Millennium Curriculum Materials: Available, But Off Course?

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A week before school started, Mary Ellen Sorensen and her colleagues at Spofford Pond School in suburban Boston suddenly realized that, with little more than 120 days until the calendar rolled over to 2000, no plans had been made for incorporating the "millennium" theme into their classes. The countdown that has consumed computer programmers, the news media, advertisers, and doomsayers had somehow sneaked up on them, the 6th grade teacher says.

So, after meeting in late August, the teachers decided that several activities--such as creating time lines and time capsules--would help put the outstanding events, discoveries, people, and trends of the past 1,000 years into meaningful context, without giving in too much to the hype of the occasion.

Millennium Resources
"The Century: America's Time":
A 15-hour video series produced by the History Channel.  The accompanying World Wide Web site offers more than a dozen lesson plans and links to dozens of history sites.  For more information:
"Mars Millennium Project":
Imagine creating a village for 100 transplanted earthlings on Mars in the year 2030. This project hopes to inspire students to picture the future. For more information:
A 10-part documentary to run on CNN beginning Oct. 10.   Turner Learning, CNN's education division, is offering free lesson plans to accompany each episode.  For more information:
"How to Survive the Millennium":
A 44-page teachers' guide, produced by Use The News, a project of Newspapers in Education. It will be reproduced by many of the nation's newspapers and offered free to local schools. For more information:
"The Century":
A 12-part documentary produced by  ABC News has an accompanying Web site that offers summaries of key historical events and free lesson plans.  For more information:
"Millennium Trivia Challenge":
From Scholastic Inc. For more information:
"Science for the Millenium":
A site sponsored by the Education and Outreach Group at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.  The site focuses chiefly on astronomy and astrophysics, advanced computation, and virtual environments. For more information:
Cyberia/Expo/welcome .html
Finally, exactly "When Does the Millenium Begin?" The Center for Mathematics and Science Education has the answer. For more information:

"We want to do something [on the new millennium] because it's a teachable moment," Ms. Sorensen said. "But the fact is, there is an enormous amount of curriculum material that takes precedence. ... We owe it to our students to keep this in perspective."

Whether part of an impromptu discussion, the basis for a one-time activity, or a thread throughout the curriculum, the milestone date in the world's most commonly used calendar will inevitably become a favorite topic in lectures and lesson plans this fall.

Judging from what has been going on in recent months, there's little doubt that the Spofford Pond teachers will find plenty of materials to help them weave the millennium theme into the curriculum.

Teachers have been urged to jump on the 2000 bandwagon by commercial publishers, media organizations, nonprofit groups, and even the U.S. Postal Service. Advertisements and order forms for neatly packaged materials for social studies, English, and science classes for all grade levels welcomed many returning teachers at the beginning of the school year.

There are historical-video series with accompanying teachers' guides and Internet resources, workbooks with as many as 2,000 classroom activities, posters, lesson plans, time lines, and traveling exhibits.

Many of them are free or available for minimal cost. Some materials, however, are more costly. The 12-part ABC series, "The Century," runs about $80.

Too Much Glitz?

"We're just going to be deluged by [materials] because it is a theme ripe for selling products," said Richard Theisen, who has taught high school social studies for the past 34 years and is the current president of the National Council for the Social Studies. "The issue is getting past the glitz and seeing if the content is substantive."

The Washington-based organization has formed an ad hoc committee to do just that. It hopes to offer advice to help teachers judge the quality of such products and create meaningful activities for their classrooms.

Of course, there are the obvious approaches: studying the structure of the calendar, scientific and technological advances, and the enormous social and cultural changes that have occurred over the past centuries.

"We need to give kids at least a sense of the time span and how people's lives have changed," said Tarry Lindquist, a teacher at Lakeridge Elementary School on Mercer Island in Washington state and a representative of the social studies council committee.

That's what executives at cable television's History Channel hope to achieve with a 40-foot custom trailer, packed with exhibits highlighting events of the millennium now nearing its end. The Millennium Tour will reach some 50 cities by the end of the year.

Among the other activities:

  • Amtrak has teamed up with the Postal Service to underscore early dependence on the railways to deliver first-class mail. The "Celebrate the Century Express," a traveling exhibit aboard a brightly colored train, has accompanying teachers' guides, posters, and video.
  • ABC News, the History Channel, and CNN have all prepared classroom materials to accompany their sweeping documentaries on the 20th century and the past millennium.
  • An illustrated activity book by Scholastic Inc. suggests throwing a birthday party or gathering a thousand historical facts to help elementary school students "Celebrate the Millennium."

And several popular classroom magazines are expected to tackle the theme this fall.

Staying on Track

But with many teachers' lesson plans tied to state and local standards, and all the pressure to prepare students for state tests, teachers may find little room for such extras.

Ms. Sorensen, for example, said she had been so preoccupied with adapting her school's curriculum to Massachusetts' new content-laden frameworks that the millennial theme never occurred to her until the new school year approached.

Some standards experts advise teachers not to be tempted to veer off track.

"If [an activity] is linked to existing standards, it could be an interesting vehicle into larger understandings into history, mathematics, and developing writing and reading and research skills," said Patte Barth, a senior associate at the Washington-based Education Trust, which advocates high standards, especially for disadvantaged students. "But the point is, we want our teachers focusing on making sure their students meet new high standards. If it doesn't make sense to them to incorporate this into their teaching, ... don't do it."

Many teachers, though, plan to make time for the topic.

Olga Kokino, an English teacher at University High School in Los Angeles, intends to use a number of print and Internet resources to bring the drama of the past millennium to life for her English and journalism classes.

Her students may be asked to research and create a series of lists: the top 10 trials, the top 30 great documents, the top 50 great literary works, and so on. Perhaps, for fun, Ms. Kokino said, her students can list the top 10 dumbest millennium products.

"I'm convinced that incorporating a curriculum theme, such as Millennium Madness, to current events, and building students' background knowledge through comparisons and analogies, with photos, artifacts, and tangible objects, is a sure way to proceed in a manner that is reflective and refreshing," Ms. Kokino said by e-mail.

Beyond History

History is just the half of it, according to Ms. Lindquist, the teacher in Washington state. It is also an opportune time for students to envision the future, she points out.

So along with studying about early Colonial settlements, Ms. Lindquist's 4th and 5th graders will write a constitution for future space colonies. Looking beyond the 2000 horizon and asking students to share both their hopes and fears for the future may help them look ahead with assurance, Ms. Lindquist said.

"My fear is that kids are going to be scared to death," she said, pointing to the apocalyptic fears that has accompanied the Y2K spectacle. "I want them to look forward to a very optimistic kind of future."

Some Christian schools are planning to pick up on that theme as well, since the date marks the beginning of the third millennium since the birth of Jesus Christ.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, for instance, has created a millennium packet for its schools that will help teachers weave the church's social teachings throughout the curriculum.

"The whole idea is to keep away from the doom and gloom and ideas about the end of time," said Sister Jane Morgan, the principal of St. Therese School, a K-8 school in Garfield Heights outside Cleveland.

"We want to focus on the spirit of reconciliation and refocus on the spiritual life of the people."

Teachers in both public and religious schools should view the approach of the new millennium as a tool "to help students develop the habit of reflection and goal-setting," added Faith Schullstrom, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English.

"It's certainly not a topic all of its own," she said.

If nothing else, Ms. Schullstrom said, "millennium" itself--so often seen with only one L or one N--"will probably be a good spelling word for the year."

Vol. 19, Issue 3, Pages 1, 12-13

Published in Print: September 22, 1999, as Millennium Curriculum Materials: Available, But Off Course?
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