What I've learned: 5 tips for teaching Photosynthesis and Cellular Respiration - It's Not Rocket Science

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What I’ve learned: 5 tips for teaching Photosynthesis and Cellular Respiration

teaching photosynthesis

As I have mentioned before, as a 21st-century teacher I think it is critical that we take the time to reflect on our work in order to grow year after year.  I never want to settle into a slump in teaching and stop pushing myself to be the best I can be for my students.  

All of that to say, I am trying to be better about reflecting and editing my curriculum IMMEDIATELY after teaching so it is still fresh in my mind what worked and what didn’t work.  To be honest, I have kind of failed at this, because I finished teaching my Energy Flow unit back at the end of October and I am just a little behind getting them out to share with you all.  You can read more about the order in which I’ve chosen to teach Biology in my post here.  So a little bit later than planned, but here are 5 tips I have for anyone who is teaching Photosynthesis and Cellular Respiration.  

1. Teach food webs with photosynthesis and cellular respiration so that students can see the big picture. 

When I moved to a school that gave me complete creative control, I immediately reorganized my curriculum to teach food webs with photosynthesis and cellular respiration.  Not only did it provide a slight reprieve for students in the midst of learning some pretty challenging content, but it also allowed them to really understand the flow of energy – both on a macro and micro level.  I love to continually emphasize the big picture with my students, and making this connection really helped!

2. Continually emphasize the cycle of energy from the sun to us. 

My students probably roll their eyes if you asked them how often I ask them, “Where does all energy come from again?  Who can capture it and store it in a more accessible form for us?  How are they able to do that?  How do we get it?  What is the only direct source of energy for us as animals?”  These questions are the heartbeat of our conversation in the classroom and will appear multiple times throughout my personal energy flow unit if you have purchased it.  I think emphasizing this cyclical nature helps too for when we end the year with ecology and discuss the cycling of matter.  They truly see the circle of life (thanks Lion King!)

3. Don’t get caught up on every detail. 

I used to drill students on every detail of these processes.  Photosystems, enzymes, energy-carrying molecules – you name it, my kids memorized it.  But what I’ve found over the years, and especially when collaborating with different AP biology teachers recently, is that these excessive details are growing somewhat useless.  Yes, students who choose to major in biology will one day have to know them, but the likelihood of them remembering each of these tiny details four years from now is slim.  Plus it sounds like the AP institute is moving away from detail-driven tests as well.  I’d rather save the time drilling details and use it for in-class labs and memorable activities like my Photosynthesis Relay or Journey of a Photon social media activity.  These are the memories that we will make as a class that will last, and I’d rather have them sitting in a lecture hall in biology 101 reflecting back and having truly mastered the big picture connections than trying to remember every minute detail from their high school biology teacher’s memory drills. 

4. Make connections to previous units of cells and macromolecules. 

Like I said, connections, connections, connections!  These help with kids really getting the BIG PICTURE.  Everything in biology is so interrelated, and we need students to see that to truly appreciate our content.  I love to go back and remind them of how we’ve learned already about the chloroplast and mitochondria, as well as how glucose is a carbohydrate, and that when our mitochondria do cellular respiration, they can break down more than just carbohydrates like glucose.  This continuity really helps with their long-term memory storage.  

5. Use simulations, analogies, and visuals to make it stick.

I want my students to hear me teach the content, but also to see it, draw it, read about it, and even BE it, if possible.  The more I can get them interacting with different materials, the better they will absorb it.  One of my favorite parts of this unit is a Photosynthesis relay, where my students are each assigned a part of the process and we physically go through photosynthesis in my classroom.  It is a great way to get them to really understand the process. To learn food webs, students move around the room through colorful stations researching the different organisms that make up the coastal marsh ecosystem and then use that information to map out their own color-coded food web.  I even have students do a reflective writing assignment called “Journey of a Photon” where they pretend to reflect on their journey from the sun to ending in an ATP molecule.  It is a creative way to apply their knowledge in a different context. 

What have you learned from your years of teaching energy flow through photosynthesis and cellular respiration?  I find SO much value in hearing from your experiences, so please share with me!

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