What I've Learned: 5 tips for improving how you teach CELLS

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 be reflective on what we are doing and what we could improve.  So here are 5 ideas for secondary biology teachers to use when teaching cells (organelles, transport, mitosis, and cancer) in their classrooms.

As I mentioned in my last post, as a 21st century teacher I think it is is critical that we take the time to reflect on our work in order to grow year after year.  I don't want to keep doing this job anymore if I get to the point when I don't care about providing my students with the best curriculum that I possibly could.  This is one of the reasons why starting my TpT store in January has been so life changing for me and my practice.  Perfecting my curriculum to be sold to other teachers has pushed me to be that much more creative and organized in my own classroom - and my students have LOVED it.  They always know if I am using something that I sell on TpT because the quality is so much higher.  It makes ME enjoy teaching more too when I am excited about what we are doing that day!
 All of that to say, I've found reflection so important and I want to take the time after each unit to reflect on here about what I've learned so that I can improve in the future and hopefully other teachers can too.  I'd love to hear your thoughts as well!  I am currently in a school where I am the only physical science and biology teacher, so I miss sharing war stories and swapping notes with other teachers!  So for anyone else out there in the trenches alone, here are the 5 things I've learned this year from implementing my Cells Unit that I hope will help you as you revise and improve your own teaching of Cells in the future!
 1. Use as many visuals and animations as you can find. 

Cells can be such a confusing and boring topic for students to learn since they can't see or touch cells.  Yes, you can use microscopes to see them, but honestly how many high schoolers really get fired up about using a microscope?  I actually stopped using microscopes in my biology class a few years ago because (1) we have so few at my school, (2) they take so long to teach students to use, and (3) even then what we have for students to look at isn't that exciting or engaging for them.  I've been able to save so much time by removing from my curriculum, and have been able to replace teaching the use of microscopes with so many amazing visuals and animations that the internet has to offer nowadays.  As 21st century science teachers, let's take advantage of all of the resources the internet has to offer us!  Whether it be teaching cell transport, mitosis, or cancer, these animations and videos are a great way for students to really SEE what is going on in the cell that they are memorizing so much about.  Here are a few of my favorites: 

2. Make. it. relevant. 

I said this about macromolecules in my last blogpost and I will say this again - we HAVE to make our content relevant to our students!!! This is one of the main ways we can connect with them and get them interested about what they are learning.  I preface my entire cells unit by telling them the importance of paying attention so that when we learn about cancer at the end of the unit, they will be able to understand the biology behind it.  Cancer is always an engaging topic because every student has or will deal with it at some point in their lifetime either personally or through a friend or family member, so it is always a topic they engage with well.  Memorizing PMAT seems a LOT less dull when they understand that any mistakes in PMAT could lead to cancer.  Emphasize why the material is important and relevant to your students so that they will be more motivated to engage in learning it. 

3. Connect to what you've previously taught.  

I am a huge proponent of giving students cumulative tests for a variety of reasons, which I am sure I will write about in a blog post someday.  One of the main reasons for biology, in particular, that I find this so critical is how so much of biology builds on itself.  As you teach cells, connect your students back to what you've (hopefully) already taught them about macromolecules.  I always say that macromolecules are the MVP of biology and will be present in EVERY unit - because they are!! - so it is important for students to see that what they are learning builds on what they have already learn.  Draw the connections for them.  Build on the knowledge foundation you've already worked so hard to create.  Use that strong foundation to help them learn cells even easier.  Both you and your students will benefit!

4. Be repetitive.

Someone told me once that a good teacher can teach the same topic 10 different ways, and I think this is honestly so true.  Content like cells that requires so much memorization students need to especially hear over and over.  Let them hear you explain it.  Then show it with pictures.  Then let them hear someone else explain it on a video.  Then show them again with animations.  Then make them build a model of it.  Then make them draw it.  Then have them read about it.  Get them ingesting the information in as many ways as possible so that it will stick.  I truly don't believe you can be too repetitive in teaching (unless of course you don't change up your delivery and just repeat yourself over and over.  Then you might as well be a Charlie Brown teacher!)

5. Emphasize the bigger picture.  

Similar to #2 and 3, but I think this is an important distinction.  I think sometimes we are so busy lecturing on and on about organelles, that we don't even take the time to stop and explain what the heck they all are actually working to do.  Help your students see the big picture of what they are learning.  Why learn organelles?  Because each organelle plays an essential role in assembling proteins (aka the macromolecule that does a million important things for your body.)  Why learn transport?  Because these are the processes on a cellular level that keep your body stable and healthy.  Why learn mitosis?  Because this is how you went from being just a fertilized egg to being a full blown teenager.  If they understand why they are learning the material, it will help them to understand how the material fits together. 

I worked countless hours this summer to edit and revise my Cells unit curriculum in order to make it TpT-worthy to share with other teachers, but even as I write this reflection after using the curriculum in my own classroom, I am already thinking of a list of more ways I could grow and improve my own work - and isn't that what being a teacher is all about?  Now here's the fun part - finding the time to make those adjustments!

What have you learned from teaching Cells over the years?  I'd love to learn from your experiences in the comments!


  1. I am always so grateful for teachers taking the time to share their perspectives, systems and resources. Leaving academic science and entering teaching, I am always so refreshed by the open and collaborative nature of teachers. I agree so much of what you have written..relevancy, many videos and connecting to previous content.

    However, I will respectfully disagree about microscopes..last week students made nail polish stomata imprints and were mesmerized by seeing stomata and chloroplasts from the leaves they collected and slides they made. They also looked at chloroplasts in the Elodea that they had just experimented with. It could be that I feel strongly about microscope work because of your premise of connection. We had done two previous experiments that implicated gases "somehow" getting into the leaf and "green pigment" as essential in photosynthesis. I think any time we can put an experience into the students hands this will increase engagement, scientific practice proficiency and relevancy. But, maybe most important to me is the joy of watching the students amazement and wonder of a world 400x smaller than what they had ever seen.

    1. I love reading your thoughts! Thanks so much for sharing them. It sounds like you've had some really successful microscope experiences - which is awesome! I love hearing how they work for some teachers - my experience with them just hasn't ever been as worth it when I weigh out the time it takes to teach them and use them, with what I've found my students to get out of them. This is also heavily influenced by the fact that my school has 5 microscopes total. That just makes the whole process take so much longer with classes of 25! I just wanted to encourage teachers to use all of the valuable online resources to help teach cells, but you are right - microscopes definitely don't have to be replaced in the curriculum if they are working well with your students!

  2. Rebecca, Nice blog! Give those microscopes another shot. It was one of my favorite tools for science and once the kids learned how to use them, they LOVED bringing things from home to magnify. Even pocket scopes are fun to use. I have a few things on my website you may want to add to your cells unit: http://sciencewear.net/cell-ebrate ENJOY and have a great year!


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