I hope everyone is settled well into the school year. I would hope that by now all the problems with crowded buses, sudden influxes of unexpected students and shortages of textbooks for the right classes have been ironed out, but I know all those problems won't be resolved for at least another couple of weeks. So my backup hope is that teachers are able to teach and students able to learn despite any such problems. If anyone has any beginning-of-year horror stories they want to share, send them on in.

Dear Homeroom:

Why is an entire year, the fourth grade, devoted to an exhaustive study of Maryland history, while fifth-grade teachers must attempt to fit 400 years of American history into one school year? That usually means they make it to the early national period at best. Since Maryland was one of the original 13 colonies, its history could be studied more than adequately as part of a two-year curriculum focusing on American history. Who made this curriculum decision and how would one go about getting it changed?

B. Shuttleworth

Takoma Park

I don't know who made the decision to do so, but studying state history in fourth grade is just about the only thing that school systems around the country have in common. Luckily, Maryland has a very rich history that encompasses most of the key elements of the American story, from a complex and interesting American Indian history right on through the European settlements; slavery and indentured servitude; religious diversity; participation in the Revolution, War of 1812, the Underground Railroad and the Civil War; and the establishment of segregation and its subsequent elimination. In addition, Maryland has a remarkably diverse economy for such a small state, including coal mining in the mountains, fishing in the bay and farming in between, in addition to heavy industry in Baltimore and a large government and research sector in the Washington area.

So there's certainly plenty to talk about in Maryland.

But the fact that so much of Maryland's history is intertwined with the essential elements of American history also makes it much more sensible to do as you have suggested, which is to combine the fourth- and fifth-grade curriculum and study American history, with a special emphasis on Maryland's role throughout. And, if all goes as planned, that's exactly what will happen.

Montgomery County is undergoing a major curriculum change with regard to elementary school social studies, and unless it gets waylaid it should be in place by next school year.

In addition to changing the fourth- and fifth-grade curriculum, the third-grade study of Japan, Mexico and Ghana will be jettisoned next year. The plan is to have third-graders study the establishment of settlements and cities, and next year they will learn how Washington, D.C., and Mexico City (which began life as Tenochtitlan) were planned and built. In subsequent years, cities in Asia, Europe and Africa will be added. This should allow more specificity and rigor to a year that has too often been dominated by a rather superficial cultural look at kimonos, sombreros and African drums, rather than a serious study of three countries.

I personally would prefer a more chronological approach to world history, but in saying that I'm betraying a preference that is out of the mainstream of the field of social studies. In general, the field of social studies prefers to talk about concepts and skills rather than specific knowledge. This lends itself to something of a smorgasbord approach to classroom teaching.

Montgomery County social studies coordinators say they are trying to give more coherence to the teaching of social studies by providing a fairly carefully constructed curriculum focusing on particular concepts.

"If you think about trying to teach all of world history--or even American history--you end up just covering it," says Martin Creel, the county's elementary social studies coordinator. He and a group of teachers have been working on the specifics for the new elementary school social studies curriculum, and they should be posted on the county's social studies Web site (www.mcps.k12.md.us/curriculum/ socialstd/) within a month or so.

If you are interested, there will be a place on the Web site for you to post comments. (By the way, it's a really interesting site to visit. It was constructed mainly as a resource for the county's teachers, but it is useful for parents, students, and anyone interested in history. I particularly like the list of local field trips that families can take to help their kids get a better grasp on Maryland and American history. And if you click on Bookmarks, you can be linked to dozens of interesting Web sites by a variety of organizations addressing specific topics.)

Another piece of good news is that in the future, beginning in third grade, social studies and reading will be coupled. This means that biographies, histories and so forth will be part of the reading curriculum which, until now, has been completely dominated by fiction. I am convinced that Montgomery County's single-minded focus on fiction is one of the factors that has kept Montgomery County's scores lower than they should be on the state reading tests, and I'm delighted that nonfiction will be included. I'm also convinced, though I have no research to back up this opinion, that including nonfiction will engage the interest of more kids--particularly boys--in learning and school.

At the same time the elementary social studies curriculum is being changed, there is a shift in middle and high school. Until now sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders have all studied world studies, often with a very heavy emphasis on geography and map skills (including a lot of coloring projects) rather than history. Ninth-graders study American history and 10th-graders civics and government. After 10th grade, Montgomery County does not require students to study history or social studies, though it offers many courses as electives.

This fall, eighth-graders will begin the study of American history going up to the Civil War, and as ninth-graders they will continue past the Civil War. This will give kids a whole extra year to learn the story of their country. The change is designed in part to allow students to do better on the state tests administered in eighth grade and in part to avoid the phenomenon many grown-ups would describe as: "I studied American History three times, but we never got past the Civil War." The 10th-grade civics course also is being revamped to address criticisms that in the past it was boring and didn't properly prepare students for the state civics exam.

Choice in Summer Reading?

Dear Homeroom:

I am a sophomore at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. For its honors classes, the English Department assigned two books to read over the summer: "The Moonstone," by Wilkie Collins, and "Cat's Eye," by Margaret Atwood. To my surprise I found "The Moonstone" to be very good, exciting and interesting. I am now reading "Cat's Eye." If I had to sum this book up in a few words it would take me two: "Female Novel." My school does this constantly. Being forced to read a Female Novel over the summer is torture not only for me but for every other male teenager in my grade.

I would like to see summer reading changed. My plan would still have honors students read two books. For the first book the English Department would offer you a choice of two books. The second book would be a book the student wishes to read as long as it is approved by the teacher. If this system had been in place this summer, I would have chosen "King of the World," by David Remnick. "Tuesdays with Morrie," by Mitch Albom, would have been my second choice.

Why does the English Department have students read books they would never read even when they are older? By choosing books that do not appeal to students' interests, kids resent reading. I would like to hear what you have to say about my idea to change summer reading.

Scott Lavine


I think this is an interesting conversation for you to have with your English Department, and I urge you to begin it. Any other thoughts out there? I'm particularly interested in the issue of boys resenting what Mr. Lavine calls "Female Novels." It seems to me there's a benefit to all students reading some of the same books so that they can discuss them together--even if it is only to share their dislike of them. But the counter argument is that there is enough uniformity in reading during the school year and that summer is a time to indulge more personal tastes. Any teachers want to weigh in?

Homeroom is a forum for you. Send questions, opinions and issues you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 51 Monroe St., Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. The fax number is 301-279-5665. Or you can e-mail homeroom@washpost.com.