Jessica's Final Case
Why Can't You Just Tell Us?
"Ms. Daniel, can't you just tell me what is going on in my picture?"
"John, I want you to talk with your group members. As a group you guys should be working together to figure out the picture."
"I don't understand why you won't just tell me."
Just tell me. These are painful words, especially when a teacher's goal is to get her students thinking for themselves. I struggled with
this statement midway through what I considered an innovative lesson on the immune system. Why can't my students think for themselves? Why can't they problem solve? Why do they have to be so
dependent on my assistance? Have I not provided them with enough assistance? Maybe I provided them with the wrong kind of support? This case is my attempt at fleshing out these questions.
I have been completing my work as a student teacher for the past five months at a Westmont High School in the Silicon Valley city of Mist Grove, California. The school was a California Distinguished School in
1995, and it is very involved in school reform, such as with the Coalition of Essential Schools and the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative. Additionally, Westmont is a Professional Development School with
Stanford University. Westmont, much like Mist Grove, is a diverse environment with respect to race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. The demographic make-up of the school is approximately as
follows: 32% Hispanic, 28% White, 17% Asian, 16% Filipino/Pacific Islander, 5% African-American, and 2% Native American. Approximately 33% of the students at the school are limited English
proficient. The students living in Mist Grove range in socioeconomic status from lower-middle-class to middle-middle-class.
The class I teach is an introductory biology class made up of all sophomores, except for one freshman. Our class has slowly shrunk throughout the course, and there are currently only 23 students, of which nine
are males and 14 are females. The racial/ethnic make-up of the class falls in line with that of the school as a whole. Additionally, we have four special education students, as well as five to seven
students who consistently perform above average on all of their assignments.
The smallness of the class has allowed, in my opinion, for a sort of community to come alive. There have been times when I have walked with my students to lunch, and I see them hanging out with many of the same
students who are in our biology class. I have worked to get more of my students involved in class discussions and in their own thinking and work. For much of the first semester, it seemed that during
classroom discussions only a few individuals of the class participated. However, I have made a conscious effort to get more of my students involved. I began calling on students who did not raise their
hands. I pushed them to use the knowledge they had (which was often written on the paper in front of them) to answer class questions. While it did not seem very helpful for some time, towards the end of
the second semester I began to notice that more students would raise their hands. Whether this was due to their fear of me calling on them, or their increased confidence, I am not sure. However, it was
nice to see more students participating.
There are times during class when I feel that there are a couple of students who look down on each other. This is often a rift between some of the students who perform well and some of the students who struggle
more or who choose not to do their work. Some of my students would rather work on their own than with others. However, since much of the work we do within our science class is group work, especially with
labs, students generally do not have the choice of working alone. I usually make heterogeneous groups for labs, as well.
Even though some students do not like working together, most times students find a way to try to involve everyone in their group at least a little. I do a lot of walking around and interacting with the students,
so students often seem encouraged to do some work with others, because they know that I will call them on it otherwise.
My cooperating teacher, supervisor, and I decided that the last three weeks of the semester would be a good time for me to do some independent student teaching and present the unit on infectious diseases that I
developed in my Curriculum and Instruction course at Stanford. I would spend a week on my unit and follow it with a unit on genetic diseases that one of my STEP colleague's had created.
I was extremely excited to get my class all to myself. It was going to be a real challenge, especially after just finishing up winter break and being away from the classroom and teaching for three weeks.
Prior to this unit, we had covered several topics of biology, including ecology, cell structures and functions, genetics, and evolution. There was no apparent flow to the topics that we covered throughout the
course, except that we covered the bigger topics of biology. To meet the state science standards, we chose to finish the course with genetic and infectious diseases.
While my unit satisfied some of the state science standards, I also found myself wondering why it is that my students should be or would want to be learning about this. As I delved into it a bit more, I decided
that since students are exposed to so quite a few infectious agents, many of which can cause significant damage, it would be important for them to know what causes them to get sick, how they can pass their illness
onto others, how their bodies react to the infectious agents, what they can do to prevent/treat these illnesses, and what they can do to protect themselves. Additionally, I hoped that I would spark my students'
interest in science.
I had other goals in mind when creating my unit. I wanted to expose my students to types of teaching besides our standard format of lecturing. I was particularly interested in pushing my students to apply
the science they were learning to another situation. I also wanted them to see that they had the power to educate each other and themselves. Additionally, I wanted to provide students with a learning
situation that would likely draw upon on a number of their various learning strengths. One challenge for my CT and me has been finding a balance between those students are bored in the class and those students
who seem to have a difficult time understanding the concepts we present in class. Since there is such a wide range of abilities, it seems almost impossible to create a lesson that meets the needs of all of our
students. I hoped that my unit might begin to tackle this dilemma.
My unit was entitled, "What's with those little bugs that cause such big problems?" My unit was broken down into five sections: What are the bugs?, How do the bugs make us sick?, How are the bugs spread?'
How does my body fight off the bugs?. and How do we treat/prevent against the bugs? Our work on cell biology earlier in the year helped to scaffold the unit, because students had already seen the structure of animal
and plant cells. Hopefully they could make connections between those cells we had already studied and the protists and viruses that we looked at during the unit.
Our work on the immune system was extremely powerful to me. I planned to begin by doing a short lecture on non-specific immune responses (i.e.
skin, mucous, tears). From this point I would move into an immune system activity developed especially for second language learners that I first saw in a SDAIE (Specially Designed Academic Instruction in
English) workshop at STEP. The immune system activity is a jigsaw in which students tease out different stages of the immune response in groups.
The first step in the jigsaw is for students to go to their home groups (composed of at least one person from each of the expert groups) to meet their group members and to pick up their expert group role card.
The expert role cards have cartoon drawings of the players (i.e. antibodies, virus, killer T-cells) and actions in that stage, definitions of terms, and a brief paragraph about what is happening in their particular
stage of the immune response. Following this students were to go immediately to their expert groups, where they would talk through what they thought was happening in their particular sequence. After their
discussions in their expert group students should have understood their situation well enough to write notes to themselves on a 3.5 x 5" note card.
Armed with only their note cards, students were to return to their home group where they would explain their stage of the immune response to their group members. The other students in the home group would
explain their stages, and then the students would put the four stages in order. Following putting the stages in the proper order, students were to return to their expert group where they would prepare a skit
on their stage of the immune system to present to the rest of the class.
I had the highest expectations for this day, but also the greatest anxiety. I was a bit nervous about how it was going to turn out. I liked the way the lesson had gone with my STEP colleagues, but I did not
know how my high school students would react to it. They had never really had to teach each other concepts, and I knew that the immune system could be a difficult concept to understand. Additionally, I was
unsure of how well my students would understand what they were supposed to be doing (we had never done a jigsaw) and if they would understand the different players in the immune response. I was also concerned about
how long the lesson was going to take, because I knew I only had one day to complete the lesson. This activity has a number of different steps and transitions that have to occur, and I did not know how well it would
flow for my class.
Even with my anxiety, I knew that I liked the different approach to teaching it offered, and I was especially pleased that students would be responsible for teaching their classmates their section of the immune
response. I was also excited to see the students present their information in a creative way (skits) to their classmates. However, this activity depended on students working well in groups, as well as
taking responsibility for their own learning and that of their group members.
"Why can't you just tell us?"
I opened class with my lecture on non-specific immune responses. Students seemed especially flat as I went through the points I thought were
important. Their heads down on the desks, and although a couple of students asked questions, for the most part, the students' eyes seemed glazed over. I tried to keep it interactive, reviewing information
at the end of the lecture, but only a couple of students were responsive. At the end of the lecture I told the students that we would get to the rest of the immune response in our next activity.
Moving into the immune system activity, I explained to students that they would have to use their time very wisely. I emphasized, "this is
going to be boom, boom, boom." However, I caught myself at this moment, wanting more for students to understand this information than to move on and told them, "we might have to run over, okay, so that you can
get the full understanding." I then explained to them that they would be teaching their peers. One of my higher achieving students, Jenn, sighed sarcastically, "great, I love working in groups."
I had already picked the groups for the immune system activity. Both the expert groups and the home groups were heterogeneous (according to gender, academic performance, attitude, etc.). I handed
out a sheet of general instructions that explained the general flow of the jigsaw. I instructed students to go to their home groups to pick up the piece of paper they would need for their master groups (papers
were colored, 4 different colors for the 4 different master groups. Each group had at least one color of paper in their home group).
It took students a few minutes to move to get their master group role cards and then to move to their master groups. I got the students' attention and told them that they should now be talking as a group,
trying to flesh out what was happening in their scenario. I continued, explaining that they needed to put their notes for what was happening in their picture on a note card so that they could explain it to
their home groups.
Some groups got right to work talking about what was happening in the pictures. Jenn's group, with the exception of Rick, a lower achieving student who did not engage, started talking together
immediately. While Rick sat looking around the room at the animals in the class, Jenn and the two other group members, Dorothy and Jody, talked through their situation. "See, this is where the b-cells
tell the spleen to produce antibodies," Jenn told the other group members. Their conversation told me that they were attempting to work through their scenario and that they were making sense of it.
I was generally pleased with Jenn's group. But as my eyes wandered around the room I noticed that two of the other three groups just could not seem to get started. My CT and I went to these groups and
helped them start outlining what was going on in their picture. I asked the students, "What do you think is happening in this scene?" Danny, a quieter student, replied, "Ms. Daniel, I don't understand
what we are supposed to be doing. I don't get what's on these cards." His group members nodded to affirm the statement. "Ms. Daniel, can't you just tell us what's going on?"
I tried to push Danny's group to keep working through their card, hinting to them to identify the key players and what they were doing in their card. I told them that I would come back in a couple of minutes,
but that they needed to be working with each other to brainstorm the situation. When I glanced back I saw them all just sitting there. They were not discussing, problem-solving, or even talking.
They just held their expert cards and looked terribly confused.
My CT was working extensively with the other troubled group. She was walking step-by-step through the response with the group, telling them exactly what to write on their note cards. Eventually I would do
the same thing with Danny's group.
I felt a sense of disappointment that my CT and I were giving two of the groups much more instruction, guidance, and examples than I had originally planned on. We were throwing our goal of having the students
problem solve with each other out the window. It hurt me that we were just giving them the answers, instead of pushing them to think for themselves and to help each other figure out what was happening.
This was supposed to be a lesson filled with discovery and peer teaching. However, most students were not teaching each other, and I was sensing a feeling of helplessness rolling over them. Additionally,
because of our interventions, this innovative activity was beginning to mirror the traditional direct instruction.
Once all the groups finished their cards they moved to their home groups to sequence the four parts. Although this section of the activity was supposed to expose the home groups to all the different parts of
the immune system, most students gleaned little from this. Students had difficulty explaining their cards, let alone sequencing the events. Jenn was especially harsh with Danny. She rolled her eyes
at him when he explained that he did not know what was going on in his section. David had also been in Danny's group, he explained to Jenn the gist of their expert card. Jenn seemed satisfied, saying,
"Well, I guess that makes sense. Your part seems to go after ours." Although it seemed that some students were benefiting from talking through their role cards, those who had not understand it in the
first place were struggling.
Following the home groups, I had the expert groups start planning their skits. As I floated around the room, I noticed that some students were acting out their skits, and I was excited to see them so engaged in
creating their skits. They really seemed to enjoy working on these. On an evaluation at the end of the course students explained that this had been their favorite activity of the course. The skits
were an alternative method of learning for them.
I was a bit disappointed by the content the skits. There were clearly gaps in their understanding. Additionally, I had expected students to be fairly creative and innovative. Three of the four
groups simply had a narrator who simply used the original master group card to explain the skit. Although students wore pink pieces of paper that had their role written on them and acted out a part of the
immune response, I sensed that they would not likely remember this the next day.
The following day I lectured students about how a vaccine works, trying to use the immune response activity from the day before to describe the process. I used slides with the illustrations from the previous
day and tried to walk the students through the information, but most of the students seemed to be lost. When I asked, "Do any of you see how this might connect to yesterday's lesson on the immune system?" I saw
a number of glossy-eyed students. However, some students did seem to connect. One such student, Alex, remarked, "oh, yeah, this is like on those cards from yesterday. It's like when James was
acting like he was a virus and Jody started hitting him because she was acting like a killer T-cell." This kind of response was just like I had been looking for. Unfortunately it was the exception, not
I continued the next class period (2 days after original immune system activity) and had students get into pairs and describe how a vaccine works using the immune system activity. I used this as a type of
assessment. I found that some students did quite well and had made the connections, like Alex had the previous day. However, a lot of students were missing major parts of the process and between the look of
confusion in their eyes and their incorrect explanations of the immune system, I knew that they had not learned what I had hoped they would.
I had mixed feelings as I walked away from this lesson. I was pleased when my students told me in their end of course evaluation that this activity was one of their favorites. They really had enjoyed making the skits and doing a different type of learning activity.
My overwhelming feeling was, however, that what happened that day in class did not reach the high expectations I had set. I had hoped to see my students being inquisitive, showing their natural leadership
skills, teaching one another, and motivating to learn on their own. What I discovered was that this was just too much to ask for in a one day lesson.
The immune system jigsaw was different from any of the other activities we had ever done in our biology class, and likely in any other class these students had been in. We had high expectations for our
students. We had wanted them to do a jigsaw, which we had never done before, to work in groups to problem solve, and finally, to teach one another what was in fact probably still foreign to them. My
students have probably rarely encountered the kind of learning I pushed for that day in class.
The most basic of these issues to approach is the activity itself. Probably the easiest and first step I would take in improving this activity would be to increase the time spent on it. The extra unplanned time
we spent on this activity was undoubtedly helpful. We should have begun with the expectation that this lesson was going to take longer.
Modeling the actual activity for the students would be the next step I would take. Since our students had never done a jigsaw, modeling these groupings and movements would have been helpful. Collins, et
al. note that this allows for the "externalization of usually internal processes and activities" (43). Students would have seen more explicitly what this activity involved, even just the moving from place to
place. Modeling the for students how they should be talking with one another would have also been helpful. Perhaps I could have shown them the kinds of questions I might ask if I were looking at a diagram
similar to that of the immune system cards (possibly a cartoon). I would have modeled the type of language that would occur in an interchange within the groups.
Another item that would have been helpful for my students would have been to have some starter questions to get them going at there lab tables. These questions would have helped lead the students'
discussions. Such questions might be, who are the key players in your sequence?, what are they doing?, come up with an analogy between your card and something else that happens in your daily life. This
type of assistance is similar to the coaching that Collins et al. mention. They explain that coaching "may serve to direct students' attention to a previously unnoticed aspect of the task or simply to remind students of some aspects of the task" (43). The scaffolding of the questions and the feedback to students would have likely provided the students with more direct support in accomplishing this task.
An additional scaffolding piece for my students would have been a graphic organizer. This could have helped them identify more clearly who the key players in their expert cards were. Additionally, when
students went to their home groups, this would have been helpful for them to keep track of the new characters that the other group members presented.
The Bigger Picture: Going beyond the immune system
When I walked into class the day I did the immune system activity, I expected that my students would be able to think deeply, to problem solve in groups, and then to teach the information they learned to
others. I hoped that they would work with one another to tease out their difficulties.
I have thought long and hard about this lesson. My initial thoughts were concerned with how I could have made that one day better. Providing the additional scaffolding and modeling in the form of graphic
organizers, starter questions, and better facilitation would have helped my students learn more from this lesson. However, my analysis of this situation leads me to think that this case is much bigger than
just giving my students a graphic organizer.
This is a case of lack of long-term scaffolding to prepare students how to think independently, problem solve collaboratively, and teach one's peers. I expected my students to be prepared to learn in this
fashion in just one day. For some reason I did not expect for my students to have such a difficulty with the jump from traditional lecture format to the jigsaw activity.
I believe that students bring something to their learning to share with others, and in classrooms we often do not tap into this. Bruner states that, "Learning should not only take us somewhere; it should
allow us to go further more easily" (17). In this situation, our students should not have just been learning about the immune system, they should have been learning how to learn about and discover science on
their own. They should have been seeing an "extension of habits" through this activity (Bruner, 17).
Bruner remarks that, "mastery of the fundamental ideas of a field," which is biology or science in this case, "involves not only the grasping of a general principle, but also the development of an attitude toward
learning and inquiry, toward guessing and hunches, toward the possibility of solving problems on one's own" (20). This is what I wanted for my students, to give them a possibility for solving problems on their
own. I wanted them to have a "sense of excitement about discovery" (Bruner, 20).
Since my students were not prepared for this type of learning, it only made sense that my CT and I had to jump in and "save" them. Our direct instruction with two of the groups pushed those students even
farther away from our learning goals for the lesson. We were quick to jump in to give them the answers that they could have come up with on their own. Perhaps it was a matter of time, perhaps we did not
want our students to fail, and perhaps we did not know how to give our students the tools they needed for this type of learning. I truly believe that our assistance was detrimental to those struggling
groups. We saved them before they had the opportunity to struggle with it in a constructive manner.
My conclusion is that I will need to provide my students with more learning opportunities similar to the immune system jigsaw. Throughout our
biology course students should be exposed to different problem solving activities that require them to think independently and then work in groups to continue to tease out their thoughts. I also feel that I
have a responsibility to ask fellow teachers to do the same. My students needed scaffolding that should have taken place over the course of years, not just one day. It is going to take a huge
commitment on the part of all teachers to accomplish the lofty goal of making our students thoughtful individuals. We need to transform our way of teaching, so that students have to rely upon each other more, and we need our students to quest for their own learning, understanding, and thinking.