Let's just say, for fun, that I stood in front of my class of ninth grade biology students and told them that in addition to notes I am assigning three chapters in a textbook and twenty-five new tier 3 vocabulary words for a unit test in two weeks. I would arguably be increasing the workload and possibly expectations in my class, but I am not doing much other than having them jump through hoops preparing them for a standardized exam at the end of the year. I also hardly believe that I would be met with cheering and high fives. There are no teachable moments or memorable events in this lesson plan. I would imagine students would binge on information followed shortly after the unit test with a complete purge before the next unit.
I have taught in an urban public school for fifteen years and I have come to realize that what motivates my students to walk through my door each day is different. I can assure you they have never walked through that door proclaiming their excitement for learning the correct definition of “gametogenesis” and how to use it in a sentence. I am sure that the chapters in a textbook and 25 new vocabulary words would hold very little relevance in their lives. I feel constantly challenged to increase the relevance of my lessons with the aim of having my students look forward to the experiences in my class instead of dreading the workload and demand of their time on something that they perceive as unimportant or insignificant. I want my class to be one of the reasons that they came to school today.
If I told those same students that we would be exploring the negative and positive impact of gene mutations on offspring, I could write a lesson that increased rigor by increasing critical thinking skills and application of knowledge, but this topic would still not be relevant to most of my students. Instead I stand in front of that same group of students and tell them that over the next two weeks they will be paired up with another student “making babies”. This announcement is met with cheering, nervous energy and excitement all of the best ingredients for engagement. At this point, I can increase the rigor as much as I want because this assignment has now become relevant!
You may be asking yourself how making babies could possible increase rigor in a ninth grade class. It sounds more like a craft project that may or may not end with glitter in every corner of the room. I assure you this assignment holds much more academic rigor than a craft project, the assignment on the impact of gene mutations or the book assignment with the vocabulary words. This assignment will do everything in two weeks that the textbook can do, plus I will have nearly complete engagement out of every student and even better, I will have students coming to school simply to find out what the next step is in the process.
Over the course of a week students are assigned tasks to complete before the “baby making“ process can begin. Each student is required to develop a family pedigree using their actual family, assign genotypes for a list of characteristics and determine if the student themselves are “male” or “female” based on a simulated karyotype activity. Only after all of the tasks are complete can students produce a sex cell with their own genetic information to pass on to their child. In the final stage of this activity students combine pedigrees with their partner to simulate mating. They represent conception by combining the genes from their sperm or egg cells and through the magic of biology, they have made a baby complete with their own inheritable characteristics.
Now I would feel guilty if I didn’t admit to the cute craft project at the end where the students draw and name their child, however, the finished product is quite impressive. Students make a child complete with inheritable traits from the mother and father similar to what we would see in nature, a karyotype of the child showing the genes from each parent, a pedigree of the child with information from both sides of the family and a description from each of the parents outlining the child’s characteristics and any gene or chromosome mutations that they developed and how their life might be affected by it.
This is not just an engaging project relevant to them and their future, it also serves as a model for many of my future lessons. From the initial pedigree through conception each day is filled with discovery as a new piece of the puzzle is revealed and students don’t want to miss a class. The level of engagement I obtain with this series of lessons is phenomenal. They do research outside of the classroom and involve parents and friends in the tasks and fun.
Oh, and dare I mention that in this two weeks student meet most of the state standards for genetics, intimately learn about the negative and positive impacts of mutations in a person’s genes and confidently apply over twenty-five tier 3 vocabulary words such as gametogenesis, oogenesis, spermatogenesis, phenotype, genotype, karyotype, variation, heritability, co-dominance, incomplete dominance, pedigree, chromatid, chromosome, homologous, segregation, allele, conception, fertilization, mutation, pedigree, amniocentesis, centromere, non-disjunction, gamete, and zygote to name a few.
While I believe that we should always strive to increase rigor in the classroom and appropriately challenge our students, without paying attention to relevance, the lessons will not be nearly as effective. When we can engage them with activities that directly impact their lives and get them invested in learning, that is when we can make great progress towards their understanding. Lessons like making a baby stay with my students for a very long time. Every time one of my former students visit and remarks, “remember when we made that baby in biology class” it brings a smile to my face.
Leigh Feguer, NBCT
Living Environment Smart Scholar Team
Schenectady High School