraged to comment on the curriculum, which may be modified as ideas come in.

EMERGING TREND: District-Wide Book Clubs

What Oprah’s book club did for adults, the Harry Potter phenomenon did for students—spark an interest in reading and discussing books. Some districts across the country are now organizing book clubs to bring students, teachers and the community together.

Take the Superintendent’s Book Club of Jackson (Miss.) Public Schools, for example. The brainchild of superintendent and career teacher Earl Watkins, the program features regular book selections for second, third, and fourth/fifth graders to read. Watkins himself reads excerpts of the books over the classroom television network, as well as discusses books with students in the classroom and via letters and e-mail.

“[There is] an automatic connecting point with students,” says Lucy Hansford, communications specialist for the district.“We’re trying to establish a climate of reading.” Kenton County (Ky.) Schools has book clubs for all grade levels. Students, teachers and community members in each club meet in person or online, according to the needs of the participants. Vicki Fields, technology coordinator for Kenton County, acknowledges the influence Harry Potter has had on interest in book clubs. She and her colleague Jay Ryan, a technology resource teacher, say that book clubs engage students in reflective thought processes and writing, as well as encourage reading a variety of literature.

Another example of the book club trend: Woodbridge Township (N.J.) School District has instituted a club through which adults and high school students will meet to discuss their readings. Meetings are broadcast on the school district’s cable station.

The idea for district-wide book clubs may stem from the city-wide book events that have grown popular in recent years. Donna Ogle, past president of the International Reading Association, says district-wide clubs bring to mind a similar reading trend—shared reading and discussions at the essence of many district staff development models today. —Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti