An Independent School • Grades 5-12

Meet a Teacher: Caryn Abrey

A science playground model in Upper School physiology.

August 2018

By Jim Collins

The classroom on the second floor of Allen-Gates — with no lab benches, no sinks or test tubes or molecular models — doesn’t immediately announce “science.”  Eighteen students, all but one of them seniors, take their seats around a large seminar-style table. It’s Day 2 of the immune system unit in the upper-level physiology class. The morning’s topics will be tough: cancer and HIV/AIDS. As the last of the students settle in, teacher Caryn Abrey writes on one of the room’s large whiteboards:  

  1. Things you know.
  2. Things you think you know.
  3. Things you would like to know.

“Before we start today,” she says, turning to the class, “just a quick show of hands from anyone who knows someone who’s had cancer, or someone who’s been touched by AIDS.” All around the table, hands rise. Abrey lifts her hand. “Me, too,” she says, softly. “Can we just put this out there? These topics are hard. Let’s acknowledge that this is personal.... They’re also fascinating.”

She instructs the students to spend the next five minutes thinking about what they know, think they know, and would like to know about cancer. After a dozen responses go up on the whiteboard, Abrey looks at the list, and says, “These include some great questions. Now, change your lenses and do the same for HIV/AIDS….”

“Can we just put this out there? These topics are hard. Let’s acknowledge that this is personal.... They’re also fascinating.”

For the next hour, the class becomes a microcosm of how science is taught in Lakeside’s Upper School. Using the whiteboard responses as a framework, the students divide into two groups and turn to their laptops — starting with a list of sources Abrey has curated on the class webpage — to confirm, clarify, and discover information about diseases that are part of their lives. Group members compare notes and decide together what seems most important, what to emphasize. Students then pair off with members from the opposite group and concisely share what each has learned.

Abrey steps back, quietly observing as the students show their curiosity and engagement, teaching themselves. “This class is about active learning,” Abrey will explain later. “It sets the stage for developing deeper understanding.”

What the students come to on this day, on their own, will give meaning and relevance to the immune system overview she has planned for the coming classes. “It’s impossible to understand the complexity of the human immune system in just a couple of weeks,” Abrey says. “My goal is to give students a basic understanding of how systems work inside the body, relate that to their personal lives and the challenges of global health, and make them want to know more. The questioning and collaboration they do prepares them to become better scientists — and better citizens.”

Eight years ago, Lakeside’s science department intentionally moved away from a “sage on the stage” model toward more experiential, student-centered learning. The teachers called the approach “a playground model,” acknowledging how science is often messy and that learning requires wrestling with open-ended questions and becoming comfortable with failing. The way students learn science, one of Abrey’s colleagues observed, is akin to how very young children creatively explore limits and discover what they can do when left to themselves on a playground.

Of course, Abrey hadn’t completely stepped away from that morning class. In recording responses and creating a framework on the whiteboard, she complimented her students while casually pushing for more nuanced thinking. She drew out quieter students. She reworked pedestrian phrases into more articulate expressions; combined similar thoughts into larger concepts; imperceptibly framed the students’ exploration. She gently guided conversations. She built just the right amount of invisible scaffolding for the students to feel challenged enough —and confident enough — for learning on their own. She set the stage for deeper understanding.