Restoration Bay Case

Teachers adapt an interdisciplinary unit designed to increase problem-solving and cooperative learning skills. The teachers learn about planning interdisciplinary units, delivering those units, setting expectations for student success, and forming effective cooperative learning groups.

First meeting of Mary Birch (science), Byron Richardson (English), Judy Silver (math), Beth Zamorski (social studies), and Addie Sanford (Principal).

Mary Birch followed the last student out of the classroom and headed toward the library. She was excited about the first team meeting of the Santa Monica Bay Project. She had brought back many ideas from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s workshop, and was eager to share them with the rest of the team. Although the principal, Addie Sanford, had been a little apprehensive when Mary first approached her about adapting the East Coast project for use in Los Angeles, Mary had managed to convince her. In the post-workshop glow, she imagined how she and her colleagues at Washington Middle School would collaborate to make the unit a success.

The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, Inc.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation Boat

The existing sixth-grade class structure would be ideal for the interdisciplinary nature of this unit. Students moved from class to class in four intact groups. They could begin the unit with one of the four groups, and then include all of them if the unit were successful. There would be plenty of opportunities to incorporate computers, the Internet, and cooperative learning. Most important, the unit would provide students with opportunities to apply what they were learning to real-life situations.

From what she had seen while working with the students so far this year, Mary believed they were ready for the challenge. Her only reservation was working with Judy Silver, the math teacher. In her 24th year of teaching, Judy was looking forward to retirement. She often referred to the days when teachers were, in her words, “able to teach instead of being baby sitters.” She didn’t seem to believe that today’s students could actually learn.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation Logo

As Mary was organizing her materials for the meeting, Byron, the language arts teacher, walked in to the library with a smile. Even though he had only been teaching a few years more than Mary, Byron’s ability to handle disciplinary problems and motivate students was legendary. Mary turned to him for advice often, and he had become a good friend.

“How was that vacation you took in Maryland, Miss Mary?” asked Byron as he lifted his feet onto the edge of the desk.

Mary replied, “It went great, but I’m glad to be back. I think you’re going to like this project.”

“Sounds like Mrs. Sanford likes it,” Byron said as he sat up. “She’s hoping to get some publicity from this at some point. She mentioned the newspaper, maybe even TV.”

Judy entered the library and the conversation at just about the same moment, “Mrs. Sanford requested that I work on this team, but I don’t know how we can pull this off. These kids can’t even add; how are they supposed to work in groups to save the environment? Have you seen the way they throw trash around the neighborhood?”

“Slow down Judy,” responded Byron. “Let’s take a look at what Mary’s got, and figure out what we can use.”

Beth walked in with a sigh. In her 17 years at the middle school, she hadn’t lost her enthusiasm or her inability to say no to commitments; she could never devote enough time to her obligations. “I think this is the first opportunity I’ve had to sit down all week!” she exclaimed. “How are all of you? What have you brought back for us, Mary?”

Mary replied excitedly, “There’s nothing like having someone else do the heavy lifting, and that’s exactly what the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has done. The unit they developed ties in well to the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project, and to projects the students can do right here in the neighborhood. You are not going to believe how much potential we have here for using technology, giving students real-life applications, and developing problem solving skills. If this works out, we can have our students comparing their projects with students in Maryland over the Internet. And…”

“Hang on a second, Mary,” Byron interjected. “All this sounds great, but we’ve only been given three days a week for six weeks to conduct this unit. Do you think it’s enough time?”

Beth spoke up while leafing through the teacher’s guide, “This looks interesting, but I’m not sure it’s for all of our students. Sure, the gifted students can do this, but I’m afraid it’s too difficult for most of our kids.”

Judy agreed, “You’re right, Beth. Besides, I’ve seen this sort of thing before. Interdisciplinary and cooperative learning are just the latest fads; they’ll fade and then come back around in another seven years. And I’m wondering how much this will take away from the time we need to prepare students for the achievement tests in April.”

“Well…” Mary sighed as her emotional sails collapsed.

Byron said, “I don’t think this is a fad, Judy. Kids need to know how to work as teams and how to problem solve. They’ve got to learn how to find information when they need it and know how to apply it. What better way than to give the students a real-life opportunity to learn and to make a difference in their community?”

“All right, all right, Byron,” responded Judy, “I have some math problems about estimating high and low tide I can use. I’ll give it a chance.”

“It’ll be worth it, you’ll see,” said Byron with a sly smile. “Let’s meet tomorrow to divide the materials into the four subject areas.”

Mary was grateful Byron had helped with Judy, yet she also felt a twinge of resentment that she had lost control of the meeting. Nothing ever quite worked out as she planned.

Mary adapts the lesson “Bay TV Guide” to represent the species of animals found in the Santa Monica Bay area.

The Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project

Bay TV

The Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project loaned Mary a fish tank filled with the appropriate species, and she had decorated it to look like a television.

The “Bay TV Guide” lesson plan

As the students gathered around the fish tank, George jumped at the chance for attention, pretending to be a VJ:

“You just heard the Crabs singing, ‘Yo Butter—Don’t You Come Near!’ Right after this break, you’ll hear our number one hit from the Sharks: ‘I’m Gonna Eat Yo Momma Tonight!'”

As the students laughed and talked, Mary decided not to put a damper on the fun. She wished George were always so involved. Early in the school year, he refused to speak at all in class. Lately, though, he had begun to participate more in class discussions, although he still would not work on assignments. He and his best friend Jaime enjoyed nothing more than disrupting class.

When the group paused, Mary broke into the conversation, “George, what can you tell me about your singing crabs? Where do they come from?” George described crabs, how they eat, where they live, how they taste, and so on, holding the attention of the rest of the students. Mary was surprised at how much he knew.

Picking up on George’s lead, Mary talked about how crustaceans had adapted to their surroundings over time and how they were being threatened. She told the students to each observe one animal in the tank and decorate their journal with drawings of that animal. As students hunted for their pens and pencils, Mary hurriedly went over directions for collecting and recording data on sea creatures and for answering several research questions listed on the board. She suspected the latter assignments might be difficult for several of the students, but figured Byron and Judy would help students with those tasks. Besides, she had so many science activities that she didn’t know how she was going to fit everything in, much less add any more skills to her objectives for this unit.

The Interdisciplinary Unit Outline

As the students decorated their journals, Mary noted the enthusiasm already mounting around the project. George was smiling as he covered his journal with pictures of sea creatures. Jaime, who was normally disrupting the class, worked intently on his drawing. He had tested as gifted in the third grade, but no one would ever guess, because of a lack of social skills and low self-esteem. Mary thought he might be hyperactive or have an emotional disorder. He lived with his mother and grandmother. Jaime’s mother had not been able to attend parent conferences due to her work schedule.

Jaime’s drawing

As she looked at Jaime’s work, Mary exclaimed, “Jaime, your drawing is beautiful! I see you’ve taken notes on what you’ve observed about the abalone too! Great job! You are doing so well! I’m so impressed!”

Jaime didn’t look up, and his pencil stopped moving.

Mary felt his discomfort and said, “I’m serious, Jaime. You arevery talented!

Jaime stood up and hit the students’ heads with his pencil as he walked toward the pencil sharpener. Manuela, a foot taller than Jaime, jumped in front of him and started threatening and cursing at him in Spanish. Another student called out laughingly, “Oh…Jaime’s in trouble!” The bell rang, and the students grabbed their belongings, heading for their next class. Manuela and Jaime lingered behind glaring at each other.

Mary, Byron, Judy, and Beth meet to discuss the culminating activities.

Mary, Byron and Judy

Mary discussed the service projects with Byron and Judy at lunch. They decided the students would complete projects in the valley that affected water run-off into the Santa Monica Bay. Mary brought up her proposal, “I think, as a culminating activity, we should have the students create advertisements about their projects—give them use of video, computers, supplies, and so forth.”

“How can you give them so much responsibility? They break everything they touch!” exclaimed Judy. “And I can’t teach them how to use the equipment; I usually count on Byron to get the VCR working for me.”

Mary responded, “I’ll take responsibility for the equipment, and I’ll help students during lunch and after school. If you’re willing, I’d love to have your help after school, and you could learn more about the equipment then. It’s really easy, once you see how it’s done. Besides, this is a great way for us to demonstrate our use of technology in the classroom, and I bet it will really motivate the students.”

Judy was not easily convinced. “If you want to put in your own time that’s fine. I did my time for 20 years and learned that the more you give, the more the district takes. Besides, my students have done just fine without all of these gizmos, and I think that your expectations for student performance are too high.”

Beth arrived in the lunchroom, late as usual, talking as she sat. “Sorry I’m late—meetings. The projects are going great in my class. I didn’t expect these groups to get along so well with the mixed abilities. You chose the groups well, Mary.”

Mary replied, “Thanks, I appreciate that.”

Byron broke in, “Beth, what do you think about having the students create advertisements with the media equipment for their culminating project?”

Beth replied, “Can they do that in such a short time?”

“I think so,” said Mary, “and I’m willing to put the time in on it.”

Byron said, “I think so too. The students have been learning about advertising in my class from their newspaper projects. This will be a good way for them to transfer their knowledge to something new.”

As Mary drove home after school, she reflected on the sequence of events that occurred at lunch. Once again, Byron had come to the rescue—a mixed blessing.

Mary takes her class to tour the Santa Monica Bay with a guide from the Restoration Project; the class waits for the bus to take them back to school.

Class listens to Santa Monica Bay tour guide

The field trip to the bay had gone well. Students learned about how water run-off and waste affects the life of the bay. They were challenged to return to their neighborhoods and get involved in activities to protect the bay.

Jaime and his grandmother

After lunch on the beach, they waited for the bus to return. She watched Jaime and his grandmother as they talked and laughed with a group of students. He was obviously very fond of her. Jaime had been well behaved, and he enthusiastically translated the Restoration guide’s presentation into Spanish for his grandmother. It had been a good idea to ask Jaime’s grandmother to accompany them. Mary made a mental note to thank Byron for the suggestion.

Mary stood and scanned the area to check on the students. As she squinted in the bright light, she couldn’t find George or the rest of his group. In a momentary panic, she had a flash of dread that she had made a mistake taking him on the field trip in the first place. Normally she would have left him behind because of his pattern of misbehavior, but he had been so involved with this project that she thought it was worth the chance. Lately he had proven himself by coming in at lunch and staying after school to do research on the Internet. She had also noticed that he wasn’t getting frustrated composing on the computer as he always seemed to be when he wrote with pencil and paper.

Where’s George?

She finally located George, running back and forth like a madman at the water’s edge as his team members watched and laughed. It looked as though he might jump in the water. As Mary ran up to him, she used her sternest voice. “What are you doing this time George?”

Joanne, one of the members of his group, responded, “It’s okay, Mrs. Birch. George was just showing us a new idea for our advertisement. We don’t want anyone to take our ideas so we came over here.”

So that was it, Mary thought as she bumbled out an apology, “I’m sorry George, I just thought…”

George interrupted, “Whatever,” and then ran off toward the bus that was pulling into the parking lot.

Mary took a head count after the students were settled on the bus and gave the driver the go-ahead. She sat down next to George and spoke in a soft voice, “George, I’m sorry I reacted before I knew what was going on, but I am responsible for all of you. I can’t risk a mishap of some kind.”

George didn’t reply.

In an attempt to put things on a more positive footing, Mary said, “I think you’re doing a really good job. I’m looking forward to seeing your team’s advertisement.”

George stared out the bus window and didn’t say anything.

Mary works with her class at the park.

Students collect water samples

Mary was excited and nervous about the trip to the park down the street from the school. It was the first of two visits the students would be making. She had convinced her colleagues to use two class periods for this phase of the project; it was important that she validate this use of time with a successful trip. Three parents had agreed to accompany the class during their visits to the park. Their charge was to help keep students on task.

While one of the teams went to the creek to take water samples, another began to record litter and waste that might affect water runoff. Mary observed as the third group organized itself to record the park’s vegetation. She wanted to make sure the parent working with the group, Mr. White, understood this was a student-led activity.

Student-led activity

Mr. White asked Mary, “Are you sure the students know what they’re doing?”

“Well, it’s important they learn how to come up with their own solutions,” she replied. “That’s one of the main goals of this project.”

Mr. White responded, “I understand the students need to come up with their own solutions, but how are they supposed to do this without learning these concepts in the classroom? Only the bright kids are going to learn this way. ”

Mary replied confidently, “They will be working with this data in math class. They will get lots of help there, if they need it.”

Justin’s plan

Mr. White walked up to Justin’s group asking how they planned to record the data. “It’s easy, Dad, I figured out a plan. I split the creek area into five parts from the north to the south end of the park. Now we’re gonna take turns drawing while the rest of us get the info.”

Mary was relieved; so far so good—the group had things under control. The teams were focused on their work, and Mary moved among them to make sure they had all the data they would need for their next math lesson. The time passed quickly. Soon she had to gather the students for the walk back to school. She was pleased with the day’s activity.

As they were leaving the park, a group of high-school aged kids dressed in gang attire walked by. Amy, one of Mary’s better students, stopped to talk with them. One of the parents, Andy Jensen’s mother, grabbed Amy by the arm and pulled her along. Mary asked Mr. White to take the lead, and she walked toward Amy and Mrs. Jensen, who was still holding firmly to Amy’s arm.

Mary said, “It’s okay, Mrs. Jensen, please let go of her arm… I’ll talk to Amy. ”

Amy rubbed her arm while Mary asked her why she had been talking to the group of boys, “Why did you stop to talk to those teenagers? You know better than that.”

“It’s no problem, Mrs. Birch, that was my cousin. Besides, his friends are cute!”

Mary affected her best parental tone. “You need to be careful. You’re a smart girl, and I’d hate to find out that you were hanging out in the park instead of going to high school.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t.” Amy replied. Then she ran to catch up with her classmates.

Mary turned to Mrs. Jensen and said, “Thanks for your help. Amy’s a good student, though. I trust her. And, well… we need to be careful about touching the students like that.”

“It’s no problem.” Mrs. Jensen shot back condescendingly. “I’ve known Amy and her family for a long time. I watch her in the evenings when her mother has to work late. You know, I’ve heard that she’s dating one of those high school boys. She’s too young, but her mother says she’s too tired to stop her.”

“I’ll see what I can do Mrs. Jensen,” Mary replied with a sigh. “But, next time something like this happens, please let me take care of it. Amy is my responsibility when she’s at school.”

After the students had gone for the day, Mary waited for Byron to discuss the day’s activities. She was exhausted and felt anxious about the progress of the unit. She lay her head down on her desk and wondered if they had allotted enough time to cover everything.

Mrs. Sanford walked into the room, “Hi Mary. Tough day?”


“Oh, hello Mrs. Sanford, she replied with a yawn, “Yes, it’s been a long day. The teams did well at the park today. They accomplished their goals. But I’m just thoroughly worn out.”

Mrs. Sanford said, “I’m glad to hear things are going so well. I hate to rain on your parade, but I need to talk to you about two of your parents, Mrs. Jensen and Mr. White. They spoke to me after you returned from the park.”

Mary’s heart started to pound as Mrs. Sanford continued. “Can you tell me what happened with Amy today?”

Mrs. Sanford

Mary recounted the incident in as much detail as she could provide. Mrs. Sanford listened intently, interrupting occasionally to ask a question. When Mary finished, Mrs. Sanford explained that she understood the situation was delicate. However, she also knew Mrs. Jensen had been insulted by the way Mary had spoken to her in front of the students.

She deepened Mary’s chagrin by discussing Mr. White’s concerns. “Mr. White wants to know why the students aren’t learning the material from text books, which he believes would be a lot more efficient. I explained our goal was to increase problem solving and cooperative learning skills. Mr.White thinks the better students—for example his son—are carrying the weight of these projects. I know this can often be a problem in cooperative groups.”

Mary uses class time to meet with each of the research teams.

Mary began the class by asking the students to share their thoughts about the project. She was impressed with their sincere responses; it was obvious the project had made a lasting impression on them.

Some of the student responses

Class shares its thoughts about the project

“The presentations are coming along,” Mary said. “As I mentioned on Tuesday, I will be meeting with each of your groups today to look over the reports. Don’t forget I need them by Monday, so we can have copies made for our visitors. Who’s ready?”

Jaime and Amy stood up as Amy held their group’s report over her head. “We’re ready, Mrs. Birch.” “We are too!” George shouted as he bounced up and down in his seat and waved his hand. “Our project is cool, Mrs. Birch! Everyone will be blown away!”

“Good George. Okay, but we’ll start with the urban water run-off project. Let’s see… Jaime, Amy, Andy, Jason, Vera, Isabel… Show me what you’ve got.”

Amy handed the report to Mary, who looked it over with some care. On one hand, it was fantastic. The team had followed the instructions step-by-step. They had organized the report into a professional-looking document. On the other hand, the writing and spelling were atrocious. There were incomplete sentences, misspelled words, and poor punctuation. She was at a loss for words. Mary was impressed with their initiative, yet troubled with the quality of their product. She didn’t want to discourage them, but she didn’t know how she could allow this kind of work to be displayed where the parents, teachers, principal, other students, and even the press would see it.

“The chart and graph from your experiment look fantastic. Did Mrs. Silver provide you with this software in math class?”

The graph, results, and data chart

Vera responded, “No, Jaime found it doing a search on Netscape. Jaime showed us how to find other stuff too! We found other projects just like ours done by other kids.” Jaime was sitting quietly behind his group, scribbling on a piece of paper. Mary didn’t want to cause him to feel discomfort again by focusing on his success.

“Okay, gang,” Mary called out. “I’m ready for the water quality team. George, is your team ready?”

Amy spoke out, ” But, Mrs. Birch, is it okay? Are we done? Don’t you like it?”

“Yes, I do like it. All I need is to copy your report for our guests next week. And all you need to do is practice your presentation.”

Mary walked over to George’s group and began looking at the report. It was in need of a bit of polishing, but it contained all the necessary information. The only incomplete section was the material covered in math class—the descriptive statistics and the estimates. It appeared the students did not understand how to complete the math problems, and like the other group, their written section was weak.

The data and graph from George’s group

Mary said, “This report doesn’t look bad so far, but the math section isn’t complete, and your narrative needs some work.”

“Mrs. Silver told us that’s all we had time to do,” Joanne said. “She said that was good enough, and we need to learn other stuff.”

Mary felt herself flush with anger. She called out to the rest of the teams asking if they had completed their estimates and statistics. Only Jaime’s team had understood how to convert their collected data. She made a mental note to talk with Judy at their next meeting. And while she was at it, she would ask Byron whether they should be focusing on the content of students’ written expression and letting the style slide, or working on both at the same time.

Mary and her teammates meet with Mrs. Sanford.

Mrs. Sanford began the meeting and said, “All of you deserve a pat on the back. I’m so impressed with the quality of instruction.”

Team meets with Mrs. Sanford

Beth replied, “It’s been rewarding for me too. The motivational level of the students has increased dramatically!”

Byron added, “Ditto! I think it has a lot to do with the real life applications.”

Mrs. Sanford said, “Well, you’ll be happy to hear that the Daily News and Channel 11 are interested in this project. They’ll be attending the presentations next week, so this is a great opportunity for us to demonstrate our progressive teaching strategies. Is there anything we need to consider before then?”

“I’m glad this project has turned out so well,” Judy replied, “but I’m concerned about the achievement tests. They are scheduled in only two weeks. I reduced the time scheduled for the project so we could focus on the exam material. Yet, I believe the students are still not prepared. And, bottom-line, the community still judges the success of a school on its test scores.”

Mary sat back in her seat not saying a word. She had not had time to talk with her colleagues about her concerns regarding the quality of students’ work. She couldn’t help but remember Mr. White’s questions about the purpose of the unit. How would she answer him or anyone else if pressed to do so in public? She had visions of her students’ work being spread all over page one of the local newspaper, errors and all.

Later that night, Mary sat in her living room reviewing the original materials and the students’ reports for the unit. Maybe it seemed like there was so much riding on the success of this project because she had set her expectations too high.

As she looked at the graphs completed by Jaime’s team, Mary remembered how Beth and Judy had questioned the abilities of the students who weren’t categorized as “gifted.” In some ways these projects strengthened Mary’s belief that all students should be given opportunities to work with curricula for the gifted and talented. At the same time, only the most advanced student in mathematics, Jaime, had been able to handle the material. Had she been wrong all this time? Was this kind of teaching and learning better suited to college-bound students? Or had she and her colleagues not developed the unit in a way that allowed the students to be successful in the first place? As she reflected on the experience, Mary was confused about her role as a science teacher within an interdisciplinary unit. She was not ready to admit defeat, but she knew she would need to make significant changes before teaching this unit again.