The march from textbooks to computerized content began to look a little more inevitable this week as educators in Arizona and Tennessee edged closer to the all-digital curriculum.

In Tennessee, a private partnership formed by educators, a web designer, a lawmaker, and a history buff launched a web site to help schools fill the gap in state history instruction left a few years ago when Nashville ended mandatory state history courses for middle schools.

Out West, the transition was moving even more swiftly. The Vail, Ariz., School District announced its Vail High School in Tucson will become the state’s first all-wireless, all-laptop public school this fall. The 350 students at the school will not have traditional textbooks. Instead, they will use electronic and online articles as part of more traditional teacher lesson plans.

Vail School District’s decision to go with an all-electronic school is rare. Often, cost, insecurity, ignorance, and institutional constraints prevent schools from making the leap away from paper, some software experts say.

“The efforts are very sporadic,” said Mark Schneiderman, director of education policy for the Software and Information Industry Association. “A minority of communities are doing a good or very good job, but a large number are just not there on a number of levels.”

Calvin Baker, superintendent of Vail School District, said the move to electronic materials gets teachers away from the habit of simply marching through a textbook each year.

He noted that the AIMS (Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards) test now makes the state standards the curriculum, not textbooks. Arizona students will soon need to pass AIMS to graduate from high school.

But the move to laptops is not cheap. The laptops cost $850 each, and the district will hand them to 350 students for the entire year. The fast-growing district expects to have 750 students at the high school eventually.

A set of textbooks runs about $500 to $600, Baker said.

It’s not clear just yet how the transition to laptops will work, he conceded.

“I’m sure there are going to be some adjustments. But we visited other schools using laptops. And at the schools with laptops, students were just more engaged than at non-laptop schools,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, history teachers were feeling the effects of supply and demand. When demand for Tennessee history texts plummeted after the state stopped requiring mandatory instruction for middle schoolers, the supply of appropriate texts evaporated, too.

Nashville still requires bits of Tennessee history be taught to students at all grade levels, but many teachers were lacking the materials they need to fulfill that requirement.

“The fact is that because we don’t teach it in a standard class, textbook companies aren’t producing a Tennessee textbook,” said Brenda Ables, social studies coordinator for the state education department.

Writer Bill Carey learned of the lack of resources and got an idea for what might benefit the state’s teachers and students–a Tennessee history web site.

In November 2004, Carey joined forces with web designer Tim Moses and state Rep. Rob Briley, D-Nashville, to lay the groundwork for the Tennessee History for Kids web site. Carey began gathering information for the site, Moses created a basic design, and Briley promoted the site to state lawmakers.

Carey said despite what requirements are in place to ensure kids learn their state history, most high school graduates lack even a basic understanding of the world around them.

“I met a high school graduate at a career fair from Grundy County, and I asked him what he knew about the Highlander School,” he said. “This was a smart kid … but he didn’t know a thing about it.”

According to Tennessee History for Kids, the Highlander Folk School was a center in Grundy County in the mid 20th-century that trained civil-rights leaders, including Rosa Parks, and promoted labor unions and racial equality.

Al Frascella, a spokesman for the Silver Spring, Md.-based National Council for the Social Studies, said that ever since No Child Left Behind was implemented, social studies has become the “stepchild of education.”

“To do what’s needed to make sure students are at par for reading and math, there’s no time for history,” he said. “They’ve boiled all social studies down.”

Many school officials point to curriculum that uses reading selections that incorporate history as a way to teach the subject, but Frascella said that’s mostly baloney.

“You can read about history, you can read about geography, you can read about government, but unless the teacher knows about the discipline, it’s not really getting taught,” he said.

Craig Taylor, a Cookeville, Tenn., history teacher, said part of the problem is each grade level is required to teach a very specific period of history, such as the time between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War–making it hard for teachers to find proper teaching resources.

No problem, Carey said. His web site is broken down by grade level, with each level providing the information to meet state requirements. The site also includes separate sections for teachers and parents.

Students also can choose to read about people such as Andrew Jackson and places such as the Shiloh battlefield.

Carey hopes to make the site even more interactive with sound clips such as music by B.B. King and a Tennessee trivia game. But that will depend on funding.

Tennessee History for Kids is operating on a $100,000 budget this year–about $50,000 is coming from state funding and the rest from private donations.

“No one thought we could do this for a million [dollars],” Carey said. “We have some fundraising to do.”

Taylor said the extra features will be worth it.

“The worst thing about history is teaching kids about dead men and dates,” he said. “Kids want something flashy.”


Vail School District

Tennessee History for Kids