Poking and Prying: Revolutionizing Student Thinking through Research

Jennifer HannoZora Neale Hurston once referred to research as “poking and prying with a purpose.” Oh, I did a lot of poking and prying when teaching the research process but it was mostly me poking them into doing research and prying a paper out of them. Admittedly, it was my least favorite unit of instruction. I tried to feign enthusiasm, but the truth was I dreaded the unit every year.

But this has changed and I owe much of it to Henrietta Lacks.  As the non-fiction seed text for the Grade Ten research module (EngageNY ELA module 10.3), The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks opens the doors to inquiry for students in some very rewarding ways. No longer is the research and thinking teacher-led; instead the inquiry approach builds independence for students as their thinking guides them in forming their own paths.  How fitting it is that Henrietta Lacks, an unwitting donor of an immortal line of cells that revolutionized medical research, is now the source of a line of thinking that may revolutionize research with our high school students.

I did not anticipate the intense level of discussion it would inspire. The initial reaction of my students to the premise of the work was split into two divergent ways. One group felt that taking someone’s cells without their consent was a violation. The other group questioned why it was such “a big deal;” after all, she was dying and the cells that were taken from her helped humanity in countless ways.

Indeed, there is validity to both arguments. In fact, what makes a seed text a valuable one is that very dichotomy that leads us to explore questions for which there are no easy answers. I watched my students’ thinking fluctuate with each excerpt we read. Those who thought it was an unforgiveable violation of Lacks had to reconsider whether the ends justified the means when they learned about all that Lacks’ cells had done for humanity. Conversely, those who justified the taking of her cells without consent had to re-evaluate when they were forced to consider the possible abuses of a system where medical research was left unchecked. The more information they encountered, the murkier it became and those cloudy issues are exactly what you need for vigorous class discussion. By the time we reached the part of the module where students were asked to research the Tuskagee Syphlis Study, an infamous biomedical research study in which researchers knowingly failed to inform participants of their diagnosis or treat them accordingly, my room was buzzing with students who couldn’t wait to discuss what they had read.

The seed of Henrietta Lacks sprouted in strange and unexpected ways when we began to branch into the inquiry process as well. Students with an interest in science found ample opportunities for research. Others with an eye for social disparity were drawn to the issues of racism and inequity in healthcare. The questionable nature of medical testing led to other areas of interest: the ethics of testing on animals, the Nuremburg Trials, even social experiments such as the Stanford Prison Experiment.

One of the nicest surprises this module took involved one quietly intelligent child who had been up until that point an understated presence in my classroom. She did the work assigned, answered when called upon, and floated along. But in her Pre-search she encountered something called The Hawthorne Effect. Apparently, the premise of this phenomenon is that people will behave differently if they know they are being watched. This student came alive when she brought this forward for discussion. Despite its ominous implications, she was drawn to its potential for good. She encountered a study in which a hospital was having trouble with its staff’s cavalier attitude toward hand washing. The placement of cameras near the hand washing station created a turnabout in staff behavior that possibly saved lives. Inspired by this discovery, she kept clicking on one link and then another, her learning driven by her own intellectual curiosity.

“Wait, where did you find that?” asked her peers. Soon many students were sharing links to studies they found interesting.

And their writing? Their desire to share their thoughts on a topic that meant something to them resulted in writing that was vivid, informed and inspired.

But most significantly, the effects of inquiry and student-centered teaching can be powerful and lasting. Most of these tenth graders went on to enroll in AP Language. Their teacher tells me they are valuable contributors to class discussion and show a greater level of independence in their academic work. As for me, I have taken many of the protocols and strategies featured in this module and also used them to transform the research project for my AP Literature students. No longer do I dread teaching research; now I look forward to the surprises it will bring.

Jennifer Hanno is a High School English Teacher at the Carthage Central School District in New York State. 

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