Today, we'll cover the 20th century

Just when students most want to daydream, teachers scramble to cram in everything still left on the syllabus

Suddenly, the rush is on.

June can have a galvanizing effect on students newly focused on the need to prepare for finals. But the last month of the school year can have a similar effect on teachers.

The culprit: a course outline apparently designed with a 190-day calendar in mind.

With only 180 days at their disposal, the answer for many teachers is to step up the pace - significantly. Young scholars trying to keep up with them risk missing the French Revolution or who Boo Radley is if they dare to daydream or pass a friend a note.

Not every classroom, of course, moves into high gear. Plenty of teachers who are lagging barely pick up the pace, figuring that their students can't bear anymore. But other teachers are incapable of enjoying summer vacation unless they've made it to the last Roman numeral on their syllabus.

Teachers also have a practical concern: If they don't get students to the finish line in the spring, the kids won't be at the starting line for the next grade come fall.

"My dilemma is - and this is the first year I've gotten this far behind - I haven't done 'Death of A Salesman' for my [advanced placement] course," says Mary McBride, head of the English department at La Jolla High School in southern California. "Today the kids were laughing and saying, 'That's OK, you don't have to do it.' I said, 'No, I couldn't teach this course without giving you Willy Loman. It breaks my heart that we're going to have to go through it quickly, but it's better than not doing it. It's such a great thing to end the year with.' "

Denise Lantz, who teaches biotechnology at Cherry Creek High School in Englewood, Colo., says the June hurry-up was especially bad this year because new standardized state testing eliminated a number of regular classroom days. "So now we're trying to finish up the year with the same amount of material that we've always taught before - and it's hard!"

Interviewed on the last day of classes before finals started, she added: "We had to make some tough choices about how much information we wanted to cram versus how much time we should take to prepare them for their tests. I've heard some of the kids complaining, 'Oh, you can tell it's the end of the year, we're suddenly doing a chapter a day instead of a chapter a week.' "

It's not just solid subjects but also solid food that is subject to year-end curriculum compression. Carol Link teaches Family and Consumer Science (that's home ec to anyone born before the Kennedy administration) at Parkway West High School outside St. Louis.

"It can get crazy," she says. "At the very end of the year, I hadn't had a chance to teach cookies. They love that lab. I thought, I have to fit this in somehow. Same thing with yeast bread. It takes several days, but I worked it in. I don't think it's fair to the kids to leave it out, but you know, a lot of times they don't know the difference - they don't know what they're missing. I squeezed everything in but cheese. One class didn't get cheese."

Although June cramming by teachers is as old as procrastination, factors beyond a teacher's control are often to blame for the seemingly shrinking school year. More field trips and interscholastic competition take kids out of class, say teachers. And isolated events, such as a district's conversion to block scheduling, can throw off a teacher's timing for a year or two. But for many educators there is one clear villain when it comes to the in-class time crunch.

"The standardized testing is out of control," Ms. McBride says. "It's ridiculous."

She reels off the number of days spent on California's new high school exit exam; the Stanford Diagnostic Test, which takes four days; SATs; Golden State tests; and advanced-placement tests. "I'm just not able to cover all the material I used to, or I go through it much more quickly. You learn to pick and choose what you cover."

Some schools are determined to find a way to incorporate testing into the yearly schedule so that curriculum doesn't fall off a cliff the last week of school. "We're going to meet this summer, go over the curriculum that we have and say, 'Is there anything that was just a little bit of fluff that we could have gotten rid of so that we can make sure we hit all the important points?' " Ms. Lantz says. "Because now we know how much time testing is taking."

For students, a big problem is the coincidence of frenzied, gotta-get-it-done teaching and spring fever. During a time of year when young men's fancy turns to thoughts of a rental tuxedo for the prom, there is little mental capacity left over for Chaucer and trigonometry. "They're gone after Memorial Day," Ms. Link says.

The problem follows her home from the classroom because of her son, a sophomore at the school where she teaches.

"His English teacher is cramming to the extent that she's making them read another book in a week [the last full week of school]. Other English teachers have given up, and they're not making their kids read the book, but it's something they're supposed to have read in their sophomore year, so she's cramming it in. He's not liking that a bit."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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