In My Classroom – #3

Thanks to a little idea from Brad I thought I would try something with my AP Biology students this week that I saw him try with his BIO 100 students at KU earlier.

We’re currently marching our way through the mind-bending terror that is protein synthesis. So we’ve gone over the whole process a bit but to make sure we were not getting lost in the details I gave them this:

Blank central dogma 1Blank central dogma 2

Two different models of the same process. Nothing earth-shatteringly innovative but how I framed it and worked with it was unique to me. I didn’t just say it was a worksheet to complete. I framed it as 2 different models of the same process. If they wanted to use the picture in their book that was ok because the diagram in their Campbell book also looked different. What I was surprised with was how much students struggle translating [pun] knowledge across models. Students struggled with labeling processes versus structures, labeling the same structure that was differently drawn in two models, and especially when one model added or removed details (like introns and exons).

The other cool part was that afterwards when students shared their answers on the board, they had lengthy discussion about what was “right”. For example, two students argued whether the 4th answer from the top was “pre-mRNA” or “mRNA” and explained why they thought that. After looking to me I shared that by their explanations both could be right. That’s what I think was cool, students argued different answers where with the proper explanations, either could be right. So because of that, I would avoid giving an “word bank”.

Also, at the very end I created a list on the board titled “limitations” and I had them share what was limiting about these diagrams. Some thoughts were “no nucleotides were shown entering RNA polymerase”, “no other cell components were shown”, “the ribosome on top only had room for one tRNA”, “no mRNA cap or tail were shown”, and many more.

I found this exercise useful because I struggle giving students modeling opportunities (especially non-physical ones) and this was a simple way for students to get practice comparing/contrasting models while also discussing the usefulness and limitations of them.

Alright, for the 4th installment I nominate el presidente himself, Noah Busch.

*My* Biology Objectives

Unless you lucked into being one of my students, you have probably never laid eyes on my course objectives. But today, I am releasing them to the public in all their glory. My reason? Because I know they can be better and they’ve been mine too long for me to see them with fresh perspective. If you can use them, great. If you can improve them, even better. If you can’t use them, perfect, please tell me that too. With that being said, first let me get some a couple things out of the way.

First, acknowledgments. The template for the layout of these objectives comes from Cindy Gay. I loved her layout and simple way of organizing concepts. She is an incredible teacher and I don’t want any credit for the organization. Secondly, I’ll credit my high school for providing some objectives and College Board for providing some of the essential knowledge and big idea concepts. They also provided good scaffolding for me in putting these together.

I’ll also provide some context. These are the learning objectives for my freshman general biology class. For what it’s worth mentioning, I’m not sure how these would look “different” for an honors class. In some way that is a loaded statement to me that involves the discussion and analysis of what it means to be a “general” or “honors” students. That may be a post for another day (feel free to start the discussion). These are handed to students on the first day of a new “Big Idea” (the breakdown of how the document is laid out is below) and they use them throughout the rest of the unit. I put them on different colored paper and it’s in landscape, both of which are to emphasize the importance of this document.

Where did I get these objectives from? I got the big ideas and essential knowledge concepts from the College Board Standards for College Success (Life Science portion). These were written by College Board in 2009 as prerequisite knowledge before heading into AP. Now, is College Board a perfect source for content standards? No. But I do like as an AP Biology teacher that I can hold students to standards that can align with AP Biology so that my students can have a good foundational understanding while also being prepared for higher level science classes. It’s also nice for me to use similar terminology with both my freshman and AP classes, such as objective, big idea, essential knowledge, etc.

So finally, before I unveil these statements I want to set up some ground rules and requests:

  • These are not meant to be consumed without purposeful thought. I adapted, revised, and chose these standards as they fit myself as a teacher and my students as learners. I would assume the same would need to be done on your part.
  • These have no inherit order. They are ordered in the general trajectory I use in my class BUT I am not tied to that order, nor have I successfully created a conceptual flow graphic (again, another topic for another day; ask me about it if you would like) for these units like I have with some of my AP Biology units. Have an idea on moving concepts around? Let me know!
  • Speaking of letting me know, I would LOVE your feedback on the objectives. You know what? I would love feedback so much I’ve created a 3 question survey that you can add your feedback to that will go straight to me. Thanks in advance!

With that all out of the way, here is how you view/digest the objectives.

Standards KEY


A side note: if you are familiar with the AP Biology Redesign then some of this terminology may be familiar to you.

  • There are 5 Big Ideas in *my* biology class: Ecology, Energy & Matter, Cells, Genetics, and Evolution. They are ordered based of their order in my year, I will say I’m not married to they way I teach it now, I’m personally partial to the order of AP Biology, which starts with Evolution. Another discussion point, I’m sure.
  • The Forever Understanding is the the major concepts that students will understand by the end of the unit. I generally have them read these before we start and then after the unit they will reread them and try to go back through their objectives sheet and find “evidence” of where they learned these concepts (sort of like a Claims-Evidence-Reasoning and Concept Map hybrid).
  • The Essential Knowledge portion is a sub-concept that stands on its own. Basically, I consider these to be the bite-size concepts that a student could learn in 1-2 days (depending of course on the lesson itself)
  • The Topic is just an organizing tool created by College Board that I liked and kept.
  • Text Ref refers to the “textbook reference”. It’s where I put the chapter or section information. On my digital version for students I’ve linked electronically to supplemental resources or to their online textbook.
  • The Learning Objective is probably the statement of most importance to the student because it is actually the way I want students to be able to apply their essential knowledge. It is supposed to be written in “student-friendly” language with highlighted performance/action verbs. These were chosen purposefully and are not throw away statements.
  • The Unpack section is where students make sense of the objective in their own words. I should emphasize it is NOT a notetaking section. It is for synthesis, not note-taking. That minor point is still an area of issue with my students.
  • The Self-Score box is where students rank their understanding from 1 (little understanding) to 4 (mastery). Generally I tell students 2 = I can get full understanding with help and 3 = full understanding. Mastery level is where students not only can explain it but they can also apply it too.

I believe that, my friends, is all I have to say. Please, I provide these here for the community’s use but if any of you do use them and you have something to add (Maybe you improve them or maybe they’re awful and you can explain why) I would love to hear it. Enjoy!




DNA Day Celebration

Here’s something I think you will take part in—DNA day. KU in collaboration with the University of North Carolina is scheduling in class visits with KU students/staff/faculty to explore DNA day. They will bring and lead activities for your students. From their web site:”Kansas DNA Day is an annual event where scientists from the University of Kansas visit high schools state wide to present interactive lessons on Immunology, Pharmacogenetics, Forensics, and Inheritance. It also provides new scientists with the chance to spread their knowledge and enthusiasm with the next generation of science professionals.”

Follow the link and sign up….could be very cool and it will be building in the years to come with your input.

Now Accepting Applications: 2015 Outstanding Biology Teacher of Kansas

Every ye2014 OBTA trophy 2ar, the Outstanding Biology Teacher Award (OBTA) program attempts to recognize an outstanding biology educator (grades 7-12 only) in each of the 50 states; Washington, DC; Canada; Puerto Rico; and overseas territories.

Candidates for this award do not have to be NABT members, but they must have at least three years of public, private, or parochial school teaching experience. A major portion of the nominee’s career must have been devoted to the teaching of biology/life science, and candidates are judged on their teaching ability and experience, cooperativeness in the school and community, inventiveness, initiative, and student-teacher relationships.

OBTA recipients are special guests of Carolina Biology Supply Company at the Honors Luncheon held at the NABT Professional Development Conference, receive gift certificates from Carolina Biological Supply Company, resources from other sponsors, and award certificates and complimentary one-year membership f2014 OBTA trophyrom NABT.

Our Kansas state chapter of NABT, supports this award each year. A committee of biology/life science teachers from across the state determine the 2015 OBTA.

You may self-nominate by completing the requirements found here:  OBTA requirements_2015
Nominate a colleague by forwarding him/her the attached information OR email the OBTA director, Kelley Tuel (, with his/her contact information. The director will send your nominee the application requirements.

In My Classroom – #2

This year I am actually not teaching a general biology course, so my classroom materials this year will be mainly focused on my Forensic Biotechnology course…

Anyway, currently we are covering fingerprint individualization, so I have been using a cool activity to get students to analyze their own prints.


The kids blow a ballon up just enough to hold its shape and place a fingerprint on the minimally expanded rubber. When they blow up the ballon the rest of the way – PRESTO – enlarged fingerprint! At this point I have students mark the minutiae points that individualize their fingerprints. It is an easy and cool way to give students prints that are easy to analyze.

I’ll send the challenge over to Camden Burton.



A Model Performance

Hey! Watch this video from my AP Biology class last week. See if you can figure out what is going on…

Did you figure it out?  Do you know the significance of the AYE’s? And what is with that stack of backpacks? 🙂

Protein synthesis is a difficult concept for students to grasp in depth. I like to teach it (along with DNA Synthesis and Transcription) as a pattern of Initiation-Elongation-Termination. And while this is enough for my General Biology classes, the College Board recommends that the AP kids get a little bit more detail than that.  So I tried to find a way to model the activity inside a ribosome that would be easy to remember and more engaging than a traditional lecture. And sometimes you just need to do something random, or funny, or unique to get students to remember the difficult information.

My model is based on a session I saw at an NSTA meeting in Kansas City a few years back. I have modified it a little to my purposes, but the basic premise is the same. I regretfully cannot remember the name of the woman that presented that session, but she teaches in Missouri, she was a great presenter, and I’ll gladly give her credit if anyone can point me toward her name.  But here’s how I do it…

  • I grab the first 5-6 kids to walk in the door and ask them to “follow my lead”.
  • Carrying a bag/backpack (representing an amino acid), the students will walk up to the first of two (or three) chairs in the middle of the room (ribosome) and as they sit in the first chair (aminoacyl “A” site) loudly exclaim in their best Fonzi voice,  “Aaaaaaaaayyyye!”
  • When a second student walks up and says “Aaaaaayye!”, the first person slides into the second chair (peptidyl “P” site).  The first student says to their comrade something along the lines of, “Hey can you watch my bag, I have to pee.”
  • The student in the “P” chair leaves their bag and then exits as another student approaches the “A” chair with a resounding, “Aaaaaaaaayye!”.
  • This repeats (Aaaayye!-I have to pee-drop off bag) 5-6 times, until I come in, and instead of a bag, I add a water bottle to the pile building up next to the “P” chair. I end the fun by saying, “Okay, let’s stop,” and move directly into a short lecture on translation.

The students aren’t given any warning, context, or told the significance of each part of the performance they just observed. They are pretty universally confused as to what they just saw, but I resist the urge to explain the act right away. As I am talking my way through what happens in a ribosome during translation, and we are talking about the building polypeptide at the “P”-site of the ribosome, a few students start to catch on, and I will occasionally get someone who just starts laughing (not a normal reaction to a slideshow). The “lecture” ends with a picture of the Fonz, with a subtitle asking them to explain how the model represents translation in the ribosome.

Start to finish, this process takes me about 20 minutes. I find that my students have better retention of the concept, and I am able to save a fair chunk of class time that used to be devoted to practice problems and assignments where they had to draw models of protein synthesis. What do you think? What can I add to my model to make it an even more representation of translation at ribosomes? Share something in the comments or drop me a line via email or Twitter.

Can we have an argument, please? (1)

So I’ve been experimenting with argumentation in my classroom this year and I am really excited about the prospects.  There are many improvements to be made, but I would like to share my experience with you thus far.  In this post I’ll discuss the process.  I will share actual argumentation lessons and how they’ve gone in subsequent posts.

At the end of last school year, during a department meeting, the topic of modeling instruction came up.  One of our physics teachers had attended a physics modeling workshop over the summer and was implementing the ideas into his classroom.  Asked if interested, most of our biology department seemed intrigued by this idea.  We started with everyone, 4 full-time biology teachers, getting a class set of white boards (1, 4×8 sheet of hardboard panel board can be cut into 4, 2×3 pieces, with a bit left over for smaller boards).  The idea was to have a 2×3 board for each group of students.  Since I have 5 sections of biology with 7 groups in each section, I ended up with 35 boards.  It is important that each group get their own board as they may be working on it over several days.  The other thing that came up was getting us into a biology modeling instruction workshop.  Funds for travel, lodging, and workshopping are somewhat limited especially for 4-5 biology teachers, so, under pressure from us and our department head, our district is bringing in an outside “expert” this summer to conduct the two-week workshop!  (By the way, if any of you are using modeling in the biology classroom or have been to training, I would love to hear about your experience.)

OK.  So now that I have whiteboards in my classroom, how am I going to use them.  At first, it was a really nice tool for groups of student to show and share data that they were collecting from experiments or a way for them to make a graph from their data and  share it with the rest of the class.  In the middle of last semester, my student teacher and I developed an argumentation lesson that really made me think about how powerful this piece could be in the classroom.

Argumentation can look a couple of different ways, but we modeled our first lesson after information we found in two different sources, both from NSTA Press.

  • “Argument-Driven Inquiry Biology:  Lab Investigations for Grades 9-12” and
  • “Scientific Argumentation in Biology:  30 Classroom Activities”

Here’s the general idea:

  1. A question is presented.
  2. Students design an experiment that they believe will answer the question.
  3. Students will make a claim regarding the question.
  4. Students will provide evidence from their experiment supporting their claim.
  5. Students will justify the evidence that they have chosen.
  6. Claims, evidence, and justification will undergo a peer review session (argumentation) which allows students to make adjustments to the claims, evidence, and/or justification.
  7. Wrap-up/class discussion piece.
  8. Formal write-up turned into me.

Here’s what the whiteboard might look like when they’re done:

Fastplant Argumentation

What I really like about this process is that it is entirely driven by the students.  You (the teacher) can have as much (or as little) input as you see fit.

I will provide specific examples and even describe the lesson you see in the pic above in future posts.

Questions I have for you:  Do you use modeling instruction in the biology classroom?  If so, what is your experience with it?  Do you use whiteboards?  How?  What is your method of grading this type of work?  Can you get your students engaged in meaningful arguments?  How do you do this?  How often do you do this? 


Everyone needs a podcast…

Do you know what is really great (and also terrifying) about the internet? There is a place for everyone, if you’re willing to look for it. The quality and quantity of the content may vary, but you can always find something that you’re looking for.  Now podcasts are replacing orange as the new “black”. After the immensely popular SERIAL,  from the makers of This American Life (my wife’s personal favorite), podcasts are enjoying a level of national popularity that they haven’t previously had. Several years ago, when I first started looking for podcasts at the suggestion of my future father-in-law, the choices were limited and the production quality wasn’t always very good. But that isn’t really the point of podcasts to me; I like podcasts because they provide me with content that is specific to what I like, with depth that can’t even be imagined. For example, in addition to Biology, I also like Star Wars. And over Thanksgiving Break, I might have listened to three separate podcasts totaling more than four hours over the 88-second trailer released that weekend.

However, up until recently, I had a noticeable gap in podcasts addressing my biggest interest area: education, and science education in particular. Well, no more! Thanks to two very accomplished, very giving, and occasionally very funny guys (Paul Anderson and David Knuffke), there is now a place for the science teacher that wants to listen to people talk about education content with Inside Baseball-like depth.

Horizontal Transfer, a double-entendre directed at their target audience, provides you with a weekly “chat show”-style conversation about a topic relevant to science teachers. The audio quality is top-notch, and the show notes are amazing sources of links cross-referencing everything talked about and alluded to on the show. But, as is the case for any good podcast, you may come for the content, but you stay because of the “talent”. Anderson and Knuffke are engaging, funny when they want to be and serious when they need to be, and have different enough views/styles that it isn’t 50 minutes of constant agreement and back-patting.

In addition to the unique discussion points each week, they also have repeating segments. TWIL (this week I learned), “Constructive” Criticism, and a new sponsor for the podcast (which took me two episodes to realize was actually just some biology content snuck in for good fun). At our recent winter board meeting, the KABT officers agreed that this kind of endeavor deserved actual sponsorship. And while we would love to be flush with enough cash reserves to act as a patron for this podcast, alas we are not. We can, however, support a group of compatriots to show them that we recognize what they are doing, and that we think it is excellent. So we are very proud to be the first actual sponsors of the Horizontal Transfer podcast. After all, as teachers, we should never miss the chance to positively reinforce productive and desired behaviors, right? So take some time, and check out Horizontal Transfer. It is available online, through iTunes, and with any number of third-party Android podcast catchers.

And if you’re new to the KABT website, welcome! Take some time to click around, and if you have any questions, drop us a line on our Twitter feed, email, or Facebook page! We have some pretty neat content designed by some really great teachers who like to share and collaborate with other teachers that share our passion.


In My Classroom – #1

Some of us spoke at the KABT Executive Meeting this year about a new segment that I’d like to introduce: In My Classroom. This is a segment that will post about every two weeks from a new member. In 250 words or less, share one thing that you are currently doing in your classroom. That’s it.

The idea is that we all do cool stuff in our rooms, and to some people there have been cool things so long that it feels like they are old news. In this segment, if you are tagged all you need to do is share something you’ve done in your classroom in the last two weeks. It must be recent, but that’s it. If you are tagged, you’ve got two weeks to post your entry. Who knows… your supposedly mundane idea, lesson, or lab might be exactly what someone else really needs. Keep it brief, keep it honest about the time window, and share it out! Here we go:

Last week I built a new method for selecting study plots during field ecology work. The content isn’t close for my students, but I tested the build and sure enough I think I like it.

Twine, wooden dowel, masking tape, and pennies.

Twine, wooden dowel, masking tape, and pennies.

Twine that is 56.4cm long will trace a circle with an area of 1.00m^2. Add 2cm to use to attach the twine to one end of 10cm of dowel, and tape a few pennies a couple centimeters from the other end to weight the dart properly. Now it throws straight and true, with the weight and the twine tail making it a “sampling dart”. Wherever it lands, draw the circle and count your organisms.

It solves the problem of making random(ish) samples in an area, plus it makes it easier for students to measure out 1m^2 study plots.

That’s it for me, so Chris Elniff is on the clock!