Melissa Hamlin

Students infected with outbreak of learning

How does an eighth grade teacher instill in students a curiosity about science, while sharing essential life learning skills? An intriguing diagnosis tested by Melissa Hamlin, a science teacher at Meadowview Middle School, is to bring out students’ inner scientist. She encouraged her students to choose a human disease to investigate and allowed them to incorporate other subjects to support their study.

Hamlin’s holistic approach included the entire eighth grade class and blurred the traditional lines between subject areas.Students chose from among language arts, social studies, and mathematics to personalize their assignments and to grow their knowledge. “Students were learning about science in all of their core classes, which helped them understand the content better. They were able to see math beyond the classroom by creating graphs for their presentations,” she said. “Students were able to make real world connections.”

Hamlin’s innovative instruction didn’t stop there. Students researched the causes and treatments of the diseases they selected to study, and they created action plans to respond to an outbreak. And, to build their public speaking skills, they presented their findings to their peers. “Students learned so much from the project. They really enjoyed researching the diseases but were interested in learning about other diseases as well,” Hamlin said.

With funding from the NEA Foundation’s $5,000 Student Achievement grant, she was able to make the most of technology, purchasing computers, and Smart Document cameras that transformed the Smart Boards already installed in the classrooms into an interactive digital display. Technology, however, was only one element of the learning process. “The NEA Foundation funding provided the boost to make our activities possible, and sent a message to the entire county that funding at the national level is within their reach if they are committed to excellence,” Hamlin said. “This project strengthened the overall curriculum for both the teachers and students.”

Success factors:

  • Peer-to-peer communication, for both teachers and their students, became a core theme.
  • Integrated units were developed with surgical precision as Hamlin challenged faculty to share topics among their colleagues and reinforce key concepts in their classes.
  • Students were evaluated by a rubric created and maintained by an interdisciplinary team.  Each core teacher evaluated the content portion in their subject area.
  • The classroom was structured as a dynamic environment. Customized, individual assignments allowed students to work at their level of readiness.
  • Hamlin challenged students to make group decisions on the content of their work and to learn from their classmates.
  • She made use of community assets by recruiting several local experts to serve on a panel to judge the highest rated student presentations.

The results:

  • Any concerns about individual subject areas being diluted were overshadowed by the time and effort students devoted to their presentations.
  • Top students gained recognition from their work, while others gained confidence with public speaking.
  • Students who rarely spoke up in class were among the most verbal when given the stage.  In one exceptional case, a student with a speech impediment delivered his project without stuttering.