Education Chat

Making Curriculum Meaningful

Members of the Teacher Leaders Network discussed with our readers ideas for adding depth and creativity to lessons while still covering tested material.

April 12, 2007

Making Curriculum Meaningful

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, a digital learning consultant and instructor at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Va. and author of the 21st Century Collaborative Education Blog;
Marsha Ratzel, a 6th grade math and science teacher at Leawood Middle School in Leawood, Kan.; and
Mark Clemente, the science chairman at Ocean Lakes High School, Virginia Beach, Va.

Anthony Rebora, (Moderator):
Welcome to our live Web chat on curriculum best practices. We have three accomplished educators on hand--all members to the Teachers Leaders Network--to discuss ways to make lessons more meaningful at a time when many schools are increasingly focused on test scores. We’ve already received a lot of challenging questions for our guests so let’s get started.

Question from Chris Long, 8th Grade History Teacher, Oakland Unified Schools:
I often hear the issue of what to teach being framed as a choice between “teaching to the test” and “deep, meaningful learning”. Why can’t we have both? What I try to do is simply break the standards into learning objectives (especially higher-order thinking ones) then bring students to master them. If I’ve done a good job ensuring the students master those objectives, which were intensely keyed to the standards, then they should do fine on the state test. Meanwhile, they’ve completed projects, written essays, created plays, debated, engaged in critical thinking, and produced PowerPoints, along with a host of other activities that facilitate “deep, meaningful learning”. So my question is, doesn’t this “objectives mastery” approach do both things – ensure success on the test and provide deep, meaningful learning?

Mark Clemente:
Yes, it does. What I am advocating is that teachers take a close look at the objectives and pick the appropriate method to teach that objective to students. It sounds like you have a very rich, engaging classroom environment. I hope that you will share with other teachers how you go about creating this environment.

Question from Marsha Pincus, Teacher. School. District of Phildelphia:
What are the ways in which we as educators can promote critical literacy in our students; i.e., help them develop the ability to analyze and evaluate the efficacy and bias of materials they encounter on the Internet?

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach:
Developing critical literacy skills are important in this era of citizen journalism. Being able to determine the bias and validity of what you are internalizing is a skill set that should carry over to all forms of media, not just text. One way I would suggest doing this with students is by having them read/view through a particular lens. For example, they could interpret what they are viewing through the lens of those who have been marginalized and devalued by their obvious absence in the conversation;luddites or the poor.

In addition, being able to evaluate not only the message but the validity and agenda of a particular site should also be part of the 21st Century skill set we teach in our classrooms. There have been many spoofed and faked sites but they all rely on a very common strategy; we tend to believe things that reinforce our existing prejudices and will gloss over jarring elements that should raise warning signs.

Walking students through activities that illuminate some of these biases can be quite meaningful to both the student and the teacher. One site I use is

There are also good WebQuests you can find through Google that have the tasks and processes worked out for you. Here is one: I love watching my students as they explore and read the content on some of these sites.

Alan November does an interesting activity where he takes teachers to a site about Martin Luther King that looks legitimate and innocent. However, on closer inspection it is obvious to someone who knows King that this information is maliciously false. Having the student look at who has published this site and taking them through strategies that show how we find out- are valuable in developing critical literacy skills. If students are ever unsure about the information on a web page and want to know who owns the site or has published the material, have them go to You can find out more about that approach on November’s site

Question from Laura Lag, Adjunct Professor, DePaul University:
I teach a graduate class on curriculum design. How do I inspire my students to “think outside the box” - Most of them are planning on earning a degree in Curriculum Design or Supervision. Their concern is centered on meeting standards and yet they are frustrated with the constraints of curriculum demands. How do you encourage them to not develop their entire curriculum around the standards? Thank you.

Mark Clemente:
I don’t think that it is necessarilty wrong to develop a curriculum based around standards. I think what must be considered is the how one goes about doing this. If it is a series of teacher-centered activities, then I don’t think that makes the basis of good curriculum. The challenge to give to your students is for them to study the standards and then find/develop meaningful student-centered activities that allow the students to master the standards. Hands-on activities should not be considered an add-on, they should be an integral part of how students learn. I would also encourage them to take it one unit at a time.

Question from Susan Silber, co-chair Golden State Environmental Education Consortium:
Global climate change is one of the great challenges of the 21st Century, and thus an extremely relevant topic to students. How do you propose teaching students in a about this very important topic (and making it a hands-on and meaningful experience), giving the limlted ability of teachers to teach environmental issues because of the emphasis on reading and math under the No Child Left Behind Act?

Mark Clemente:
As a consortium, I am guessing that you have access to a great many businesses and organizations that have resources they wish to share with teachers/schools. My suggestion would be to team with interested school districts. Ask them to provide a leave of absence for one or two master teachers who could work with you to develop meaningful classroom activities that would also cover the required objectives. One of the obstacles to incorporating this type of real world issue into the curriculum is that it can be a time intensive process requiring thought and effort. Although most teachers are willing to put forth the thought and the effort, there is a limited amount of time. Having a teacher on loan would alleviate the problem. This type of model already exists. NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA has a full time “Educator in Residence,” a teacher from a local school system who receives a sabbatical from their district and serves in the position for two years. I am working with the current educator in residence to develop a two day summer professional development activity for teachers. We sat down and reviewed the resources available at NASA and picked those that had direct ties to Virginia Beach curriculum. I specifically was looking at chemistry objectives. Chemistry is a subject in Virginia that has a required state end-of-course standardized test. We will spend one day at NASA looking at the resources and one day with the teachers taking these resources and developing lesson plans that teach content using the NASA “real life” applications.

Question from A parent:
To Ms. Ratzel - How do you achieve the elimination of careless math errors by sixth grade students to allow you to delve deeper into curriculum?

Marsha Ratzel:
Reasoning and proof is huge…and I’m not sure your students ever become as proficient as you’d like them to be. But these are learned skills and, in my experience, you have to build your math program integrating these from the first day of class in August. Children don’t come knowing how to do this automatically. They need strategies, time to practice those strategies, talk about them and then master them. Only then will you begin to give them tools to help reduce errors.

I have also just started teaching my 6th graders how to look at each problem they missed. We use a matrix that “lumps” the reason why they missed the problem…each student does it for themselves and it is private. Teachers usually call this process “item analysis. Anyway it can be a student friendly process, too. And what the effect is to put the student in charge of their own learning…they know what mistakes they’ve made and why they made them.

Question from Sharon Elin, NBCT, Technology Integrator:
In light of a recent study presenting evidence that technology in the classroom has not provided true academic gains, will you please outline your opinions about using WebQuests and other problem-based computer activities to expand students’ critical thinking skills? Can these approaches effectivly combine curriculum content with intellectual development?

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach:
I think the recent study was about software use wasn’t it? The student engaging with the prewritten software is not the same as using the Web to communicate, collaborate and create. Inquiry driven approaches such as WebQuests and other problem/project-based strategies that utilize the knowledge management tools so readily available on the Web are fabulous for developing higher order and critical thinking skills.

Just think about it- by using the Web with just a couple clicks we can bring some of the best minds in the world in to collaborate with our students, we can access original databases, we can collaborate with students from around the globe, and we can access primary documents and resources. Curriculum can be organized so that it addresses content standards and yet appeals to student-centered passion. And I think we all agree a passionate student is a learning student.

Question from Nancy Davis, Ph.D. Curriculum Coordinator and adjunct professor:
How do we align the early childhood education curriculum--play based-- with public school academic expectations? I believe in developmentally appropriate practice, but play does not always produce academic achievement.

Marsha Ratzel:
First of all I need to state that I know very little about early childhood education. So my answer is generalized from what I know about children in general. I think you’re right on when you said that it is difficult to document the academic achievement that is gained from play. But I don’t think we’re wrong to assume that developing math skills requires a playful attitude…seeing it as a discipline that can be discovered, puzzled about, investigated and enjoyed.

I just heard an NPR show about Einstein which talked about how the biographer wasn’t sure he was smarter that his physics peers. But what he possessed was a creative spirit to the discipline…a willingness to think differently and use ideas in a prescriptive way. Isn’t that what play can do for the student? I know when my students are playful with ideas they feel free to express their intuitive understandings about the ideas…and from that place we can explore and find out if they are correct or not. Most of the time conceptual knowledge built from this attitude stays with the student, builds their confidence and leads to out of the box kind of mathematical thinking. I’m not sure that you’d find any of that on a standardized test, but it definitely builds confidence and spurs their interest in something.

Question from David Streetz, Teacher, LBUSD:
Simply put, the focus and administrative fear of NCLB at our school have eliminated any type of teacher creativity. The English program and math are totally scripted, down to the day. Science has become a wonder work of vocabulary drills. The students have resigned themselves to becoming great “bubblers”. They do not enjoy the drill and kill course work. The current model is not why I became a teacher. What is the possibility of the Course Final becoming the true hallmark of what any student has mastered in any class, not a standardized snap shot test written by someone not involved with instructional design and implementation?

Mark Clemente:
I don’t see this happening until teachers decide to band together and use their collective voices to address this issue in an objective, dispassionate manner. It really must be more of a “grass roots” effort. I think the public views teacher organizations as something independent of teachers and classrooms, entities unto themselves. If we as teachers would get together and say that this type of classroom is not in the best interest of children and their success and we presented reasonable, well thought out alternatives, we could start to get public opinion behind us. To many teachers simply want to “shut the door and teach.” As long as this attitude prevails, we will be at the mercy of people who do not understand instructional design and implementation.

Question from Marvin Kreutzberger, retired principal, Herricks Public Schools, Long Island, NY:
I have served as a mathematics consultant to several districts, returning to my roots as a mathematics educator. My greatest concern, as a result of the virtually universal focus on raising test scores is that schools have been, more than ever, teaching for rental of ideas rather than for ownerships of important concepts and skills. Teaching and learning is often superficial. How might you propose changing the question from, “How much are test scores going up?” to “How well are students learning?”

Marsha Ratzel:
Pendulum swings in philosophy are not new....I would guess you see that we’ve moved from one kind of belief to another. I would think the most beneficial place to be on these questions would be a place that balances both interests. I know that sounds like I"m hedging...but there is a practicality to what goes on in the classroom.

The more we can educate parents, patrons and politicians on this issue the better. I would hope we would teach them to ask for measuring student progress by more than one measure...tests are only one way to see what’s happening in a child’s education. Tests are but one way to measure what’s being learning...and who knows if it is even the best measure for that kind of learning???

Question from Kelly; Teacher, Schalmont School District:
1. Can you give direction as to how to write professional development goals that are tied to curriculum and measurable?

2. What is the best approach, or the major areas of consideration, when developing (separate and distinct) curriculum maps for various subjects ( i.e. English, Math, Social Studies and Science)

Mark Clemente:
1. I don’t know that I can give specific directions, but when I sit to write my own annual professional development goals, I first try to think about a particular topic that I know is a struggle for my students. I then focus on what I need to know to be able to address the shortcoming. DO I need training in a specific area (Kagan, differentiated instruction, etc). One year, one of my goals was to take a certain amount of hours of professional development in differentiation. The following year, my goal was to incorporate differentiation into one unit. I would encourage you to think at the lesson unit level.

2. I am not familiar with the particulars of curriculum mapping so I am hesitatnt to offer advice in this area.

Question from CJ Flay, Computer Teacher, East Iredell Middle School & ASU Grad Student:
Marsha when you are facillitating learning with your 6th graders how do you motivate the student unwilling to participate in his or her group?

Marsha Ratzel:
For me there are many reasons why students don’t want to participate and I try to ferret out what lies at the lack of their participation. I sort of run through a mental checklist that might include things they know what to do? they know how to do this task....are they clear on the instructions? they feel intimidated by other they need me to be within close proximity to give encouragement and reassurance that they are on target with their contributions???? Then there’s the whole environmental considerations...has something changed in the classroom to make the 6th grader feel that way?...are they going through something at home?....

The answers to these kinds of questions are what guides my actions. I’ve heard it said that teaching is a complex process and this is a situation that highlights the complexity of that task.

Question from Paul C:
My company is working on a K-5 web-delivered, supplemental math curriculum. What do you see are the greatest barriers of adoption to this method of delivery (other than not enough computers in the classroom)?

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach:
Hi Paul,

Having supplemental web-delivered curriculum available is going to become increasingly more important. However, it can be difficult to develop curriculum and deliver it online in a linear fashion without it becoming more than just a textbook online. Often, and I am not saying this is the case with your company, I have seen online material be text driven and operate very much like delivery of curriculum in a face-to-face setting. The trick is incorporating activities that truly maximize the potential of what the Web has to offer. Blended learning should look and feel different than what a student normally experiences in the typical classroom.

I think probably the greatest barrier of adoption, which is your real question, is going to be buy-in from the teachers. First most, it can’t be one more thing added to what they are already doing, so the term supplemental is disturbing. Teachers need to understand the beauty of having students operate as the producers of information and not just consumers. Having them work together with others online to solve authentic problems, to create problems for each other to solve and then reflect on how solutions were achieved would result in the kids doing more world than the teacher to learn. (as it should be)

Once teachers see that the payoff is kids are learning, engaged, excited, and she/he is not having to try and fit this in on top of everything else I think you will see the buy-in needed.

As to the “not enough computers in the classroom” third generation cell phones are going to help solve that problem. Many kids bring mobile technologies (that can do most of what we need in a mobile computing device) with them to school. We just make them cut them off and check them at the door. Once schools start to see the real potential in what the students bring with them having enough computers will not be such a problem.

Question from Addie Ward-Special Education Consultant at Richmond County Schools in Augusta, GA.:
How do we address the curriculum needs of students with disabilities in the inclusion setting?

Marsha Ratzel:
Great question and one that is always in the forefront of a teacher’s mind. Common to all disciplines is matching what I feel is essential for them to learn with each student’s individual capabilities/abilities.

Then I think it depends on the kind of subject you are teaching. For my science students, my interventions might be modifying a reading assignment, altering the instructions for a lab, or making alternative kinds of media available for them to use. In math, I might use a manipulative in place of a paper/pencil task. Again, I think it just depends on the circumstances.

Most of all you just have to be sensitive to the fact that you are modeling respect for each person as an matter their place. You have to convince students that you will challenge them to be their personal best and that you will help them every step of the way.

I also try to build each of my classrooms as a quasi-family. The whole notion that we succeed or fail as a team. We look for ways to take advantages of someone’s strengths and help each other when it’s hard. I have found students with disabilities bring great talents to share and we must be careful to maximize those opporutnities.

Question from Nauaf AL-Sarrani , e-curriculum:
To what extent can we use e-curriculum in elementry schools?

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach:
I think we can use e-curriculum to a great extent in elementary schools. Free VoIP tools like Skype offer incredible opportunities for students to collaborate together and develop a global awareness like never before.

It use to be that when an elementary teacher wanted to use Web-based content she/he had to create it. It was very time consuming. However, now a simple search in Google- by typing elementary Webquest and the topic (like weather)- results in 1000s of premade quests. There is so much content out there already made that is free and aligns with state and national standards that it just isn’t a struggle anymore for teachers to utilize and access e-curriculum that will prepare students for high achievement on normed assessments without sacrificing creativity and excitement.

Elementary student are great collaborators and they have a natural sense of wonderment. They actually respond to the kind of inquiry e-curriculum provides quite well.

Question from Yvonne Mendolia, Math teacher/dept chairperson, Miami Lakes Educational Center:
As a teacher leader in my school I am always trying to balance the District’s and State’s mandates along with rigor and relevance. The issue comes down to time. With a curriculum that is a mile wide and an inch deep, rigor and relevance oftens suffers. It takes more time to develop an idea using real world examples than just skills building. What can be done so that policy makers see the importance of balancing those ideas and that less is more in each subject.

Mark Clemente:
I’m not totally convinced that policy makers are solely responsible for “mile wild - inch deep” curriculum. As a teacher leader in your school, you have probably observed that many teachers are not interested in becoming a part of the curriculm development process. So the curriculum is developed piecemeal and by default. I think that we as teachers need to educate policy makers on what good curriculum is and on what exactly students need to know and be able to do to be successful. A recent article highlighted the difference between what public school teachers think is important for students to know and what college professors think students need to know to be successful in college. Public school teachers thought students needed to know more facts whereas the professors focused on critical thinking and problem solving skills. I’m not sure how much attention policy makers pay to this type of research.

Comment from Jose Bonner, co-Director, Institute for STEM Education, Indiana University Bloomington:
My experience is that “covering the curriculum” tends to squeeze out the use of inquiry and other interesting approaches. My own classes are around 100 students, in a large lecture hall, which also tends to drive out interesting approaches. I’ve been struck, though, by the observation that “inquiry” often omits the fun part of science: figuring out what the data actually tell us. So, I’ve been exploring ways to put the fun part back in, at the same time getting at the fundamental principles. I’ve posted what I’ve tried at I’m pretty sure high school students will understand the genetic code better if we give them some of the real data from Nirenberg’s experiments ( than if we just tell them how it works. I think this approach comes close to “striking the balance” that we’re looking for.

The real question is this: are there teachers “out there” who would be interested in trying some of these kinds of things in their classrooms? If so, are there teachers who would be interested in collecting some data on how their students respond to this sort of thing? (I even have permission from the Research with Human Subjects committee...what I need now are participants.)

Question from Tim Field, Parent in School District of Philadelphia:
I live in a large urban school district that utilizes a standardized curriculum. Parents in my neighborhood struggle with the decision to send their children to the local public school. They often cite concerns about a curriculum and instructional practices that are too focused on the state test and narrowly defined standards. The local school is applying for a magnet school grant that would bring a project-based learning approach to teaching and learning. My question: can project-based learning serve as an effective strategy for enhancing a curriculum? And what is most essential for an effective transition (to project-based learning)?

Mark Clemente:
Project based learning is certainly an effective strategy for enhancing curriculum. It engages students and makes them think about what they are studying rather than just memorizing information. The most essential element for a successful transition is training. Teachers should be trained in how to implement project-based learning in their classrooms. Also, it is important to teach students how to go about doing this. To throw a student into a full-blown project without giving them training and scaffolding to support them as they tackle this new type of learning would be frustrating and counter-productive.

Question from Debra Pierce, Associate professor, Early Childhood Education, Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, Indianapolis, IN:
I believe many teachers of young children are concerned with the trickle down of the standards frenzy to Kindergarten and even preschool. We are especially concerned about the possibility that someday soon, these very youngest of the school population may be subjected to standardized testing and teachers feeling the need to “teach to the test” in order to satisfy accountability issues. We feel the need to remain vigilent and continue to provide developmentally appropriate instruction as we meet standards. Can you comment on this, please?

Marsha Ratzel:
I think we are all concerned about this pressure and I agree teachers should remain vigilent about providing developmentally appropriate matter the age of the student. For me, this is about advocating for multiple measures as well as relevant to that discipline. Does it make sense to judge what a science student has learned by only looking at a multiple choice test...what about how well they can set up an investigation, keep data, analyze what they found out and then communicate that information???? To my way of thinking all of that is another vital piece and gives a whole other perspective on student learning.

Question from Rhonda Y. Williams, Special Education Teacher, LaFayette Middle School:
In 2004, I wrote my Thesis on Differentiating Instruction: Teaching A Wide Range Of Abilities In One Classroom. I did not hear about differentiating until I started conducting my research. Do you feel Differentiating Instruction is a window of opportunity for all students?

Mark Clemente:
It most certainly is. Differentiation does a couple of things. First it forces the teacher to really think about what they want their students to come away with. This requires a close study of curriculum. Secondly, it gives stuggling students a chance to master what is necessary while allowing advanced students to develop a more sophisticated understanding of a topic. I have incorporated some differentiation into my teaching and found that it has kept all of my students more engaged in my lessons.

Question from Donna LaBelle-Egan, M.Ed. Student:
I am completing my M.Ed. in education leadership as I am also working with leaders in my church parish to start a K-12 school. We anticipate implementing a curriculum that is both concept-based and integrated with our faith. Those working with me understand the importance of technology in the classroom and how it provides an advantage as students progress through the grades and after graduation. What would you suggest we include in our planning for technology in the school and curriculum?

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach:
Hi Donna,

How fun! I did a very similar thing in the past in Georgia, I too started a small faith-based school. What I did was built my curriculum around the seven days of creation and created units of study that related to what took place on each “day”.

I used the state standards to determine what the objectives for each piece should be and then developed problem-based scenarios for the students to solve. Some of the activities were completed by every student, some were student selected where the student became the expert and taught the rest of the class, and some where chosen through learning contracts. Many of the student created products that showed mastery of the standard-based objectives were created online.

If I was approaching this today, I would use the array of Web 2.0 tools available that provided avenues for global collaboration. I would have the students blog for scholarly reflection. They would use RSS to develop a reading list for the topic they were studying-- because good blogging begins with reading. Then I would have them reflect on what they were reading both in class and online in their blogs building on the ideas of what they are reading.

I would use a class wiki to develop a repository of content that could be used to collaborate with others around the world. I would have my students create delicious accounts and add resources as they found them. I would look for opportunities to interview experts related to the content we were studying via Skype or Gizmo and I would record it and use it as a podcast to share on the class or student’s blogs.

I guess the biggest piece of advice is I would think of the technology as a medium (not another content piece) through which my students would knock down the classroom walls and network with others while they are learning and through which they will produce content to prove deep understanding of the concepts being explored.

Hope that helps.

Question from John McGuire, Teacher Cert. student, Regis University:
Thank you all for your time! What advise can you give aspiring teachers in these tumultuous times?

Marsha Ratzel:
Teaching is the best job I could imagine having. It is something you can look forward to getting up for everyday and it is NEVER boring. Each day brings a new variation on the puzzle of fitting together student needs, what is going on in the classroom/building/world and your curriculum. Best of all, you interact with students as they are beginning to think about things...think about learning...becoming adults. Watching those hearts and intellects develop is one of the most rewarding and engaging jobs anyone could have. I also think of all the opportunity to learn new things I’ve had as I’ve switched grade levels, curriculum, disciplines. I’m amazed at what a lifelong learner I’ve become in order to build enough background knowledge to be a good teacher. I wouldn’t worry about tumultuous matter the occupation/job there is always drama, upset and change along with all the good. Teaching has its share of both.

Question from Camilla Burton, Science Supervisor, Monroe County School District:
What is the best approach to creating a K-12 science curriculum that emphasizes core science content and process skills by grade level in a scaffolding manner that emphasizes mastery of essential knowledge and process skills? What does research suggest should be the most appropriate content and skill foci by grade levels?

Mark Clemente:
I think vertical teaming would provide the best approach. Often times we present science as a series of unconnected, unrelated units. I think vertical taming would provide the scaffolding not only for students, but for teachers as well. At the high school level, science teachers are very specialized. Teachers at the elementary level are more generalists, required to teach many subjects, some of which they are more comfortable with than others. A vertcal tean could provide some much needed support to those early years teachers who for whom science is not their forte.

As to appropriate content and skill foci, I think they are very well laid out in the National Sceince Education Standards. The standards are broken down both by grade level and content area.

Comment from Lucia Villarreal, kinder teacher, Starlight Elementary School, Watsonville, California:
Who controls the meaning of meaning? In california we had only 2 choices for language arts adoption: Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt Brace. At one time the language arts adoption covered only language arts. These publisher programs now also cover social studies and science. So what we teach is dictated by this one adoption that we have. Therefore, we teach what the publisher gives us. Do they not give us the meaning of meaning? Furthermore, we are a Reading First school and we have RF coaches who police us so that we are to teach page by page lessons. If it is week 2, day 3 we cover that as the publishers suggest. We have no permission to teach otherwise and to negotiate meaning with/for our students.

I have taught for 33 years and was always encouraged to use my professional knowledge to create meaning with my students while teaching grade level skills and concepts that were standards based (this came later in my career). Is teaching now just the training of teachers to mindlessly use publisher/testing company materials so that our teachers will be ready when wholesale for profit entities take over?

Question from Nancy Flanagan, Teacher Leaders Network:
How can teachers genuinely integrate the arts into lessons in the core academic curriculum? As learning goals, especially in high-needs schools, narrow to tested objectives, how can classroom teachers use music, image, movement and drama to enhance other subjects?

Marsha Ratzel:
This is a question that I ask myself frequently. Time seems to fly by and all good intentions are lost. For my two cents, I’d say to collaboration with colleagues is the best way to integrate. I have found my art, music and drama teachers to be more than willing to sit down and talk with me. As we put our heads together, there are many connections that we are able to find. Selfishly I had thought of what could “they” do to help “me” with “my” curriculum...but pretty soon, that vanished. They are “our” students and what curriculum indicators do we have that is a more mutually beneficial arrangment that I had thought at the beginning. For example, I went to the art teacher to ask her about making enlargements of pictures to work on scale factor. Little did I know that she had already done it with our 6th graders in her class. I was able to learn a couple new vocabulary words (hue, texture) and then I could take something she was working on and bring it into my math class. I did a variation on what she had started, blended it with scale factors and reinforced her unit on pop culture in art. It was so much more than I could have dreamed of doing on my own. It was that collaborative, open-minded theme that did the trick, I think.

Comment from Jeannette Adkins, Curriculum Specialist Christchurch School, Christchurch, VA:
Mark, I have been a very strong proponent of problem-based learning for many years. Over the years, many teachers have asked us to give them some practical tips for developing a problem-based unit or even using inquiry based learning in the classroom. I do think the problem is they do not need guide books but guided practice. I would recommend that teachers interested in this find a summer workshop or in-school workshop where teachers can develop their own curriculum which meets their goals and objectives. They will then have ownership of the problem.

Question from Rob Lippincott, SVP for Education, PBS:
A recently released report to Congress from the Dept of Education on the “Effectiveness of Reading and Mathematics Software Products” seems to indicate that there is no measurable added value from some of the most widely used software products. Have you found this to be generally true in your experience and in your school(s)? Wherever software programs have been successful, is there a common theme (e.g., Teacher professional development or a certain level of usage)?

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach:
Hi Rob,

When I read that report the first thing that jumped out at me was that it was about software use. Now typically, software that is used for content mastery is done through what I think of as 1st generation technology integration. Where a student is engaging the machine and really using the software for practice or to gain mastery in a one student-one machine capacity.

To be honest, I have never been a software fan. First, I don’t like that fact that resource rich schools have software and resource poor schools do not, for obvious reasons. Second, because I believe the beauty of using a computer to learn is its ability to become a canvas for the learner to create upon which deepens understanding and comprehension far beyond what a piece of software can do. Third, technology should be used to model and provide opportunities for collaborating with others around the world, especially in today in the era of globalization.

I also believe that using technology in these ways prepares students for success in the 21st Century. We are the first generation of teachers that are preparing students for jobs that haven’t even been invented yet. We live in an era where what you can create is as important as what you know and where knowledge isn’t linear anymore and it is expanding at such a rate that there is no way to memorize or master all of it. It makes much more sense to use technology in the classroom for inquiry-driven study that appeals to a child self-directed curiosity, not software that does little to inspire a child and create lifelong learning skills.

In my opinion, software teaches and I believe we shouldn’t be teaching children, rather we should be helping them learn and discover on their own.

As to software that has been successful in my experience-- mostly open source. Any software that allows for open-ended response and student developed outcomes around teacher facilitated concepts.

Question from Kathy, teacher, a Texas high school:
Making learning meaningful is wonderful for students and actually makes teaching easier, too. How can I convince my department that making changes now, which they vehemently do NOT want to do, will pay off for both them and their students in the long run?

Mark Clemente:
Start small and go slow. Try to find one teacher in each core subject area who has had success present what they do to the other teachers. I would have them pick something that was small scale in nature and not some very large, months long project. Also, pick variations of things that they are already doing, something they could modify so that they didn’t feel like they were ditching everything they had already developed. I would also ask them to set a goal of maybe picking one unit to incorporate something new into. I think the reluctance comes mainly from the fact that there sometimes seem to “fads” in approach to instruction. We tend to run headlong into the new idea without a lot of training and support. A lot of time is invested redoing everything and then something else comes along. Incremental change is not overwhelming and in the long run will stick. Also, by taking an incremental approach, you are sending a message about improvement upon what is already being done instead of one that could be interpreted as chastisement for not doing a good job.

Question from Elisabeth H, Berkeley, ed researcher, public sch parent, former tchr:
I am concerned about the class/race breakdown I’m beginning to see in discussions around curric. standardization and enriched curriculum. my kids attend a diverse public school where parents of kids in traditionally lower-performing subgroups are concerned about how teaching is helping kids meet standards, while the more upper-middle class, white parents tend to complain that there’s too much concern about accountability and that they want to see teachers have more freedom to be creative. what can be done to bridge what looks like a growing divide in philosophies? how can parents come to see that accountability and standards don’t preclude creativity and all boats rising?

Marsha Ratzel:
One of things I think we need to keep in mind is that the new movement of high stakes testing is relative new. It takes time to refine how things work out in the realities of a classroom. Time not measured in days or weeks, but probably years. I will return to something I’ve mentioned before that relying on single kinds of measurement tools tends to be too narrow and fails to incorporate the entire student. I would hope that as time goes by we find ways to provide accountability measures beyond/in addition to standardized tests....which to my view is good for all students regardless of their class or race. I would think that some of the concerns would be mitigated by including more measures.

Question from Katie Esser, parent:
Do you consider a 1:1 computer to student ratio as essential to providing high school students 21st century skills?

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach:
I think 1:1 is ideal so that students can be mobile. However, to provide 21st Century skills any ratio is better than none.

I think it is more important though to have a 1:1 laptop computer ratio for teachers and to engage them in using the technology for their own personal professional learning first. The reason, you can’t give away what you do not own. Teachers can’t provide for preparing their students for the 21st Century without having mastered those skills themselves first.

Teachers need to multi-literate and understand that for for students to be successful in the 21st Century they will need to be able to communicate through means other than text. Without using the technologies themselves first to become multi-literate they will never be able to give those skills to the students they teach.

Also, if the 1:1 ratio is going to be in the classroom and not mobile then it isn’t as important as students need to approach learning collaboratively online. They need to discover and learn in teams to be applicable to the skill set they will need once they graduate.

With high school students, most of them come to school with a computer in their pockets. Cell phones will surf the Web, they are a camera, a video camera, a phone, a recording device and allow for mobile publishing all the essentials of 21st Century literacy curriculum. 1:1 wouldn’t be as unimaginable if we would just let the kids use the technolgies they bring with them to school.

Anthony Rebora, (Moderator):
That’s all the time we have today. Thanks to everyone--especially our guests--for a great discussion. A complete transcript of the chat will be posted shortly on and

The Fine Print

All questions are screened by an editor and the guest speaker prior to posting. A question is not displayed until it is answered by the guest speaker. Due to the volume of questions received, we cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered, or answered in the order of submission. Guests and hosts may decline to answer any questions. Concise questions are strongly encouraged.

Please be sure to include your name and affiliation when posting your question.’s Online Chat is an open forum where readers can participate in a give- and-take discussion with a variety of guests. reserves the right to condense or edit questions for clarity, but editing is kept to a minimum. Transcripts may also be reproduced in some form in our print edition. We do not correct errors in spelling, punctuation, etc. In addition, we remove statements that have the potential to be libelous or to slander someone.

Please read our privacy policy and user agreement if you have questions.

Chat Editors