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The Next Cola War, To iPod or Not To iPod, and How the Arts Can Pay Off

Teacher Magazine’s take on education news from around the Web, Dec. 2-8.

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To use an appropriate metaphor: The can of soda has been given a hearty shake, and it’s about to be opened. Or so a handful of lawyers, some veterans of ’90s tobacco litigation, would have us believe. They’ve announced a plan to file a lawsuit seeking to ban the sale of unhealthy drinks in schools. Stephen Gardner, an attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, claims that selling such drinks on campus endangers students’ health. But the soda companies, citing a study they commissioned, say vending machine sales do not contribute to the obesity rate among children. Roughly half the country’s public schools have contracts with cola companies, and yet another study, conducted in Oregon, concludes that the money schools earn from the sales is insignificant—less than one-tenth of a percent of the Portland district’s budget, for example. Some contracts, that study adds, reward schools for pushing the unhealthiest of options on students. Gardner and his fellow attorneys have not yet decided whether the consumer-protection lawsuit, to be filed in Massachusetts, will seek financial damages. While admitting that damages in a suit like this could total in the billions, he was perhaps reading the minds of many a skeptic when he added, “We don’t want this to come off looking like a greedy-lawyer lawsuit.”

Another debate continues to rage in schools—over whether iPods and other technological gizmos are classroom-appropriate. Dozens of public and private schools in the Indianapolis region say no, and some, including Carmel High, have banned the use of iPods, cell phones, and other handhelds altogether. But some area educators—who consider technology a learning tool and today’s kids accomplished multitaskers—don’t see the harm. Robert Albano, principal at Hamilton Southeastern High, says, “Utilizing electronic devices [is] appealing to this generation. Our responsibility is to be on the edge, to take risks.”

Which is what they’re doing in parts of Pennsylvania. In the Lower Merion School District, for example, podcasting is being used for professional development. And a pilot program is putting video iPods in the hands of 18 teachers, who will use them to design grammar jingles, physics experiments, and other projects. Geography teacher Anne Van Meter has already set up a blog for her 7th graders so that they can “discuss” news stories. “This is the first time in four years,” she says, “that I’ve had students asking to be allowed to read and summarize current events.” Some educators advise caution, pointing out that technology isn’t cheap. But the savvy know a good learning tool when they see it. James Cho is a 4th grade teacher who allows his students to use handhelds for geology lessons and word problems—if they’ve behaved. “I’m finding new ways of using [handhelds] all the time,” he says.

The source of discord in Baltimore these days is not technology but a middle school curriculum that uses teen magazines to inspire kids to write. After students performed dismally on standardized tests last spring, the district turned to Studio Course, which defines a noun as “stuff,” a verb as “what stuff does.” Magazines used in the curriculum include Teen People, a recent issue of which sports headlines such as “Flirt Better!” and “Hot Boy Next Door.” Studio Course’s creator, Sally Mentor Hay, makes some sense when she says of the approach, “The first thing is to build some fluency in writing, not to shut it down with overemphasis on spelling and grammar.” But Baltimore’s teachers, who had the curriculum thrust upon them last-minute, are discovering that its implementation is somewhat chaotic. One educator in Denver, where Studio Course was introduced in 2002, says the curriculum is constantly being revised, adding, “We continue to be the guinea pigs.” No small complaint when one considers the program has cost Baltimore $2 million thus far.

One possible way to cover that expense is to search school storage rooms for potentially lucrative pieces of art. Consider the case of New Trier High School in Illinois. Back in 1948, the school bought Stuart Davis’ modernist “Still Life With Flowers” for $62.50. The painting had already traveled the world in a yearlong exhibit, and New Trier’s art department chair saw some value in displaying and using it as a teaching tool. It was then stored for a number of years and, finally, lent to the Art Institute of Chicago. When school officials learned that Davis’ work was in demand, they agreed to put it up for auction—at Christie’s in New York City. That’s where an anonymous phone-in bidder bought it for $3.152 million. School board president James Koch, who said that proceeds will help fund future school projects, added, by way of understatement, “I couldn’t be more pleased.”

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