How to make your favorite unit in biology be the students’ favorite too?

Learning something new can be exciting for many of us especially when we are give time to explore the “What if’s” and the “How would’s”.  Understanding how traits are inherited have always been my favorite topic in biology to learn and to teach.  However, completing Punnett square after Punnett square is boring and never really gives students the time to explore why the inheritance unit is a favorite.   I have developed two activities to increase student engagement and thus learning of inheritance unit.

I adapted one of the first activities from multiple Process oriented guided inquiry learning (POGIL). In the Genetics Basics POGIL 2015 students learned key terms in genetics: genotype, phenotype, homozygous dominant, homozygous recessive, and heterozygous and to compare traits with a partner.  (Note: this was a handout I gave for substitute because I was out getting my pin for National Board Certification). For a lesson given to substitute many of the students did well on this assignment.  I think what challenge my students the most was predicting their own genotype based upon phenotype. For those who struggled with this section I provided these students with additional instructions.  So perhaps the instructions weren’t completely clear.

The next lesson I thought would really peak their interests and questions.  The lesson “Face Lab”. (Capture sheet for face lab: Face Lab part 1).  Students working in pairs create a face based on specific traits. Students flip coins to determine sex, and the genotypes of the following traits, face shape, hair type, eye color (multiple allele), skin color (multiple allele), eye brow type, dimples, and a few others. Students determine the genotypes when each partner flips a coin, heads results in the dominant allele, and tails results in the recessive allele.  Students are given example of the phenotypes so they can draw the traits on to ‘their child’.  The next day I pair up two groups so that they can see the results of crossing their ‘offspring’ and for students to learn terms P generation, F1 generation and F2 generation. In addition students are given a few word problem Punnett squares to complete. Questions from the students began to generate: “Why do I have blue eyes, when both my parents have brown?” And I also saw independent thinking and speculation: “So the reason, why I am light skinned and my brother is dark skinned, is because my mom is light skinned and my dad has darker skin?”.  Yes this is what I wanted to hear and see from my students! I also wanted to know if they understood that a recessive allele could be hidden for a generation and then just seem appear.

I assessed their learning by providing students with this mid-unit assessment. John’s Cockateils  (john’scockateils) requires students to consider all possible offspring for two parents based upon the information given.  This assessment checks students’ understanding and application of genotype, phenotype, homozygous (dominant and recessive) and heterozygous.  To aid in students learning experience for this assessment I provided the students with only comments and then encouraged students to resubmit the assignment with their modifications.  Here is an example of students’ work with my comments and rewrite based upon my comments.


I also had a student tweet me for extra support.  The mid-unit assessment gave me the opportunity to see where students needed the most assistance. By only providing comments, students receive an opportunity for a final rewrite before receiving a grade, thus building their confidence with monohybrid crosses.

twitterWhen I introduced dihybrid cross, incomplete dominance, and co-dominance, students began to confuse a simple Monohybrid cross with these non-Menedelian crosses.  I wanted my students to build their understand of the ways that traits can be inherited.  The genetics project gave students the opportunity to play with the vocabulary as they never had the opportunity before. Playing is the best way for learning to occur, right! I encourage students to create a male and female critter which demonstrated at least 3 monohybrid crosses, 1 co-dominant trait, 1 incomplete trait and to show 1 dihybrid cross.  I modeled an example for which students could use as a tool to create their own. See my example below.


Giving time for students create and explain inheritable traits did take longer than I expected however, students gained a better understanding of all the concepts especially for those students who focused on the assignment and took extra time in class, at lunch, and after school to complete their assignment. Here are some more examples:

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I see these examples as turning students to seeing inheritance as a favorite unit for all.

Jennifer L. Gable is a NBCT in AYA Biology since 2014.  She teaches at Gaithersburg High School in Montgomery County MD since 2008. Life is learning, learning is fun; there for life is fun!


Vocab in the Biology Classroom

Structured academic discourse requires active teaching of vocabulary. What does structured academic vocabulary discourse look like in class room?  In my class, I have used multiple strategies including concept attainment where I present the word like homeostasis and provide examples to the students, then ask what is homeostasis? If students are struggling I have break the word down for them Homeo-stasis and ask what does “homeo-” or “-stasis” sound like. When teaching vocabulary, it is important for students to take an active role in saying the word as well as using the word in a sentence.  Thus it is important to give students time to interact with the word or words that you are teaching.

I also use a vocabulary capture sheet that includes columns entitled: definition, draw a picture, and use word in sentence.  I modify this chart depending on level of my class. For lower level students I provide a sentence frame to help them use the word appropriately in sentence and then provide another column for the students to make another column. Currently I have honors students so I don’t give them a sentence frame.

I, too, am learning to build academic vocabulary discourse activities in my classroom. I would be interested to hear about how other biology teachers are actively teaching vocabulary in the class room.  Share your ideas with me @gablejen.

Adventures In Learning

There is always a lot of discussion in education on how to improve the literacy of our students in general and the need in the Science classroom is no different. I want to discuss one aspect of literacy… the dreaded vocab list.

I have noticed how unfamiliar words holds many students back in the understanding of their reading assignments.  I believe there is a lack of knowledge or How-To in breaking down words into their component parts.  I have never been a big fan of “Vocab in Biology” especially when it is front loaded and handed out to the students to fill out before they do anything at all. This practice is definitely in contrast to the goals of science laid out for us in the NGSS and in a Project Based Inquiry Classroom.  Students need to have a schema to hang the admittedly difficult vocab terms that are present in…

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Why PBL, and Not Inquiry?

Why PBL, and not Inquiry?
As the week of learning our new curriculum came to an end. I kept asking myself, why are we focused on Project Based Learning (PBL), when Next Generation of Science Standards (NGSS) seemed to encourage scientific discourse and literacy. Needless to say I was very confused how an Invasive species project would lead students toward a greater understanding of the core idea of Interdependence. I was skeptical. I told myself, this is a Pilot year, I don’t have to perfect it; however, I just have to try it. My hypothesis at the beginning didn’t support PBL over inquiry.
Trial and error is learning. Trial and error is a process in science especially when we take the time to reflect and evaluate how the experiment worked/didn’t work and then determine how to improve it for the next time. As I generated my lessons from the lesson plans designed by other teachers in my district, I began to see evidence of lessons crafted to meet a specific purpose (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005). Lessons with purpose provide students with the “Why are we doing this?” a question that seems to be answered as the lesson progresses. With project based learning the key is to actively engage students throughout the lesson and to define “the why”.
For example, the lesson: How Human Disturbances affects ecosystems, engaged students to think about what they know about this topic using chain notes. Chain notes is a learning activity that can be done in small groups or in pairs. Chain notes challenge students to be thinking about the lesson from the moment they walk into the room. As students pull their background knowledge forward, they are getting the why of the lesson. The next portion of this lesson, had students actively reading about the 4 major impacts of human disturbances in an ecosystem. In the past, I would get push back, “ugh, yo, Mrs. Gable, do we really have to read? “ This didn’t happen in any of my 5 classes. Students were asked to read in small groups and to discuss each of the topics. As this lesson, continued, I had students form larger groups, 4-5 groups of 6 students. Increasing group size generally results in more students off-task, but with this lesson, I observed more student discourse than ever before, why? I believe the reason for more students on-task was because they defined the purpose of the lesson and because the appropriate “learning activities” were applied (Wiggins and Grant, 2005). In this lesson, cooperative learning provided students the opportunity to exchange ideas and to learn content from students within the group.
PBL is an effective way of allowing students to explore authentic learning experiences especially when students are building their understanding through experience and student-student discourse. PBL defines the purpose and engages the learner to explore uncertainties. The ingenuity of the Invasive species project and the lessons that build up to the management plan include the criteria outlined by Wiggins and McTighe (2005) in Understanding by Design. At this moment, my students are two weeks from completing this unit and with each lesson I teach I see more student-student discourse and more student engagement than ever before. This is evidence that leads me to revising my hypothesis. My revised hypothesis is PBL leads students towards inquiry especially when it is “thought provoking, engaging, relevant and is centered on big ideas” (Wiggins and Grant 2005).

Wiggins, Grant; McTighe, Jay (2005-03-22). Understanding by Design, Expanded 2nd Edition. Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development. Kindle Edition.

Read more about Chain notes: and

Stay tuned – I will attempt to provide additional evidence to support my claim that PBL does lead to inquiry.

Jennifer L. Gable has been teaching Science to diverse learners for 12 years. She currently teaches at Gaithersburg High School, a Signature Academy School. Jennifer has a MAT with specialization in NBCT from National University and has a Masters of Science from University of Arkansas.