Sunday, March 24, 2013

John Dorroh

My Bloody Dance Shoes: The Biology Ballet

       Let’s go back, way back, before there were Promethean and smart boards, cell phones, and internet, circa 1975.  Hmmmm….dating myself, I know, but with age comes experience, right?

   I entered the hallowed halls of New Hope High School in Columbus, Mississippi (birth place of Tennessee Williams, by the way), on January 6, 1976, accompanied by a new briefcase and a bucket of enthusiasm.

   “Just wait until they hear my lectures on the life cycle of ferns!” I told myself. My intentions were honest and lofty – to change young lives by infusing excitement about the amazing world of biology.

   That first week I encountered Gloria, the alpha dog;  Ernie,  the classroom terrorist; Jon, the arsonist and kleptomaniac, and 140 others, each with his or her individual agenda.  Unfortunately, none of their agendas included wanting to learn biology.  Despite my humorous approach to lecturing on the usual topics such as mitosis and meiosis, monohybrid and dihybrid crosses, and recombinant DNA, students weren’t reacting as I had planned.  “This isn’t as easy as I thought,” I admitted.

   The next year was easier, but I knew that something was missing. I was doing all of the usual things – helping the students with note-taking, engaging them in laboratory experiences, including all the required dissections, and assigning the occasional out-of-class project for in-class presentation.  This slow dance lasted for more than a decade.

   At the point where I was going to make an exit off of the dance floor, Bob Tierney entered and invited me to stick around. It was as if he was telling me that NWP would help me find comfortable dance shoes and that I might be able to change my dance steps all together; that I probably could lead my biology students in their own dances of exhilaration and discovery.

   Bob Tierney was among the first group of Bay Area Writing Project TCs who began their own dances in the summer of 1975. Through a serendipitous series of events, I landed one of the last spots at a local writing project mini-institution, featuring Bob, who had taught high school science and coached inner city students in Fremont, California.  Working with Sherry Swain and Sandra Burkett at the Mississippi State University Writing/Thinking Institute, Bob shared about 20 writing-based strategies that he had tested and used extensively in his basic skills science classes.

   Bob, Sherry, and Sandra offered me new dance shoes, shoes which hurt my feet to the point where they bled. I was awkward and antsy but willing to practice my moves.

  The first strategy that I tested with my students was a version of journaling called Expressive Mode notebooks. We wrote nearly every day; I wrote with them in my own journal. (“Reflections on Expressive Writing in the Science Class,” J. Dorroh, the Quarterly, Volume 15, Number 3, 1993, p. 28-30.). The biggest challenge was developing a fair and consistent manner to evaluate their written thoughts. I became a scientist in my learning lab (classroom), manipulating as many variables as possible to find out specific cause-and-effect outcomes. Dance practice continued.

   We wrote skits about principles and concepts, embedding the science facts into the text, often reading and acting them out with props. (“How Enzymes Act: Skit Writing in Science Class,” J. Dorroh, The Quarterly, Volume 18, Number 4, 1996, p. 13-17)  Skits gave birth to Reader’s Theatre and Chorale Reading.

   There was a snowball effect. The more we used writing to learn science, the more ideas we had. I found myself stepping away from the podium and listening more to what the students had to say.  They wrote and we talked; they wrote and we danced.

    My colleagues hinted that we might be having too much fun, suggesting that I wasn’t preparing them properly for tests.  “You’re way out of the box,” said Tim, my next-door teacher friend. 

   I challenged Tim to conduct an experiment.

    “You teach biology the same way you always do,” I suggested, “and I’ll use all my writing-based strategies.” He accepted the challenge, I think to prove his point and to make me give up my “cute activities,” to accept and use the pre-determined blueprint for biology. We selected two classes, each with a similar make-up, overall class average, etc.  We chose a unit on genetics and began teaching.

   My students continued to write in their journals, create skits with talking genes and chromosomes, prepare original interview scripts for probing into the lives of Gregor Mendel and other lesser known geneticists, and take interactive notes.  We moved gracefully through the unit, a ballet as it were. Of course there were blisters and bruises, but at the end of the unit, my students expressed a sense of accomplishment, unafraid to take a test of any kind.

   I felt that the results of our experiment were significant; Tim felt otherwise.  The two class averages of the end-of-unit test were close. My students’ overall average was 85%; Tim’s was 81%. “Big deal,” he said.

   But I wasn’t finished with Tim.  I had asked him to keep up with all of the “teacher duties” by minute.  This included the preparation time for lectures, preparing all assessments, grading, returning tests, going over them with the students, filing them, etc.  I did the same.

   “What does this prove?” he asked.  “Maybe nothing,” I said. “I want us to see how much time each of us spends on all of the minutia.  Then we can look at the end-product to see if we feel that it was worth it.”

   As it tuned out, Tim spent about 40% more time on “tasking” than I did.  During the process, he experienced frustration, anger, and a sense of failure.  I, on the other hand, was content, for the most part, to see my students dance every day in Room 23 and the lab. That’s not to say that everything was perfect and that I experienced no challenges. But writing strategies had a tendency to allow students to carry the burden of learning on their own shoulders, to make discoveries and connections. I liked that!

   “Let’s carry this another step,” I suggested.

   “What now?” he begrudgingly asked.

   “Let’s give them the same test in a month without any notice and see how they do,” I said.

   “Whatever,” he said.  I could tell that Tim had lost his enthusiasm for our experiment, but he caved and we continued.

    A month later we administered – without notice—the same unit test on genetics. The students complained and ranted for a few minutes, but after I explained the purpose, they settled down and took the test.

   The results were astounding. My students’ original overall score was about 85%; their follow-up was 80%.  Tim’s students’ scores dipped from 81% into the 60s.

    “That doesn’t prove much,” he said. I agreed. It was, at best, an indicator, the beginnings of a classical research set-up. So many other variables…..need more classes from other schools….other teachers with different teaching styles, etc. But it did go to show Tim that a writing-based biology classroom can perhaps help students learn material better and…and retain it.

    In the next couple of years after the Great Challenge, I continued to break in my dance shoes.  We began using portfolios with a mantra of “collect, select, and reflect.”  All student work was housed in wildly decorated folders, and once a month, usually on a Friday, students would select one piece from their collecting file for reflection and placement into their permanent portfolios.  At year’s end, each student had in his/her possession a portfolio that contained 9-10 artifacts, which showed them behaving and thinking like “real scientists.” That helped to tear down the stereotype that “all scientists are nerds.”

    From the portfolios, we developed a system of “menu selection,” in which students were required to select a minimum of three (out of seven) modes of evaluation, most of them writing-based. (The Whole Story: Teachers Talk about Portfolios, “Evolution of a Biology Teacher,” J. Dorroh, p. 59-69, NWP). On and on.

    For the remainder of my full-time teaching career, writing became the vehicle for helping my science students become engaged, reveling in the exhilaration of discovery. It was a dance, one that might not have happened if I hadn’t accepted the change of shoes.

   (I’d like to thank Diane Scollay and Nancy Singer for graciously accepting me into the Gateway fold as a Mississippi transplant.  I continue to grow—sharing with teachers ways to find their own dance steps in classrooms all over the St. Louis area.)


1 comment:

  1. John--The dance we do with our students is exhilarating. Although we sometimes step on an occasional toe, when we get it right--either freestylin' it or a dance which has pre-set steps--there's nothing more exciting.

    Thanks for continuing despite the bleeding feet...