Brookdale Middle School
The following case study depicts an I-Search unit in action. The case is based
on actual events that occurred at Brookdale Middle School; however, some aspects have been
modified and expanded in the interest of providing a cohesive and clear case study.
Contents: Background | Phase I | Phase
II | Phase III | Phase IV
||Middle School Principles
|The teachers in Brookdale Middle School chose
"Africa: Then and Now" as the theme for their I-Search unit. The overarching
concept for the unit was, "Understanding how the political changes in Africa from
pre-colonial times to the present have affected everyday life there. Although the topic of
Africa was taught regularly in the eighth grade, the focus on the changes from past to
present, and their effect on everyday life was new. The team consisted of the resource
room teacher (acting as facilitator), the social studies teacher, and the English teacher.
The resource room teacher arranged her schedule so that she could be present during many
sessions of both English and social studies. She also planned to provide additional help
for students with special needs in the resource room.
The teachers designed the
curriculum unit to last twelve weeks. They did not want to cover the material in a
superficial manner, and wanted to ensure that the students had enough time to pose
meaningful questions. The administration supported this view and allowed the team to
devote an entire marking period to the project.
MIH is designed to be easily adapted to meet the requirements of the core curriculum--in
this case a history lesson on Africa.
Students with special needs are considered in the design of the unit and accommodations
are made to allow them to participate fully.
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|The teachers started off the unit in social studies with a
fun, motivating activity, which involved all of the teachers. The resource room teacher
explained to the class that they would be studying changes in Africa as part of a joint
effort between her and their English and social studies teachers. She also mentioned that
they would be using new applications of technology, as well as new software with which
they were unfamiliar. The students seemed excited about the prospects of using technology.
Teachers share content knowledge, expertise, and resources in order to teach history in an
The introduction of new software draws
students with diverse talents and interests into the unit
|The teachers went on to explain that the unit would last twelve weeks,
during which each student would produce a report that answered their own personal
questions relating to the topic. Some students appeared worried at the mention of a
written report, but the teachers assured them that they would all be helping each other
with the reports, and that the actual writing would be done through out the twelve
weeks--there would be no last minute scrambling the night before the unit ended.
Student questions drive the research process.
|Next the teachers divided the students into small groups and
gave them maps of Africa which were cut into unlabeled small pieces. Each group's task was
to put together the map. Once the students had completed the maps, the social studies
teacher elicited from the class reasons for doing the map--to gain an understanding of
Africa's large number of countries and its geographical diversity; to realize how little
they knew about Africa; and to expose them to working cooperatively in groups. After this
activity, the teachers treated everyone to African desserts which they had prepared.
Structured group work is built into the unit from the beginning, promoting cooperative
|During the early part of Phase I, the students read Things
Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe (Ballantine Books, New York, 1959), a novel related to
the unit topic. In their English class, they discussed the lifestyles of the characters in
the novel, which took place during pre-colonial times. Many of the Phase I activities
which followed were designed to help the students better understand the novel, and to
relate what they learned from the novel to the overarching question of the unit.
Concurrently, the social studies teacher conducted lessons in African geography and the
history of pre~colonial African kingdoms, in an attempt to set the context for students to
pose personally meaningful questions.
Students begin the unit by building their content knowledge in each of the core subjects.
|The goal of one early activity in social studies was to
elicit students' stereotypes of Africa. The social studies teacher held up a series of 20
"buzzwords" such as "food, clothing, entertainment" and the students
wrote the first word that they thought of, relating to Africa, when they saw that word.
After completing all 20 buzzwords, the students recorded their responses on large pieces
of chart paper hung around the room--one sheet per buzzword. During the subsequent English
period, the students viewed a videotape produced by a small group of resource room
students under the supervision of the resource room teacher, which essentially repeated
the buzzword activity with a class of 6th grade students. These younger students were
interviewed on videotape and asked to respond orally to each buzzword. The resource room
students had greatly enjoyed producing the videotape--something they had not done before.
The class concluded with a discussion of a comparison between their own responses and
those of the sixth graders. The teachers focused the discus discussion around the kinds of
stereotypes about Africa which many students held. Following the discussion, the students
were asked to write for five minutes in their journals about this experience, and what
questions were beginning to occur to them.
Students' prior knowledge, perceptions, and misperceptions about the subject
are elicited and used to as a starting point for generating questions and provoking
Students use journal writing activities to
develop research skills. They record new learning and questions, synthesize information,
clarify their thinking, and build a body of material to draw on later.
|In another Phase I activity, the social studies teacher
wanted the students to gain an understanding of the importance of access to the sea in
terms of the commercial, social, and political development of the various countries of
Africa, and how this affected the everyday lives of people. After explaining what a
landlocked country is, the teacher organized a "think-pair share" activity.
First, the students individually generated a list of the advantages and disadvantages
faced by a landlocked country; next, they discussed their list with a partner; and
finally, the pairs shared their findings with the class. The teacher encouraged the
students to think about what they had just done in relationship to what they were learning
in the novel, and to write their ideas in their journal. She suggested that if they had
any questions that they would like to explore further, they should write them down.
Structured group work provides occasions for students to articulate and test out ideas.
|During the third week of the unit, the teachers did a joint
two-period activity which involved the use of TimeLiner(Tom Snyder Productions).
The goal of this activity was for the students to understand what life was like in Africa
before European colonization, and how this changed during the ensuing years. During the
first period, the students were divided into small groups to gather information from a
reading about Benin, when it was a pre-colonial African kingdom. The reading dealt with
such aspects of life as trade and commerce, art, communication, and government, and how
these changed during the ensuing years. Each group was assigned one aspect of life on
which to concentrate. After the students had completed the reading, the groups discussed
among themselves what they had learned. The students then created timelines using TimeLiner
depicting pre-colonial times to present. They discussed the nature and complexity of
Benin society, and compared these findings to their stereotypes of pre-colonial Africa.
||Academic Excellence Teachers
introduce software applications in an academic context and use them to build
conceptual understanding of historical and cultural change.
The software allows students to organize historical material visually,
providing students with diverse learning styles several ways into the material.
|During the following English period, the teachers displayed
the timelines which the students had created. Each group of students wrote directly on the
timeline how and when their aspect of life changed. One member of each group presented
what they had written to the class. The students were then given time to continue their
journal writing. The teacher emphasized that they should be starting to pose questions
they would like to explore in their search. Indeed, several students were already forming
questions and were expanding them or revising them following each activity.
that the students were completing in English class described a variety of social customs,
ceremonies, and life cycle events in pre-colonial times. In one late Phase I activity, the
students were each assigned to create an invitation, announcement, card, or poster
relating to such an event using the computer program, MacDraw (Apple Computer,
Inc.). This piece of software allowed the students to actually draw on the computer.
Students drew both realistic and abstract figures, and included text in their drawings.
Once again, the students were told to use their journals to reflect on past and present
African social customs, and to indicate if this activity elicited any further questions.
Phase I was now drawing to an end. Before the students were to pose their
individual questions, the class reviewed what they had done thus far. The English teacher
then discussed and modeled how to pose individual questions, making sure to explain how to
develop questions that are not too broad or too narrow. The students reviewed the
questions they had written thus far in their journals. They generated a short list of
questions that they were interested in pursuing, and selected one. With the teacher's
help, the students revised their questions, and entered them into the report template on
the computer, which had been created for them at the outset of the unit.
Students work together to refine and revise their questions, learning what makes for a
strong research question. They shape the direction of their research after
developing a knowledge base to work from.
Graphic software programs allow students to learn new computer skills while integrating
the visual arts into the research project.
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|Phase II, developing a search plan, lasted only four
days. In this time, the students reviewed resources available in the classroom, the school
library, and outside the school, and then wrote their search plan. With the librarian's
help, the teachers had gathered all of the information on the unit topic from the library,
and placed it all in the social studies classroom. There were many books, magazines
(particularly National Geographic), videotapes, audiotapes, and filmstrips. There
were also a sampling of projects completed by students who did a unit on Africa in
previous years. After reviewing the form for the bibliography, the students spent two
periods browsing through the various materials in an attempt to locate materials that
related to their questions. At the end of the two periods, they filled out an index card
for each potential source of information, as well as why and how they planned to use that
particular source. The teachers stressed that now was not the time to start gathering
information, but to outline their search plan.
Although most of the reference materials
were moved out of the school library and into the classroom, Grolier's Electronic
Encyclopedia (Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc.) remained in the library. Since the
students were unfamiliar with its use, the librarian gave a mini-lesson on how to search
for specific topics.
Students develop effective reasearch methods by gathering and reviewing a
variety of resources and evaluating their usefulness.
|Some students had trouble locating enough sources of
information. The resource room teacher volunteered to take those students to the town
library, which had a more extensive collection of information relating to their topics. In
addition, a teacher went to the African Studies Center at a local university, and borrowed
an extensive amount of materials (pamphlets, articles, books, filmstrips, and videotapes).
the students had each located a sufficient number of sources, and had written the
bibliographic information and the reason and plan for using that particular source, they
reviewed their cards and put them in a logical order. The English teacher took the
students to the computer lab and had them enter their search plan on their report
|Academic Excellence Teachers
and students extend their research beyond the school library.
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|In this phase, the students gathered information from the sources listed
in their search plans. Although there were a few full-class activities and several
mini-lessons on how to extract or integrate information from various sources, much of the
work during this phase was accomplished individually or in small groups or pairs. The
students who were researching related topics worked cooperatively to gather information.
the students began gathering information, however, the teachers spent one period reviewing
the report outline which listed what should be included in each section of the report.
Although they would be addressing this in more detail at the beginning of Phase IV, the
teachers wanted the students to see the outline at this point so they would have a clearer
sense of how the information they were gathering would fit into the report as a whole.
After much whole-class work, students pursue their research independently and in
|One activity which all three teachers agreed was crucial was a mini-lesson
on how to take notes on notecards. The English teacher had prepared samples of three types
of notecards, and discussed each type. He told the students that they could use whichever
format they preferred. He modeled how to take notes on a notecard while gathering
information, and had students practice with each other.
The social studies teacher also
did a mini-lesson on how to take notes on notecards while watching a videotape. She showed
brief segments of a video tape, then, on the overhead projector, modeled how one might
take notes by using a web. She explained that a web was really a graphic form of an
outline, and showed how the central theme of the web appears in a central circle, from
which emanate topics and subtopics. She reminded them that if they were using a videotape
as one of their resources, and particularly if they were using it individually, they
should pause, replay, and otherwise travel through the tape in such a way that facilitated
their extracting information and writing on notecards.
Teachers accommodate diverse learning styles by providing alternative ways to record and
organize information in addition to traditional notetaking and outlines.
|The teachers had arranged for a guest speaker--a parent of a
9th grade student who had traveled extensively in Africa. In preparation for the speaker,
the social studies teacher reviewed the specific topics which she would cover. She told
the students to think in terms of "how can I use this information source for my
own benefit--what can I ask the speaker to address which will help me answer my
questions?" She organized the students into small groups with common topics. She
asked each group to brainstorm some questions, and then individually generate a list of
questions that they might ask. The speaker was a big hit--the students enjoyed hearing
about first-hand experiences, and particularly enjoyed seeing her slides.
A parent provides a real-life account of her experiences in Africa, bringing the subject
to life for students.
|Another popular activity was some thing the teachers called
"And-But Stories." About mid-way through Phase III, the teachers had the
students take a break from gathering information to share what they were learning with one
another. During this activity, the students went around the room, each one contributing a
piece of information which either added to or contradicted in some way what the previous
student had said. After the first student spoke, the student seated next to her responded
by either saying "and.. . " (relating a piece of information which was similar
or which confirmed the first piece of information) or "but..." (adding a
conflicting piece of information). The students enjoyed this activity and the teachers
felt it was worthwhile.
Many of the students gained information from using a database
called MECC Dataquest: The Middle East and North Africa. This database contained
valuable information about the area's political, economic, demographic, and cultural
characteristics. The students were able to compare this information about current-day
Africa with information from other sources about pre-colonial times.
Students are given several opportunities to express what they are learning verbally with
their classmates and teachers while building their conceptual understanding of what
supports an argument and what challenges it.
|For most of the remainder of Phase III, students worked
individually on their searches. Occasionally, small groups of students would work together
on a particular resource--sharing and discussing the information they extracted. Since the
students were all aware of each other's topics (the teachers had created a colorful
bulletin board showing all the questions, and how they were linked to the overarching
concepts), there were numerous occasions upon which a student would find information
relevant to another student's topic, and would call his/her attention to it.
Students are encouraged to see each other as resources for information and ideas;
collaboration is fostered in the MIH approach.
|After several weeks of gathering information, each student
had a large stack of notecards addressing his or her search question. In a first attempt
to get the students to pre-draft the section of their report "What I Have
Learned," the teachers asked the class to reread all of their notecards, and to jot
down the main ideas in their journals. The English teacher discussed and demonstrated two
ways of organizing and integrating the information from their notecards:
colored pencils or highlighters, students could mark information that supports each main
idea with a different color.
Students could draw a web, either on paper or using Inspiration (Ceres
Software), to indicate main topics and sub-topics, and then fill in the additional
information. If they chose to use Inspiration, the English teacher would make sure
to point out that the program would automatically convert their web into a standard
After being exposed to these possibilities, each student chose a method of outlining
and pre-drafting. Many students chose to use Inspiration, since they found it easy
Students use writing activities to build from the specifics gathered through their
research to the expression of larger ideas and concepts.
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|As groups of students became ready to begin working on Phase
IV--producing and disseminating reports--the teachers once again reviewed the guidelines
for drafting the report. The teachers conducted several mini-lessons to address various
aspects of writing and editing. The English teacher conducted a mini-lesson in using
effective lead statements. Using a number of students' reports as examples, the class
discussed and generated various leads. The students were divided into small groups to help
each other generate and revise their leads. Following much the same format, the social
studies teacher helped the students work on using more descriptive language in their
reports. She called this kind of writing "show, not tell, writing. " As students
completed drafts of their papers, they were grouped into pairs for peer conferencing.
Partners read and discussed each other's reports, concentrating on ideas, organization,
and writing style, as well as mechanics. This enabled the students to further revise and
edit their reports.
Teachers use the occasion of the report writing to introduce writing, revising, and
Working in small groups, students share and respond to each others drafts, developing a
sense of audience for their work.
|As the unit drew to a close, the teachers planned a culminating activity
which would convey how their individual searches helped to answer the overarching concepts
of the unit. Students had several options for what to produce. Several students developed
visual images of their search, using graphics and text, in the form of a web. At the
center of the web was a picture, symbol, drawing (either cut out, computer graphics, or
free-hand drawing), which represented the topic. The four spokes of the web included text
or graphics representing their questions, their search plan, what they had learned, and
their personal reflections. The students then used these visual images as prompts for a
brief oral presentation on their topic. Another group of students produced a slide show of
their findings. Working together, they used the program Slideshop (Scholastic) to
create a multi-media presentation.
Other students created newsletters using a simple
desk-top publishing program, The Children's Writing and Publishing Center (The Learning
Company). Their newspapers combined text and graphics, and were set both in pre-colonial
times and the present day. When the students presented their newspapers, the teachers had
the class compare the newspapers which were from pre-colonial times to those written in
the present. A small group of students produced a videotape of each other presenting their
The class concluded the unit with a party. The teachers (as well as the students) felt
that there was valid reason for celebration: they had accomplished something very special
and unique. They had implemented a successful unit on Africa which enabled the students to
design and carry out their own searches for knowledge. The students enjoyed being active
participants in their own learning, as opposed to passive receivers of information. The
reports which the students produced were written proof that what they had learned--as well
as how they had learned it--had truly meant something to them. The teachers were eager to
meet with the ad ministration and tell them how successful the unit had been.
They were already beginning to make plans for another unit the following year.
Students are given choices about how best to present their research findings and are given
the opportunity to share their new knowledge with peers and teachers. Visual as well
as written presentations validate multiple forms of expression and multiple ways of
knowing. MIH also encourages the use of various media, giving students an occasion
to use their new technology skills.
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