Teaching through ‘their words’

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

When Tupelo High School teacher Jeannie Sauls told the freshmen in her accelerated biology class that they were going to do a mitosis square dance, some of them looked a little hesitant.
But once Sauls chose which students would be “chromosomes” or “centrioles” or “cell membrane” parts, the students went with the flow. After all, it wasn’t the first time that Sauls had used a non-traditional exercise to teach biology.
Before long, the students were doing do-si-dos and following the instructions of a song whose lyrics included “Circle right, telephase is on tonight.”
By the end of the song, they had formed two “cells” with one set of “chromosomes” in each.
“It is more hands-on than other classrooms,” said freshman Sarah Benge.
Sauls uses multiple methods to reinforce the lessons she teaches.
In the same class that the students did the “mitosis square dance,” they viewed slides of phases of mitosis through microscopes and used paper plates and household items to construct models of those phases.
Students also made presentations about genetic disorders that related to the lesson.
Students could present their research through a report, a PowerPoint presentation, an interpretive dance or a model they made.
“I try to present matter in so many different ways,” she said. “I like to see each person say, ‘Aha! I get it. Now it makes so much sense.’”
The key to what Sauls calls the “aha moment” is encouraging students to express thoughts in their own words.
“When they first come to me, if I ask a question, they say, ‘I don’t know’,” Sauls said. “But they do know, they just don’t know the exact words to say.
“I don’t want a textbook definition. I want to know the way they know it. They might say, ‘They bond like Mickey Mouse’s ears’ and that might reach four or five kids in the classroom.”
Once, a student compared a scientific concept (going up a gradient in active transport) to moving up a slide. A large group of students said something to the effect of “aha.” And Sauls has used that example ever since.
“When she asks us something, she says read it in your words and make sure you understand,” student Corey Owens said. “You retain the information and you don’t need to cram before a test. You really learn the information.”
Added Drew Ballard: “She gets it to where we understand it and where we can explain it in our own words.”
Once they grasp a concept, Sauls will try to make sure they remember it – by doing experiments, making a presentation, building a model or even performing a square dance.
The back wall of her classroom is colorfully painted with diagrams of diffusion, DNA strands, photosynthesis and pedigree charts.
“The color burns into their minds,” Sauls said. “Those are the major parts on the state test.”
Sauls, who has been teaching for 14 years, set a goal before the year that all all of her students would score advanced on the state biology test. She intentionally gives difficult tests, so that students will find the state exam an easy one.
“Her tests are really hard,” student Benton Banko said, “but she gets it to a point where we can understand.”

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or at chris.kieffer@djournal.com.