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Jessica's Penultimate Draft

I have been completing my work as a student teacher for the past five months at a high school in Mist Grove, California.  Westwood is the only high school in the Silicon Valley city of Mist Grove.  Westwood was a California Distinguished School in 1995, and it is very involved in school reform.  Some examples of school reform are with the Coalition of Essential Schools, Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, and it is a Professional Development School with Stanford University.  Westwood, much like Mist Grove, is a diverse environment with respect to race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.  Students from a variety of backgrounds attend the school. 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. There are currently only 23 students, of which nine are males and 14 are females.  The class is very heterogeneous with respect to race, ethnicity, and performance in the class.  The racial/ethnic make-up of the class fall in line with that for 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 for, in my opinion, 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.  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 do not have much of 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 that I developed in my Curriculum and Instruction course at Stanford.  My unit was on infectious diseases.  I would spend a week on my unit, and follow it with unit a 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 learning about this.  As I delved into it a bit more, I decided that since students are exposed to so many infectious agents out there, 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, and what they can do to prevent/treat these illnesses.  Since we are exposed to a number of pathogens ("bugs") everyday, I wanted my students to see what they could do to make sure that we can protect ourselves from these to the best of your ability.  There are a lot of  bugs that can cause a lot damage, and  hopefully, through this unit, I would provide my students with the tools they needed to protect themselves and others from infection and illness. Additionally, I hoped that I would spark some interest in my students minds with regard to science.

I had other goals in mind when creating my unit.  I wanted my students to experience some different types of learning, besides lecture.  I wanted to push my students to apply the science they were using to another situation. I also wanted my students 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 my students' various 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 accomplish this.

The unit was entitled, "What's with those little bugs that cause such big problems?".  There were also several subheadings for the days within the unit:  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?.  Some of the work that we did throughout the course helped to scaffold for the unit on infectious diseases.  Our work on cell biology was especially important.  Because students had already seen the structure of animal and plant cells, they could make connections to the protists and viruses that we looked at during the unit. 

            Our work on the immune system was extremely powerful to me.  I had the highest expectations for this day, and also the greatest anxiety.  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 I first saw in a SDAIE workshop at STEP.  The activity was developed especially with second language learners in mind.  The immune system activity is a form of a jigsaw that helps students in groups to tease out different stages of the immune response.  Students were to first get into their home groups to see who was in their home group (made up of at least one person from each of the expert groups) 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.  Through these discussions students should have understood their situation well enough to write notes to themselves on a 3.5 x 5" note card, so that they could leave the expert role cards behind. 

Armed with 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 unit, students were to return to their expert group where they would prepare a skit to present to the rest of the class on their stage of the immune response.

            Going into this lesson I was a bit nervous about how it was going to turn out. I liked the way it had gone with my STEP colleagues, but I did not know how my students would react to it.  They had never really had to teach each other concepts, and I knew that the immune system could be difficult to understand. I was unsure of how well my students would understand what they were supposed to be doing, and if they would understand the different players in the immune response.  Additionally, I was 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.  I did not know if I was giving my students enough time to complete each of the steps, and I knew that I did not have time the next day for this activity to flow over into.

Even with my anxiety, I knew that I liked the different approach to teaching it offered and was pleased that students would be responsible for teaching their classmates their section of the immune response.  Additionally, I was 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.  They would need to teach themselves and others about their section of the immune response.

            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.  Students had their heads down on the desks, and although a couple of students asked questions, for the most part, the students' eyes seemed to glaze over a bit.  I tried to keep it interactive, reviewing information at the end of the lecture, but I was only able to get answers to my questions from a couple of students who typically answer questions.  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.  They were heterogeneous (gender, academic performance, attitude, etc.) for both the master groups and the jigsaw groups.  I handed out a sheet of instructions for them with where they would be going throughout the class.  I instructed students to go to their jigsaw 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 jigsaw group).  Some students were not sure what they were supposed to be doing, and they just stayed at their jigsaw group tables.

My instructions were not especially clear for which master group was supposed to be in which place in the classroom.   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 jigsaw groups. 

Students took about 20 minutes to figure this out. Some groups got right to work talking about what was happening in the pictures.  Jenn's group started talking together immediately, although there one student, Rick, a lower achieving student, did not engage with his group. He sat there looking at the animals we have in class.  Jenn and two other girls, 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.

There were two groups that 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?"

The discovery and learning was not happening. Students were not teaching each other and I was sensing a feeling of helplessness roll over them.  I tried to push Danny's group to keep working through their card, and 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.  I hinted to them to figure out who the key players were and what they were doing in their card.  When I looked to Danny's group after I left, I saw them all just sitting there.  They were not chatting with each other about anything.  They just held their expert cards with a severe look of confusion.  The biology was a foreign language to them, and they could only look listlessly at it.

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.  This feeling increased twofold when I noticed that the group my CT was working with, unlike the rest of the groups, did not have a single student who had written their notes yet.  I was mindful of keeping the class on my schedule, but I knew that we could not leave a group behind. My CT and I walked step-by-step through the response with the group, telling them exactly what to write on their note cards.  We seemed to put the 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 activity was picking up many of the traditional aspects of direct instruction, instead of discovery learning.

We moved onto the home groups following getting this group on track.  Students were to hear about the whole sequence of events from their group members and figure out what order they should go in.  I had emphasized less that they should be learning other people's parts, more emphasizing just explaining what was going on in their picture and what order these might go in. 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.  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 jigsaw groups, I had the master groups start planning their skits.  Students got into their groups and starting figuring out their skits.  Again, this was rushed and they had to "hurry" (my orders) to get ready.  Each group had approximately 12 minutes to come up with their skits.  As I floated around the room, I noticed that some students were acting out their skits, and I was excited to see someone so into being a virus. 

I was a bit disappointed when the students came up to do their skits.  I had expected students to be fairly creative and to really get into doing the skits.  However, the skits just did not live up to my expectations. The students showed little evidence of really understanding what was going on in their section. Three of the four groups simply had a narrator who explained the immune response straight from what had been on the original master group card.  Although students wore pink pieces of paper with their role, and each student 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 seemed 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 the rule. 

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. 

Analysis and Reflection

I have thought and thought about what went wrong this day in class.  A couple of difficulties occurred.  I did not really have enough time, and I pushed my students to smash it all into one period.  I also did not scaffold the pieces well enough.  It probably would have been beneficial for me to provide students with graphic organizers for charting the different parts of the immune response.  This way they could have kept track of not only their own section of the immune system, but also the three others they encountered during their home groups.

Fundamentally, however, I have to dig deeper when I think about what happened this day in class.  The first thing that became clear to me was that my students have probably rarely encountered the kind of learning I pushed for that day in class. I really wanted them to learn for themselves and to teach each other.  We had not set these kind of expectations before for our students.  We had never told them that we expected them to work as a group to teach each other and learn from each other.  My CT and I in a way even pushed the students away from this learning.  We were quick to jump into groups that were not succeeding.  We gave 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.

For me, this is a case of getting students to learn to think on their own and from their peers.  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 and "extension of habits" through this activity (Bruner, 17). 

There is a possibility that scaffolding would have been helpful in this situation.  I feel, though, that this scaffolding should have taken place over years of schooling. My students should have been taught how to problem solve for themselves.  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).

            There are a lot of things that I could have done to make this lesson better for my students.  I should not have rushed them.  I should have given them two days to finish the activity.  I should have had them take better notes on their own processes and on other's processes.  I should not have jumped to rescue my students.  However, what I should have really tried to push them to do was to teach each other and to push for that sense of discovery and learning. As teachers, 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.

Copyright 2000, Karen Hammerness, Stanford University. All the material contained on this site has been produced by Karen Hammerness, Lee Shulman, Linda Darling-Hammond, Kay Moffett, and Misty Sato. These materials can be downloaded, printed and used with proper acknowledgement, including the name and affiliation of the authors and the web-site addess.

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