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Breathe New Life Into Old Subjects

Your students aren’t 30 years old. Why should your school’s teaching techniques be? Here are five districts that know how to connect with today’s kids.

By Pamela Wheaton Shorr | null , null

Subject: History
Strategy: Integrate student-friendly tech into the latest lessons

How can you teach social studies to the PlayStation generation? “Sometimes it’s very, very frustrating,” says Jeanne Biddle, director of technology for Scott County Schools in Georgetown, Kentucky. “[Schools are] not looking at what our clients—students—want from us. Kids are saying very clearly that they don’t mind covering the core content.
They just want it to be relevant.”

Biddle says Scott County schools have taken that to heart with an ongoing history curriculum that includes global positioning system (GPS) technology and digital media activities that help kids better understand the community in which they live: “It’s scaffolded to grade ability, and it meets Kentucky standards on teaching local history.” The community-history lessons start early, when grade school students are given digital cameras with which to take photos of some of the area’s historic sites. Next, middle school students take GPS units and mark the waypoints of each building that the local historical society has identified as endangered.

Upper-school kids use ArcView GIS, a desktop geographic information system (GIS) mapping tool used by professional zoning and planning boards. Students produce a map of the community, including the endangered buildings. Then, high school students work with the Kentucky Historical Society and 4-H to gather oral histories and to get some context on many of the buildings that have been mapped. Biddle says that students this year met an elderly woman in the area who had been on an all girl’s basketball team decades earlier—a team that none of the kids had heard of. “They were really excited,” Biddle notes.

Not one to rest on her laurels, Biddle is preparing a program this fall that will help teachers incorporate video clips from Unitedstreaming, which will make the projects even richer. She thinks the video will be a draw for students. Another advantage, according to Biddle, is that the clips will keep things fresh for teachers who might otherwise reach a plateau in their use of media in the classroom. In the meantime, Biddle says, she firmly believes students
are seeing history with fresh eyes—literally. “The GPS/GIS project is
like a potato,” she says. “The eyes keep sprouting up in places that we hadn’t expected.”

Subject: Media literacy
Strategy: Teach students to be more Net-savvy

“Nothing makes me happier than a kid who tells me I’m biased,” says Chris Sperry, media literacy expert with Project Look Sharp and director of curriculum and staff development at the Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca, New York, as well as a classroom teacher for the past 26 years. “But I expect them to back it up with evidence.”

Now that digital media are taking schools across the country by storm, media literacy is more important than ever. The issues, Sperry says, are the same as they have been forever, but the Internet brings new challenges—such as getting kids to understand the issue of authorship. “I probably did research the same way my grandfather did, by going to the library and looking at an encyclopedia,” Sperry notes. “Today, the first resource for most kids is the Internet.”

Sperry says more kids than ever are getting media literacy training. A 2005 survey of incoming college freshmen by the Center for Research on the Effects of Television suggests that nearly half of those freshmen had some sort of formal training in judging web sites before graduating from high school, up from just 10 percent in 2001. The bad news is that most respondents also said that if a site ends in .edu or .org it’s credible, but that .net or .com sites are not to be taken at face value. “My guess is, that would make most school librarians cringe,” Sperry says.
So why aren’t we doing a better job of making our media-mad kids savvy? Sperry thinks a big part of it is that so many teachers are feeling overwhelmed. With everything else on their plates, they don’t believe they have time to prepare new media literacy lessons. And what’s more, many teachers think that librarians and media specialists have already covered the topic.

Sperry argues that media literacy should be taught across the curriculum, across the grades. He says it is all about teaching kids to think critically, to make reasoned, reflective decisions—something required by most state standards. Although it might be hard to include a media literacy discussion in algebra, talking about media bias and the use of statistics is entirely appropriate. For those teachers who still feel too time-pressed to add media literacy into their lesson plans, Project Look Sharp offers a number of standards-based media literacy kits that help teachers get started.

Sperry says the best way to implement a media literacy program across the board is to gather key players such as technology trainers, librarians, and curriculum chairs, and talk about why media literacy matters. “Research shows us kids are using media sources six and a half hours a day,” Sperry says. “Anything that takes up that much space in a child’s brain deserves serious attention.”

Subject: Math
Strategy: Make it a game, check the score constantly, and keep faculty on the same team

Ask a middle school kid to name his or her favorite class, and the usual suspect is lunch or recess. Not in Canton City School District in Ohio. Kids there consider math their favorite, and they’ve got the test scores to prove it. “This is the first year that Ohio has used achievement tests to determine AYP [adequate yearly progress],” says Pamela Bernabei-Rorrer, district math coach. “We just got back our preliminary achievement tests in seventh- and eighth-grade math, and we’ve had amazing growth in all four middle schools—it has doubled in some schools.”

Bernabei-Rorrer credits a three-pronged approach for the renewed excitement in mathematics. First, the school now uses data to drive instruction, with all students in the district assessed quarterly. Second, instruction has been refocused on kids’ needs, rather than on completing sections of the textbook at a given time. The focus on assessment and individual learning has been accomplished because every math class from middle through high school now uses Texas Instrument’s TI-84 Plus Silver Edition calculators and the Navigator system. “Students love the handhelds,” she notes. “It’s that Game Boy mentality.” Teachers are partial to the instantaneous feedback that the system offers.

But Bernabei-Rorrer says she is most fond of the Activity Center, because it gives kids with different learning styles a way to visualize complex ideas. “We took a huge risk for an urban district and added eighth-grade algebra [system-wide] this year,” she notes. “And the Activity Center activities really help bridge students’ understanding of the concepts. They can see things like slope for themselves.” As popular as the TI system has been with students, Bernabei-Rorrer believes that the third prong of the revised math program is key to Canton’s math wizardry. She says the district has spent three years building a collaborative culture that encourages teachers to share best practices and act as a curriculum team. Gone are the days of individual instruction practices. For instance, the district primarily uses an 11-year-old math textbook for instruction, with which no one had been doing probability particularly well.

Then one school started to see a turnaround. Teachers explained that they had discovered a supplemental college textbook that did an improbably good job explaining probability to young kids. “I went out and bought it for everyone,” says Bernabei-Rorrer happily. “Everybody wants to share. And our teachers understand that what they’re doing is great and that they should be applauded.”

Subject: Science
Strategy: Get your students and teachers out of class

It’s 10 a.m.—do you know where your teacher is? Suzanne Banas, lead teacher at the Richmond Heights Middle School Science Zoo Magnet School in Miami-Dade County, Florida, is hard to pin down in the classroom. The Zoo Magnet School is all about hands-on learning, and Banas is as likely to be in one of the outdoor classrooms at the Miami Metro Zoo as she is to be seated at her desk.

Students at Zoo Magnet take their math, social studies, and language arts classes at a traditional middle school and attend additional classes in science over at the zoo. The budding researchers learn about scientific theory and practice and have hands-on experiences working with animals and learning about habitats. Banas also sends digital cameras to scientists and conducts videoconferences with students to give kids exposure to working scientists.

This year, Banas took the class even farther afield with an experiment on off-site teaching. As part of an Earthwatch study of the impact that humans have on mangrove forests, Banas traveled to a remote area in Jalisco, Mexico, on the Pacific coast. Packing in a satellite phone and her laptop, she uploaded pictures and created an online diary of the study experience for the kids back home. Students looked through the materials and then “attended” a satellite class via conference call from the jungle. “The kids really liked it,” Banas explains, and so did she. With 22 years of teaching under her belt, Banas says she hates the same-old, same-old that constitutes most professional development programs. “I want to do things in my field. I want to do really cool things,” she says.

With a little effort, she found that going off on a more creative type of professional development was not only good for her as a teacher, it was also fantastic for her students. “They saw me using the same protocols that they learn in class,” she says.

Banas thinks that allowing seasoned teachers to go off on their own learning expeditions and teach from afar has tremendous potential to break through traditional classroom walls. She also recently traveled on World Caribbean Cruise Lines’ $4 million oceanographic floating lab, where she brought along her satellite equipment again this time. The only caveat she has to teaching from afar? Avoid the really remote villages when lugging in your own equipment. First, there are issues with satellite reception. More important, she says, laughing, “It’s heavy!”

Subject: Cross-curriculum
Strategy: Serve the community while kids learn
Eight years ago, Barry Guillot, a seventh-grade science teacher at Hurst Middle School in Besterham, Louisiana, had never heard of service learning. Then he was asked to go on a canoe trip sponsored by the University of New Orleans and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation to take part in a water study. Guillot had been stuck in a room that summer coming up with standards for the district. “When I got out there, everything looked like a standard to me,” he says, laughing. “I thought, we can meet all our academic requirements without using the textbook as a bible!”

Thus began an eight-year odyssey to get all the kids in St. Charles Parish involved in learning by serving the community. It eventually led to the creation of the LaBranche Wetland Watchers, which Guillot now heads. “This is not the same as community service,” he says. “Everything the kids are doing has to be part of the curriculum.” Guillot’s students follow a rigorous, standards-based program based on the unique wetlands area in which they live. It started out with a fairly basic wetlands water study, kind of an elaborate field trip. Soon students were planting trees donated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resource Conservation Service, taking part in cleanup programs and predicting where they would find the most trash. They also studied hurricane trends and learned about the French explorers who settled in the area.

Partnerships thrived—there are now 35—such as the one that sprouted up with the Coastal Roots Program at Louisiana State University, which helped the school set up a propagation system allowing students to grow their own trees from seed for later planting in the wetlands. Just recently, 28 acres in the region were donated to St. Charles Parish for a Wetland Watchers Park.

Students have begun researching and designing historical markers, plant and tree plaques and are making walking guides of the 28-acre tract for the community. After last year’s devastating hurricanes hit Louisiana, says Guillot, teams of tree cutters with chain saws were deployed from area chemical companies to clear streets. The teams and more than 235 community volunteers showed up at the new park after a plea from Guillot to help the kids get back on track with their new project.

Today, eight other schools in the district take part in the LaBranche Wetland Watchers program, and student facilitators will speak to more than 30,000 visitors this year. Guillot says the program already meets science, language arts, and social studies requirements. This year, an eighth-grade curriculum and more archaeology and math will be added. Standards aside, the best part about the program for its founder is the enthusiasm of the kids. “Everybody gets to be a leader in service learning,” explains Guillot. “You don’t have to be the fastest, strongest, or smartest. All kids get to be successful.”



Illustration by Bill Gradland

About the Author

Pamela Wheaton Shorr is editor of The Heller Reports' Educational Sales and Marketing Insider, and is a frequent contributor to Scholastic Administr@tor.

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