Making the Move from Teacher Innovation to Student Innovation: Face-to-Face Interviews Bringing Science to Life

Several weeks ago, I got a very welcome email from Perry Goldsbury, 7th grade science teacher.  In it, he wrote:

I wanted to share a quick story of student innovation with you . . . Currently in 7th grade science, the students are working on a presentation related to a nervous system disorder. One of my students, William Burrow, whose presentation is on Epilepsy, reached out to a pediatric neurologist named Dr. Brad Ingram at UMMC who is the director of the Pediatric Comprehensive Epilepsy Program at the hospital. William spent his own time interviewing and meeting with Dr. Ingram yesterday and has 14 minutes of information to breakdown and share with the class. He will be sending me the whole 14 minute interview, and he was extremely excited and passionate about the subject since speaking with Dr. Ingram.  Hope you can use this in some way. It wasn’t quite teacher innovation but student innovation is just as important right!?

Perry’s email really got me thinking.  We in i2 have been doing all this talking about faculty innovation and inspiration.  But in the end, our creative pedagogical design is not an end unto itself; if it doesn’t make space for student innovation or inspiration, what’s the point?  I needed to learn more, so I decided to talk to Perry.

Perry, typically when people think about science class they picture labs and lots of content to learn.  What made you build a project that involved a presentation into your course?

Perry: I built it into the course just mainly because I hated speaking in school. I was a shy kid and when I got to college it was really hard [because of] that. I did a speech class in college and all we did was present. I felt like it totally changed how I was in classes . . . So it is a skill that is really important and students need to practice more. In this society, [presenting] is something that people do less of. So [practicing it in school] helps.

Perry. The shy guy, I can’t believe it. No, that’s so true about speech. So true. And so often kids see it as a, you’re either good at it or you’re not, or you’re brave or you’re not. And it really does impact everything.  I mean, there are so few jobs or like lives in which the ability to formulate words, communicate even like interviews and that type of stuff. . . even like at family outing, finding a partner, you know, it’s everywhere! So how exactly do you build it into your class?

Perry: Each quarter I try and have them present something and it’s ramped up every time. First quarter was like a minute individual presentation, the second quarter we went into groups and presented about climate change. This past presentation was 8-10 minutes and required much more in depth research and then in the fourth quarter they do a research study that they design themselves and present their findings to the group.

So how did the 8-10 minute project turn into interviewing rather than just a traditional set of google slides and Internet research?

Perry: Well last year I did this assignment and it was my first year; it started off as just classic research, using the internet and books . . . It was actually a group of students that had the idea of also doing interviews. One of the students had a family friend that was a neurologist so they went themselves and they brought it up and presented it. I didn’t know anything about it until they did their presentation! So that obviously triggered my mind, so this year I announced it to the class as a possibility: “If you know someone and you want to ask someone [interview questions] you can set that up and that would be a great thing.”   I said to them, “ if you want help in setting up a meeting I’d be happy to do that.” [On presentation day] students think it is cool just seeing their classmate be the one in the interview with questions and interaction.

Do you have a list of topics they could choose from?

Perry: Yes, I give them a list of seven different topics, so, and I said to them it doesn’t matter what other classmates pick; multiple people can do one, whatever you want to pick.  So I like to give them that choice where they can maybe relate to it a little more than just me telling them you’ve got to go study there. It was also a group project.

A lot of times teachers don’t know how to address assessment in these more open assignments.  How did you grade their presentations?

Perry: Yeah, I have a rubric. I focus on five five key areas: presenting, the slides themselves, quality of research, information, and use of time.  They didn’t necessarily get extra credit for going out and doing interviews, but the way it tied in is they were just so engaged that it helped the information, helped them present. Because what I found is those groups [that did interviews] didn’t need notecards, didn’t look at their slides.  They were able to just talk about what they’ve gathered. So it was a major marked difference between them that went out because everyone else off the internet were staring at notecards and you could see them looking in their brain trying to get out, but with these three [that did interviews] they were just able to speak. So it was very cool seeing them presenting. So naturally that increased their grade as well. 

Any tensions or challenges you encountered?

So my challenge with group work would always be [knowing] how much someone did.  Google slides does enable me to see who’s editing but it’s still, you never really know. So that’s one and I probably don’t really know how I could ever manage that. I’ve tried last year doing partner reflections, but some people just maybe didn’t like their partner that day, graded them down and then some are best friends with them so they give them more. Generally the presentation does show who put in more work; you can see who knows it more than others, and I ask questions at the end to each person as another [measure]. But really I think it was a great experience; it went really well this year. They all enjoyed it.

So Perry said they enjoyed it, but I didn’t want to take his word for it.  I decided to reach out to three seventh graders that did pursue an interview for their project: Holden Caraway and Austin Morgan (who produced this interview) and William Burrow (who produced this interview) to get the real story.

So I heard you all chose to do an outside interview for the project Mr. Goldsbury assigned on a neurological nervous system disorder.  How did you find someone to interview?

Austin: So I know my mom knows a lot of people at the Mind Center, so when we got assigned this project I was like, “Holden, we should totally do Alzheimer’s Disease.”  So I asked her if we could get an interview with somebody from the Mind Center . . . and it was about 2 weeks later when she told me we had an interview with Dr. Tom Mosely who is the head researcher at the Mind Center.

William: I, over a period of two days dropped hints to my mom that I wanted an interview. The way we knew we could integrate in an interview was Mr. Goldsbury told us and I was specifically, my group was doing epilepsy and I got an interview with a children’s epilepsy specialist, Dr. Brad Engram.  Actually how I got it was my mom was close friends with him in high school. We took a video. I had 15 minutes of video overall. One was him showing me a model of the brain and one was me asking questions such as “how do you help someone in a seizure”

How interesting that both of you had natural connections through your parents!  Tell me something difficult about this process . . or something that was really fun.

Holden: Difficult . . there was a really bright light on the camera and it kinda got distracting. Mr. Jim Albriten is a photographer and videographer, and it was a perfect day because they were already filming something.  He had this big tripod and big microphone and big light panel and about half way through the video he took it off and held it on his shoulder, and it was really really cool.

William: I just did a video on the phone!

So what do you think you got out of this whole experience that you wouldn’t have if you hadn’t done an interview?   You could’ve just gone on the Internet to look up epilepsy!

Holden: For me it was probably the grade.  Our grade was high!

William: The thing that was interesting to me is I learned so much about epilepsy, like I learned there’s this type of seizure that can last through the night and you don’t get sleep.  One thing that he also mentioned was the recommended medicine for it. [The safe one for like us] is 2 mg. They have to give these kids 30 mg  just to let them sleep, so the brain will relax. But I also know how to keep someone from ruining their lungs in a seizure, just flip them on their side and clean their drool because no one wants to see that.

Austin: So my grandmother has Alzheimer’s and I figured if I did this I would have a better understanding.  Miss Kerri Jones at St. Katherine’s, she told us something they do is therapeutic lying. So if the patient has really bad Alzheimer’s and their mother died 15 years ago, but they’re asking “Have you seen my mom?  Is she coming today” don’t tell them “No, your mother passed away 50 years ago,” because they get mad. You tell them “Yeah, she went to the jewelry store across the street and will be right back.” Because [otherwise] they will get angry and violent and you don’t want them to get violent . . . 

What advice do you have for teachers who want to try this kind of thing in their classes?

Austin: Definitely tell students that they have the option to be interactive, like have an interview, because you could just look stuff up on the internet and write it down and it goes in one ear and out the other and no one understands it. But having an interactive slide where there is a video of somebody talking to somebody else, it explains it a lot better.  

William: The doctor I interviewed, he was very entertaining, and he kept it funny. He kept describing the brain and certain parts of the brain and their functions.  He basically summarized a whole med school class in a joke. It was hilarious. He’d say “the cerebral cortex is the Kardashian of the brain . . it does nothing except spread the gossip” and that’s how I understood what the part of the brain did, it just sorts stuff and spreads it through the brain.

Holden: You could do basic research, but if you go over and beyond even without the choice, one that can help develop traits later on in your life, and also, it could get you a better grade, possibly and show your teacher that you are actually trying yourself. . .

For me, there is much to celebrate in this story.  Holden celebrated his higher grade, but for me, the real kicker is Perry’s observation that the kids that did the interviewing retained the information so much better and were thus able to more clearly present it to their peers.  Isn’t it funny how the best project-based-learning opportunities can support (rather than detract from) the traditional content-driven goals of any classroom?

In that email I am so glad he sent me many weeks ago, Perry put in the disclaimer that his story was about student innovation, not teacher innovation.  But the more I think about it, the more I can’t untangle the two. His pedagogical plans to incorporate student-choice driven presentations invited in the spirit of exploration that pushed Holden, Austin, and William to connect what they were studying in school to real-life careers and professionals.  Perry’s mere mention of the possibility of interviewing experts nudged these seventh graders into a wide world of potential mentors and connections, proving to them that learning is an enterprise that is so much bigger than the four walls of the schoolhouse. In this way, their innovation and his innovation proved inextricable and, together, led to the production of some pretty inspiring stuff.

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