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Curriculum Update

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

Sept. 17: Schools Must Teach Constitution

Ready or not, mandates come. A statutory requirement from the federal government is about to take effect: Every educational institution receiving federal funds or any taxpayer money (that is, every public school) must organize a student program covering the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, dubbed Constitution Day.

Aside from wondering how schools are going to manage a Saturday requirement this year (programs may be held during the previous or following week, according to the U.S. Department of Education's notice of implementation), educators may question the need for federal curricular intervention in this area.

Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who inserted the mandate into a December 2004 spending bill, reportedly did it because he was frustrated at Americans' ignorance of history. The requirement does not specify how the topic should be taught.

That's where national organizations can help. Experts at the Center for Civic Education have been busy taking their curricular materials, such as the We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution program, and creating a single-day lesson plan for seven different K-12 grade levels. The lessons will be posted online this month as well as disseminated directly to American Association of School Administrators members.

Tam Taylor, director of public relations for the center, says students at all grade levels enjoy learning about their rights and responsibilities, and even those in the early grades can grasp concepts such as justice and authority. "Kids deal with that on the playground everyday," notes Taylor, who sees the value in Constitution Day but has heard of some educators who are frustrated by the mandate.

"While I think it's a wonderful idea, I'm not sure that honoring the Constitution one day of the week is really a focus that we should have," adds Aaron Siegel, president and CEO of Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, a national nonprofit that aims to inspire awareness of and appreciation for America's founding documents and principles. "The Constitution is a document that should be visited by young people in a formalized program on a regular basis." The nonprofit has been providing teacher programs for about 20 years. Most recently, the foundation has focused on a radio and television campaign that features broadcasts of U.S. governors reading from the Constitution; it's being played at schools throughout the country.

Siegel hopes Constitution Day will be just a beginning for teaching about the document and covering civics education more thoroughly in schools. Taylor agrees, adding that administrators should offer some sort of teacher training when introducing any curricular materials. In addition, she notes that mandates "can be seen as opportunities as well as obligations."

Celebrating the Freedom to Read

In Goochland, Va., after the school board banned Stephen King's Salem's Lot, parents and students could pick up free copies of the book in a local bookstore. While it's not always schools doing the planning, Banned Books Week activities can run the gamut, from trivia and poster contests to community forums and distribution of banned books lists for people to ponder.

"Not every book is right for every person, but providing a wide range of reading choices is vital for learning, exploration and imagination," says ALA President Carol Brey-Casiano.

This year's event, being observed from Sept. 24 to Oct. 1, revolves around the theme of celebrating the freedom to read. Here are some of the "Ten Most Challenged Books of 2004":

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, for sexual content, offensive language and religious views

In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak, for nudity and offensive language

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, for racism, offensive language and violence.

Hands-On Science Bus Rolls Around Philly

What was once just a typical 40-foot passenger bus now has some serious business going on inside--as Philadelphia elementary children compare crime scene fingerprints, extract DNA and protein from fruit and create rainbows from different color solutions to learn about density. With the comfort level and look of a classic diner, the bus also has the technology touch, with a 42-inch plasma television, seven wireless computer stations, a digital surround sound system and a DVD player and VCR.

Launched by the local non-profit Educational Advancement Institute and equipped by Audio Video Systems Group, the Fattah Learning Lab is literally a science center on wheels. It first hit the road this spring and has visited 10 Philadelphia schools to date.

The program, named after Congressman Chaka Fattah who pushed for EAA funding, aims to serve mainly underrepresented students--those who normally don't have access to hands-on science or teacher science specialists, explains Project Director Sharlene Roberson. "When we go to schools that have science curriculum set up we work with the science teacher so that we're not duplicating what's being taught," she adds.

Anna Blakiston Day is one such school. Regular classroom teachers help students learn science content that's reinforced by hands-on experiences in the school's science lab, run by Science Specialist Teacher Colette Coyne. After she and Principal Karen Dean visited the Fattah Learning Lab during its initial tour, scheduling a school visit seemed like a must, Dean says. "The lab's science teacher, Ms. Erica James, was able to tap into the students' current level of science knowledge, as well as enhance their acquisition of new concepts." Chemistry, forensics and environmental topics got the attention of these young scientists.

And the bus' weeklong parking spot at the school garnered attention from the surrounding community, prompting some neighbors to stop by the school.

A.B. Day teachers have felt a sense of community at district-wide professional development experiences supporting hands-on science, as well. Coyne encourages a group of teachers from the school to attend these sessions along with her, and they'll often return to share and implement what they've learned, Dean says.

Meanwhile, EAA is learning that the lab is making a real impact on children and educators. "It has definitely hit its mark," says President Karen Nicholas, on the school district and beyond. "Teachers of other [local] facilities are calling to find out how the lab can come to their venue."