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Federal Government Takes Cues From Popular Culture

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Teachers have long vied for students attention with the forces of popular culture. Comic books are an old-fashioned diversion, and television is in a league all its own.

But rather than fight Spiderman and "90210," the federal government is learning from them. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York is helping students and teachers struggling with the complex subject of American economic policy with a new comic book. The Department of Education and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, meanwhile, are producing a TVseries to teach English.

"Economics isn't a class students are running to sign up for," said Edward I. Steinberg, the author of the reserve bank's comic book. "We poke fun at economics, and I think that helps win students over."

"The Story of Monetary Policy" is the 11th in a line of comics that began in the 1950s.

This installment addresses topics ranging from interest rates to unemployment to government bonds. One panel pokes fun at inflation by featuring a young salesclerk who asks his boss if he should raise the price of basketballs. "Sure, the balls are inflatable," reads the bubble over the boss's head.

Another panel shows a student reading a book titled Interesting Concepts in Economics. A note on the book's cover explains it is the "new expanded 2-page edition."

"The humor is kind of corny," said Richard Daoust, an economics teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore, N.Y., who has been using the booklets in his classes for the past 10 years. Mr. Daoust said the jokes "get moans and groans" from high school students, but are still useful teaching tools.

"It's like a commercial you can't stand, but you remember," he said. "It's like taking a textbook and taking out the nonessentials and cutting right to the chase."

The comic books even get used at New York University, where Mr. Steinberg, ever the joker, teaches graduate courses. "I used to teach microeconomics, but then I put on some weight, so now I'm teaching macro," he said.

PBS Sitcom

The reserve bank isn't alone in adapting pop-culture to education. The Education Department-INS effort, "Crossroads Cafe," is premiering on the Public Broadcasting Service as the first television series intended to provide at-home English instruction to adults who aren't served by standard education.

The 26-episode sitcom features six characters of different ethnic backgrounds designed to appeal to 14 million immigrants and other adults who lack basic English skills.

The program isn't being promoted by network kingpins, but instead by Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

"'Crossroads Cafe' is a marvelous example of how the technological revolution can enhance learning opportunities," Mr. Riley said. "Distance learning frees students to learn at any time, at any place, and at their own pace."

The program "can also help 24 million other Americans who need a boost in the reading skills," Mr. Riley said.

Aside from language classes, the program also provides lessons on other "real-life challenges," he said. One episode, for instance, shows a character interviewing for U.S. citizenship.

"Crossroads Cafe" is co-sponsored by education agencies in California, New York, Florida, and Illinois, all states with large populations of people who can't speak English. The program will air weekly this fall on PBS's 350 local affiliates nationwide.

The U.S. Information Agency also plans to televise the series in Central and Latin America.

As for "The Story of Monetary Policy," up to 35 copies of the comic book are free from the Federal Reserve Bank's Public Information Department, 33 Liberty St., New York, N.Y. 10045; (212) 720-6134. Additional copies are 25 cents each.

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