What I've Learned: 5 Tips for Improving your 1st Biology Unit

As teachers, we are always looking for tips to improve our practice in our classrooms. For high school science teachers, it can be hard to take the time to pause and reflective on what we are doing and what we could improve.  So  here are 5 ideas for secondary biology teachers to use when teaching their first introductory unit to biology.

Every summer I love to look back and reflect over the year as a whole and make edits to my curriculum when my mind is fresh and not muddled with due dates, papers to grade, and meetings to attend.  I can sit on my porch with a cup of iced coffee and my computer on my lap and re-work the things that weren't the best.  It is one of my favorite things about summertime!  

What I've learned over the years though is that my best edits and advice come when my reflective practice comes immediately after the end of a unit.  Yes it is hard for me to be creative and wise in my creation of new labs or assignments that fit my students better, but it IS the BEST time to pause, reflect, and make notes that I can dig into more over the summer. 

We are officially into our 2nd quarter of the school year, and it seems like so much has happened and yet it is also shocking that 25% of the year is over! Hurricane Matthew hit us hard and we were evacuated for 2 WEEKS (which is why you may have noticed a severe lack in posting on my part!!) But now that life is getting somewhat back to "normal", I have taken the time to reflect on my first two units and figured I'd share what I've learned with YOU!  Here are the 5 things I've learned this year from implementing my first Biology unit (which I call "Biology Basics", you can find in my TpT store here) that I hope will help you as you edit your first unit for the future. 

1. Start with teaching macromolecules at the beginning.

If there is anything I can ever convince you to do through this blog (other than starting to do bell ringers because I am so obsessed - read why here) it's to START TEACHING MACROMOLECULES EARLY!!!! In my early years teaching in a public school where I had to team-plan and had no control over order, we always taught this halfway through the year and it made no sense.  Macromolecules (or essential organic compounds or whatever fancy thing you call them - I'm talking about carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids here) are so foundational for EVERYTHING we cover in biology.  If you start with these in the beginning, you can constantly refer back to them throughout the REST of the year as you teach every other biological concept. 

(Think about it: Cell membrane/transport = lipids (and carbs and proteins too honestly; Cell organelles = all work together to make PROTEINS; Enzymes = PROTEINS; Photosynthesis = makes a CARB; Genetics and Heredity = ALL about some proteins and nucleic acids) 

I could honestly go on and on.  My kids really get biology best when they see how interconnected everything is - and that starts with a strong foundation in macromolecules!

2. Make the first unit challenging to set the tone for the rest of the year. 

I think sometimes our starting units are just the basics - a review of lab safety, equipment, scientific method and the nature of science.  While all of these things are great (and necessary as you will see in 3 and 4) I do think kids also get a false sense of security in thinking that biology isn't that bad, and it is all stuff they already have learned.  I love including macromolecules in the beginning, for the reasons mentioned above, but also because this is a challenging concept that sets kids up for the challenging nature of biology - a class they WILL have to study for and that WILL require memorization.  Let's set our expectations high at the beginning of the year - because I firmly believe our students will rise to the bar we set. 

3. Do take the time to review lab safety and equipment. 

Every year I think about deleting these things because it seems so boring and elementary to me to go over this stuff year after year, but it is so critical that our students never forget these skills.  If we take the time to review them NOW it can save so much time each time we enter into a new lab.  Now I don't think you need to lecture on these things like you may do with younger students, but they need to be reviewed. In my introductory unit I use lab stations to have students review lab safety and equipment, as well as a lab station measurement activity to practice using all of the tools again.  It is also a fun way to get kids out of their seats and reviewing this fundamental content without you lecturing on it again and boring them to tears the first week of school. 

4. Review scientific method - but take it to the next level. 

This is another one of those topics, like lab safety and equipment, that is necessary to review each year, but can get dull when you are teaching high schoolers who have been learning the scientific method for over 5 years.  The best way I've found to review this with them is have them actually go through the process with a fully inquiry-based and student-led lab!  For instance, I make the initial observation (about how the hand sanitizer dispensers in our hallways are boldly labeled "kills 99% of bacteria") and the students work from there as a class to got through the process of the scientific method to design and implement a lab that investigates this.  It is also a great way to build a community as a class, practice our use of lab equipment and techniques, as well as investigate a topic that is extremely relevant and applicable for their lives.  Speaking of relevancy...
5. Make the content relevant and applicable to real world situations.  

I will say this for every unit I ever teach, but I always find that I can improve in the relevancy of my content and applicability of what I am teaching to my students' lives year after year.  Even in the examples I am using and the context of the labs I implement, I want to connect with my students, where they are, however I can.  The more students can see me trying to relate the content to them, and hear me explaining the content in ways they can understand, the better they will be able to learn and REMEMBER what I am teaching them.  For example, I noticed last year how obsessed so many of my students were with crime shows, like Law and Order.  So I designed an investigation for them to learn about macromolecules in the context of a murder mystery.  To increase the relevancy even more, I made the lab customized to where we live - with restaurants that the suspects attended being local spots that all of the students know and love.  It was a blast to do with my students and something they still talk about.  Yes this takes more time and energy to design, but this is the stuff (at least for me) that is SO fun and SO worth it in the end!  (P.S. You can find this lab for FREE with an editable page for you to change the restaurants to your local spots here.)


I hope my reflective musings are helpful for you in your own practice.  I will continue to share them as I finish each unit to hopefully help myself and others grow in what we are doing!

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