What teachers need to know about teaching


Curriculum: A foundation has developed 18 college course outlines directed primarily at schools that train teachers, but anyone can use them.

August 14, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

FOR YEARS, E.D. Hirsch Jr. has been promoting the idea that there are certain things American kids ought to know. Specific things, concrete things, like how photosynthesis works and what happened when Mount Vesuvius erupted. Hirsch argues that children aren't likely to learn if their teachers' goals are vague, their knowledge of the subjects they are teaching limited.

The semiretired University of Virginia English professor moved from his best-selling Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, a book for adults, to elementary and then middle school curricula. He established the nonprofit Core Knowledge Foundation in Charlottesville, Va., and over the next 11 years spread the Core Knowledge Curriculum to 700 schools in 47 states. (In recent years, much of this curriculum has been written by the Baltimore Curriculum Project.)

The Hirsch-inspired curriculum is as rich as a pint of Haagen-Dazs but extraordinarily challenging to teach. In the third grade, for example, the teacher has to discuss the eruption of Vesuvius, the emperors of Rome, the Inuits (pre-politically correct, we called them Eskimos) and the Anasazi cliff dwellers of what is now the southwestern United States. And that's just a small sample from world and American history for 8-year-olds.

What to do? "One thing led to another," Hirsch said yesterday. "We wanted kids to have a good curriculum, but we couldn't have that without good curricular materials. And we couldn't have those without teachers who know enough to teach them."

The result: The Core Knowledge Foundation has come out with 18 college course outlines collectively titled What Elementary Teachers Need to Know. Running as long as 70 pages each and written by experts in their fields, the outlines, called syllabi, can be used by anyone, but they're directed primarily at schools that train teachers. Recent surveys show that only 35 percent of teacher college graduates consider themselves "very well prepared" for the rigors of teaching.

"The elementary teachers have more demanding jobs in some respects than high school or college teachers," Hirsch said. "They usually have five subjects to teach, and the evidence is strong that the more they know about those subjects, the better they'll teach them."

Sixteen of the 18 courses (each designed for a three-credit semester) are in the traditional humanities, science and social studies. One covers children's literature and one the teaching of reading. Though Core Knowledge has copyrighted the outlines, they can be downloaded for free and used by anyone. (Core Knowledge asks only that it be informed by people and schools employing the outlines. The Web address is www.core knowledge.org.)

Don't look for the reading curriculum to spread soon to traditional teacher education programs. The primary text, Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers, is written by Louisa C. Moats, a reading authority generally disdained by the establishment for her insistence that the teaching of reading is rocket science.

But nothing prevents students in teacher education -- or professors, for that matter -- from comparing their course outlines with those of Core Knowledge. Which has the most substance? Which is richer? Compare and contrast.

UMBC gets chance to shine on national broadcast

There's no way to judge how much a glowing appearance on NBC's Today show is worth to a relatively unknown state university, but the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and its president, Freeman A. Hrabowski III, hit the jackpot Monday morning. They paid not a nickel for it. Moreover, a national reporter for once drew a clear distinction between UMBC and its better-known and bigger competitor in College Park.

In a five-minute segment taped earlier and aired at 8:45 a.m., NBC national correspondent Jamie Gangel followed Hrabowski around campus as he mingled with students in the Meyerhoff Scholars program. Hrabowski, she said, has turned UMBC into an "academic powerhouse" where it's "cool to be smart" and chess is the dominant intercollegiate sport.

At the end of the segment, Hrabowski, who turned 52 yesterday, and some of the Meyerhoff students intoned from memory Langston Hughes' famous poem Hold Fast to Dreams.

Hrabowski was out of town, but his secretary said the Today report elicited 15 calls and 45 e-mails in the first few hours after its twice-postponed airing.

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