Is NCLB Narrowing the Curriculum?

A recent report by the Center on Education Policy entitled Is NCLB Narrowing the Curriculum? notes that since the passage of the NCLB, 71 percent of the nation’s 15,000 school districts have reduced the hours of instructional time spent on history, music and other subjects to make more time for reading/language arts and/or math. Twenty-seven percent of the districts reported reduced instructional time in social studies. Twenty-two reported cuts in science and twenty percent reported similar cuts in art /music. I guess the thinking is – if a subject is not tested, why teach it? Or perhaps they think that reading, writing and ‘rithmetic can only happen in English or math class.

Of course these shifts in instruction fall most heavily on low performing students. As if being a struggling learner is not punishment enough, increasing numbers are pulled out of classes that offer hands-on learning and outlets for their creativity. What awaits them is likely “drill and kill’ that doesn’t sound like much fun for students or their teachers.  Daily reading, writing and application of math should be common to every class. Let music students explore the mathematical elements of rhythm and then journal what they had learned.

Educational decision makers haven’t got the news that new technologies have spawned an explosion in creativity that could be harnessed to engage and support learners. They could take a lesson from the folks in Hollywood who are using innovative techniques to shore up the declining youth film audience. New Line Cinema is tapping into the creativity of their audience to promote their new film “Take the Lead” starring Antonio Banderas as a professional dancer who volunteers to teach NYC school kids all the moves. 

The Take the Lead  website includes a do-it-yourself music video maker. The viewer gets to select from a variety of images and sound styles and create their own movie trailer. They can enter it to win free stuff – like iPods. More importantly to the filmmakers – viewers can email their digital “mash-up” to friends to show off their emerging skills a music video auteur. Viral marketing at work.

Smothering struggling readers with remedial classes isn’t the answer. Instead educators might want to talk with designers of the “Take the Lead” music video maker. They said, “the goal is to encourage consumers to make a proactive decision to engage with the content… You can’t force-feed younger movie goers with traditional top down advertising…it’s all about giving these kids our trailers, our songs and letting them take control… our assets become their assets and that’s how they become fans of the movie.” Going Unconventional to Market Movies, NY Times 4.6.06

Glad to see that someone knows that engagement beats drill and kill.

For an update on this theme click here.

Exploring Landmark Supreme Court Cases: A Document-Based Questions Approach.

nine members of the Supreme Court of the United States

Peter Pappas will serve as an advisor to the Bill of Rights Institute – the recipient of a 2006 National Endowment for the Humanities “We the People” grant. The Arlington Virginia-based institute received $190,000 to develop Exploring Landmark Supreme Court Cases: A Document-Based Questions Approach a teacher resource book and web-based component to bring the intellectual arguments of landmark Supreme Court cases into the classroom.  This resource book will use a document-based questions approach to help the next generation comprehend these ideas and see how abstract constitutional principles are applied in specific situations and how the U.S. Constitution continues to affect their lives.

He will join a team nationally-recognized scholars and educational consultants taking part in the intellectual development of the project; providing guidance and review of the Institute staff’s work in creating the document-based questions; and writing a 500 page introductory essay about the pedagogical effectiveness of document-based questions. His award winning website, Teaching with Documents has long a been a leading resource for document-based instruction.

This important project is designed to help high school American History and Civics teachers develop in their students a deeper understanding of the documentary history and enduring significance of landmark Supreme Court cases. “We are taking a thematic approach to the cases, such as the role of federal courts and students and the Constitution,” said Claire McCaffery Griffin, the Institute’s vice president of education programs. The lesson plans will cover 19 landmark cases frequently cited in state standards and often referenced in U.S. History and Government textbooks.  The cases will deal with the six constitutional issues: “The Role of the Federal Courts,”  “Equal Protection and Affirmative Action,” “The Rights of the Accused,” “Students and the Constitution,” “Expansion of Expression,” and “Personal Liberty.”

Engage Your Audience with a Response System

Turning Point ARS
Turning Point ARS

I’ve always found it ironic that I give large-group presentations promoting techniques to create a more student-centered classroom. Few teachers are inspired by a lecture on “Rigor and Relevance in the Classroom,” so I’m always using new approaches to engage my audience. Recently I’ve tried audience / student response systems (ARS / STS) in my professional development workshops. Judging from teacher feedback – its working.

So far, my favorite ARS is TurningPoint from Turning Technologies. It integrates into Microsoft PowerPoint and is quick to learn. It allows me to pose questions in my presentation, rapidly gather audience response via small RF keypads, and graph their responses into my PowerPoint presentation. I appreciate the quick set up – I open my laptop, plug in the RF receiver, pass out the keypads and go. After a few ice-breaker questions, audiences are comfortable using the responders.

For a sample of the system in action, here’s a 55 minute RealPlayer video of a conference presentation I did for the Oregon Dept of Eductation called “9th Grade Academy – A Small Learning Community that Works.” All members of the audience had responders and you can see how quickly we gathered data. If you need RealPlayer click here.

The right mix of presentation material and reflection can ramp up true-false, multiple choice and likert scales questions into a higher-order experience. In a recent “Content Reading Strategies” workshop, I teachers used the ARS to evaluate the strategies I was promoting – is it engaging for the student, does it support content mastery, will it be easy to use?

The quality of the discussion was dramatically improved. Teacher had a sense of how their peers felt and openly voiced their opinion on “why” they voted that way. The ARS helped us uncover a solid level of support that empowered their instructional leadership team to move forward.

Teacher evaluations of the ARS workshops consistently point to greater engagement, a better understanding in the material and livelier discussion. That works for me. Stop back for more of my feedback on the system. If teacher are this engaged, what it would do for students in the classroom?

Literacy Strategies for the Multi-Ability Classroom: Part III

This week I’m beginning a new series of workshops for teachers from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services – a dedicated group of teachers with a strong commitment to helping their students build motivation, positive self image and academic skills. The goal is to share strategies for working with struggling readers in multi-ability classrooms in juvenile detention facilities around the state. This is the first of a three-part series designed to address the wide variety of student reading levels in their classrooms. They will return to two follow up workshop in March and April with samples of student work to assist us all in discussing what worked and what was less successful. As an incentive for their students, we will “publish” samples of student work in a showcase booklet. We strongly believe that we can motivate struggling readers through the use of student publication projects.

In preparation for the series I have done classroom observation and teacher training at one of the facilities.  Learning specialist, Suzanne Meyer, has observed classes at two others and worked with teachers and students there to complete a sample “student showcase” project. We have worked with Patricia Martin, an ELA / Reading specialist to select 18 learning strategies designed to simultaneously work with three common types of struggling readers you have in their classrooms
“Non-readers”  who lack decoding skills (430KB pdf)
“Word-callers” who can decode, but lack comprehension skills (358KB pdf)
“Turned-off readers” who have the decoding and comprehension skills, but lack motivation or engagement (389KB pdf)

For an earlier draft with more strategies see: Literacy Strategies for the Multi-Ability Classroom: Part II also find tri-fold guides at: Literacy Strategies for the Multi-Ability Classroom, Part I

For more information on my training workshops for students of all ability levels visit my site: Content Reading Strategies that Work

In Search Of the Rigorous Classroom

desks full

It seems that politicians have suddenly discovered that we’re suffering from a high school rigor deficiency. Driven by the economic competitiveness of the “flat world,” numerous states are considering mandates for more rigorous core curricula and increased graduation requirements. New federal legislation puts the US Secretary of Education in the business of setting standards for recognizing “rigorous secondary school program of study.”

Let’s be sure that high school reform isn’t just “more of the same” formulaic and predictable seat time that can already make high school the least engaging part of a student’s day. Graduating with more credits won’t do much for a student’s employment prospects unless high school reform redefines who’s doing the thinking in the classroom.

A competitive workforce is made up of people who can think independently in complex and ambiguous situations where the solutions are not immediately obvious.  Meaningful high school reform must include freeing teachers from mindless test prep. Educators need resources and training to craft a rigorous learning environment where students can function as 21st century professionals – critical thinkers who can effectively collaborate to gather, evaluate, analyze and share information.

image credit: flickr/dcJohn

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