Despite celebrating 30 years in business this year, Knowledge Unlimited Inc. remains relatively unknown in the community. Those concerned with closing the achievement gap in Madison's schools, however, may want to take note. This award-winning educational-materials producer, based in Middleton, is unique in emphasizing multiculturalism throughout its lines of educational posters, DVDs and children's books.
The entire Milwaukee School District uses the company's flagship product, NewsCurrents. The product is also used in some Madison schools. It's a simple yet effective concept for presenting current events -- visuals paired with a discussion guide. It provides the relevant background knowledge on issues so students can form their own opinions and participate in discussions about what's going on in the world. The discussion guide is written at three levels, making the content accessible for grades 3-12, although NewsCurrents is in fact used with an even wider audience.
The program doesn't shy away from the difficult topics in the news, including school shootings, the Trayvon Martin trial and the Bangladeshi garment factory collapse.
"The biggest mistake people make is thinking kids aren't interested or don't have the capacity to understand," Knowledge Unlimited founder Judith Laitman says of such stories.
Madison teacher Karen Boyer confirms that NewsCurrents handles tough subjects well, including the anniversary of 9/11, which each year falls within the first weeks of class. Boyer says it's important for kids to have a safe venue to ask questions because they're going to hear about news on the playground.
Boyer has used NewsCurrents throughout her six years of teaching fourth and fifth grades at Emerson Elementary. Her principal allots funds for the $259 yearly subscription, which covers the entire school. The students can also access NewsCurrents' sister program, a news magazine for kids called Read to Know, on their home computers.
Boyer says her students love NewsCurrents and get "cranky" if she has to skip it for a week. Other teachers have had similar success with the program. A teacher in Los Angeles found that low-achieving students who often skipped class would show up when they knew NewsCurrents was on the day's agenda.
"All kids, whether they're high-level readers or in advanced civics classes or special education students, can feel capable of doing this program. It makes them feel competent. They can have opinions," Laitman says.
The program also invites student involvement in the form of voting for the "News Person of the Year" and participating in a weekly editorial cartoon contest. "If anything tells us what kids are capable of, it's the things they submit for editorial cartoons," Laitman says.
The company's 10 employees produce the weekly current events materials. Two writers develop stories, including country- and person-of-the-week segments, while a graphic artist coordinates the visuals. Laitman's own daily routine for editing the stories includes monitoring NBC Nightly News, Democracy Now!, BBC News and various online news sources, including Al Jazeera English.
News stories can be used to teach a range of topics, from science and geography to politics and history. Knowledge Unlimited's products are designed to meet state standards, but also to build cultural capital. These skills may not fit easily into categories, but can make a difference in closing the achievement gap. Laitman may soon have evidence proving NewsCurrents' effectiveness -- she plans to work with a UW education professor to measure the program's impact in the classroom.
Correctional institutions also use NewsCurrents, including all of the California and Texas prisons. The oldest audience comes from around 1,000 nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, which are required to provide intellectual stimulation for residents.
With its large images, NewsCurrents is accessible to people with poor eyesight, allowing for more interaction than having a newspaper read aloud. And the program's multiple levels work for seniors with varying levels of cognitive impairment. The only difference from the version sent to schools is the addition of a segment looking back at topics in pop culture and history.
"This is their favorite program over bingo. That's the best compliment we get from nursing homes," Laitman says. At one senior facility, NewsCurrents inspired residents to register to vote.
Moving forward, Laitman hopes to expand on the half-million users Knowledge Unlimited already reaches each week. Over the past three decades, the company has digitized many of its products, and Laitman sees this trend continuing. And she'd like to partner with another organization to create a free website for young people all around the world to engage on current issues.
Laitman is driven by her belief that youth have a lot to say. No one embodies this sentiment more than Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old who addressed the U.N. this year after being shot by the Taliban for speaking out on girls' education. NewsCurrents students voted her "News Person of the Year."comments powered by Disqus
The recent shift in the weather is just another sign that autumn is fast approaching. That means one of my favorite activities is just around the corner -- apple picking. My husband and I have been picking apples every fall since before our kids were born.
I have a lot of questions about what to put on my eight-month-olds' plates -- and, if I'm honest, a deep and abiding fear of putting the wrong thing there. Did I start them on solid foods at the right time? What's the deal with baby-led weaning -- how much self-feeding should they be doing? At what age should I give them potential allergens like shellfish or nut products?
Lily the potbellied pig arrived at Heartland Farm Sanctuary blind, lethargic and too overweight to walk. The children of Heartland's summer day camp program took it upon themselves to put the curl back in her tail.
Is it just me or does each summer seem to go by quicker than the last? The end of summer is upon us and for many families this means the start of a new school year.
This past week, on the way to the grocery store, my daughter asked what I believed she thought would be a innocuous question, "Mom, when are we going back-to-school shopping?"
Volunteering with the Young Writers Summer Camp this past week really helped me to remember how utterly creative kids can be when encouraged to come up with their own ideas and use their own words.
This past week I gleefully accepted an offer for new job on the UW-Madison campus. My kids are getting are older and I guess I've felt for a while now that it was time to figure out what would be next for me on the professional front.
"Kids spend so much time in and around school, it's the only place where some have a chance to develop an appreciation for a healthy lifestyle," says Katie Hensel, founder and executive director of Tri 4 Schools.
"I'm envious, mom," said my twelve-year-old daughter as she hopped in the car after theater camp last week. "All the other kids in my group seem to really like, and to be really good at, singing, dancing and acting. But I think all those things are just okay."
"People are looking to book space here all the time," says Remy Fernández-O'Brien, communications and facilities coordinator for the Lussier Community Education Center, a private, nonprofit community center on Madison's west side. "They want to throw their child's first birthday party here or hold a Girl Scout meeting. We're really busy year-round, but it's especially lively here in the summer."
Last week, in response to the county-wide Sleep Safe, Sleep Well public health campaign that encourages parents to "share the room, not the bed" with their sleeping infants, Isthmus contributor Ruth Conniff penned a lovely opinion piece in defense of bed sharing entitled "Confessions of a Co-Sleeper."
As much as I'd like to believe there is latent genius in my daughter's early finger paintings, I'm pretty sure her works are not distinguishable from those created by the pointer fingers and pinkies of thousands of other children from across the world.
Seeing Romeo and Juliet this past weekend was a definite reminder that I need to prepare for something that might resemble a (near) West Side Story around our place pretty soon.
All during childhood, we calmly tell our kids they don't need to be afraid of the dark, thunder or the monster under the bed. But it's pretty hard to keep your parental cool when your kid is about to embark on the one thing that terrifies you. I knew the problem wasn't really with him. It was with me.
Last January, when temperatures dipped below minus 30 and most people between the ages of 16 and 24 did anything to stay inside, a small yet sturdy group of at-risk teenage boys and young men stacked wood and managed controlled burns at Festge County Park near Cross Plains. Five months later, following a temperature swing of more than 100 degrees, Isthmus found some of those same guys removing invasive honeysuckle and buckthorn at Lake View Hill County Park on Madison's north side.
The first week of summer break at our place usually comes and goes without incident. At times, one could argue, it even verges on pleasant. I have no school lunches to pack and the kids have no 7 a.m. buses to catch.
Have you tried getting anywhere on either Verona Road or East Johnson lately? I'm pretty sure a six-month old could crawl to Fitchburg, or across the isthmus, in less time that it takes me to drive there these days.
As soon as the door closed behind him, I poured myself a cup of the coffee he had made and took a moment to let the enormity of what just happened sink in. My son was ready that morning despite my inability to properly set an alarm clock. My kid was ready that morning without nudging, cajoling, or reminding. He was ready, even when I wasn't.
For the past 17 years or so (i.e., since I've had kids), I haven't made books the priority in my life I know they should be. It's not that I don't try. Just this past weekend I had the best of intentions of picking up, and even finishing, I am Malala, this year's UW-Madison's Go Big Read pick. But the copy still sits untouched on my nightstand.
The longest day of the year is upon us. For those of you keeping track, the sun will rise at 5:18 a.m. and set at 8:41 p.m. on Saturday, June 21. All that daylight, courtesy of the annual summer solstice, will provide the perfect backdrop for Make Music Madison, a daylong event featuring hours and hours of free performances in nearly every corner of the city.