Building Vocabulary: Using Project-Based Learning to Understand Organelles and Their Functions

Introducing students to the invisible world of microscopic life has always been one of my favorite scientific investigations. Students broaden their understanding of the surrounding world by examining tangible evidence of scientific concepts that cannot be proven with standard empirical observation. For example, students are taught that all plants are made up of multiple cells, but this concept is not made real until they see the layers of green bricks that construct a small portion of a leaf they found outside. The deeper they look, the broader the scope of science becomes, and with that depth comes an array of new terms and concepts that must be acquired. In this investigation, students had to stretch their understanding beyond the magnification of the microscope, and demonstrate knowledge of new invisible structures that made up cells: organelles.

As I began to develop my lesson plans, I found myself staring into the unknown as my curricula no longer served as a map to our final destination. According to the Massachusetts science standards, students must learn to identify the structure and function of organelles in a cell, but the district-provided curricula does not offer a way for students to meet this standard. In order to prepare my lessons, I needed to independently research the content and create instructional materials for this

This is a sketch I found on the classroom floor while cleaning after school. Polysemous words like
This is a sketch I found on the classroom floor while cleaning after school. Polysemous words like “cell” are challenging for many ELLs, and I was proud to see the spontaneous use of creativity and humor to display a complex concept.

portion of the unit. Students not only had to master novel scientific language, but they needed to use this language to describe how organelles interact to create the smallest unit of life. I knew that students needed a creative approach to mastering these novel terms, one that would help them demonstrate their mastery both using oral and written language. After conducting research and consulting colleagues, I decided that the best way to accomplish this task would be to have the students work on a project in which they either would build a cell model or create a poster that demonstrates how organelles are analogous to other systems.

This project-based learning approach proved to be an engaging strategy that allowed students to actively synthesize information, rather than just practice rote memorization of cell parts. At the center of this project was a two-fold writing process. As students constructed their project, I asked them to to write about the function of each organelle in order to learn about the cell. Later, I required that they demonstrate their knowledge by completing a writing assignment that asked high order thinking questions around organelles in plant and animal cells. This powerful process gave me insight into my students’ learning and helped me to better understand the ways in which I can support the English Language Learners and Students with Special Needs in the classroom.

The Project

I was nervous during the onset of this project, as I had never attempted an artistic, open ended assignment like this in my class. My supplies were limited, and it required a great deal of imagination and effort from each student to complete construction of cell model. Students needed to bring in materials from home to complete the task and had to rely on their own understanding of cell structure to complete the project.  I was afraid that, while students were able to construct a model or build a poster, they would get caught up in the creative process and not internalize the names and functions of the cell. These fears subsided soon after the project began.

Early in the lesson planning process, I realized that the key to a successful project would be in providing a clear objective. I developed a rubric that ensured all students were able to write about specific organelles and allowed students to either focus on a model of a cell, or create a poster that served as an analogy of the functions of the organelles. This level of choice provided an opportunity for students to select their own accommodations, and this freedom ultimately resulted in a higher level of engagement. In fact, some students decided to go beyond the assignment and merged the two projects by constructing cell analogies in a model form.

In the end, four types of projects emerged:

The Cell Analogy Model

A small group of students had their heart set on building a model, but wanted to go beyond constructing a replica of a cell. This resulted in these students creating PhotoGrid_1432689212260their own “Hybrid Project” in which they took elements from the Cell Analogy poster, and combined it with the 3-D model aspects of the cell model project. Two groups built a Cell City, where different city structures represent parts of the cell, while another student worked independently to show how a cell is like a family inside their home. In all cases the students that took on this ambitious project were my top performing students, and they had no problem demonstrating they had mastered the material, orally and in written form.

Cell Analogy Poster

Not very many students chose to create a cell poster, but those who did gained and in-depth understanding of the cell functions. Students that had a better understanding of different organelles gravitated to this project, and the results were impressive. Students were able to personalize the project and allowed for a different type of creativity than building a 3D model. In one particular project, a group of English Language Learners was able to match the attributes of their favorite futbol players to organelles in the cell. I knew nothing about these different players, and they took pride in being able to teach me about the player’s strengths and relating all their knowledge back to how organelles function in a cell. My favorite analogy was their comparison of mitochondria to Eden Hazard who serves as the “power house” of the team.PhotoGrid_1432688608468

Poster AD

When asked what they meant by “power house” they said that he gave his teammates energy on the field, just like mitochondria in a cell. Overall these students did an excellent job of orally explaining the cell functions, and the formative written assignments were thorough. The summative assessment showed that 4 out of 5 of the students who completed this project demonstrated knowledge of organelle functions, while all of the students could write about the differences between plant and animal cell organelles.

Cell Model

A vast majority of students decided to build a 3D model of a cell out of household items and recycled trash. Working in pairs forced students to use the technical language as they discussed the materials they would use to build each part. One of the most inspiring moments was listening to a group of intermediate ELL students debate over what should be used to construct a vacuole in their plant cell. They ultimately decided on a water bottle as it was the right size and actually held water as it would in the cell. Overall, students scored very well on the oral assessment PhotoGrid_1432776640536(with the exception of the only homogenous ELL group), as well as the formative written assessment. In the oral assessment, I found that the majority of students were able to correctly identify and pronounce the names of various organelles, and explain their function in the cell. This process was done without the aid of any written content. The homogenous ELL group however, struggled with recalling the names of the different organelles hindering their ability to correctly identify the organelle functions. During the formative writing assignment, every student was able to create an explanation of each organelle function and match that function to the proper organelle.

Pre-made Cell Cut Out

The fourth type of project was one that had all the organelles of a plant cell and an animal cell already prepared with labels and explanations. The students had to cutPhotoGrid_1432776322030 out the organelles, place them in the correct cell, and explain their function to me in the oral assessment. This project was created to help two of my students with more intensive special needs overcome the executive functioning demand that is associated with managing a vast array of materials. This simple accommodation proved to be valuable, and allowed those students to work independently on accomplishing the same objective as the rest of the class.

Conclusion

Planning this assignment was not easy, but after the initial heavy lift, I found it to be worthwhile. The writing component that accompanied the project demonstrated student understanding of each organelle and their function, and the oral component offered deeper insight into aspects of the assignment that challenged students.

One week after the project was complete I gave a written assessment in which the students had to identify the function of different organelles and write about 3 differences between an animal and a plant cell. While grading this test, I immediately identify a crucial mistake in planning the project: I did not provide a pre-test by which I could accurately measure growth.

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This is a writing sample from one of my top performing general education students. This student decided to construct a 3-D cell model.
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This is a sample from a English Language Learner who is also on an Individual Education Plan. While he did not score high on the oral portion of the exam, he did very well with recalling vocabulary and key differences between plant and animal cells.

While I was pleased with how well the class did overall, I could still see a gap between my ELLs and other students. A pretest however would help put this gap into perspective, as I would be able assess the gains of each individual student after the project was completed. It would be naive of me to believe that one project-based learning assignment would erase the gap, but this experience has shown me the value of project-based learning.

These few days were filled with qualitative and quantitative data that amounted to tangle learning in my classroom. The hours of engagement, the rich level of content-based discussion, and the higher order thinking exhibited during this project serve as strong evidence that combination of writing techniques and project-based assignments will result in measurable learning for all students.

Below you can find the Rubrics used in this Project:

Cell Anology Poster Rubric

Cell Model Rubric

Internalizing the Writing Process: Organizing and Writing

Once students have completed the planning stage of the writing process, it is important for teachers to conduct an informal assessment to ensure that their young writers are well-planned and bursting with ideas.

Writers who have effectively completed planning should be able to respond to the following questions:

  •      Why are you going to write this piece?
  •      What genre will your piece be?
  •      Who is your audience?
  •      What do you know about your topic?
  •      What are the most important ideas that you will share in your writing?

An oral assessment in which peers ask and answer questions while the teacher circulates can serve as a great checkpoint before beginning to facilitate organizing. My students have also enjoyed recording their brief interviews with one another via the super-simple online recording tool vocaroo and submitting them via e-mail.  If students do not pass this checkpoint, they require more support and the planning stage should be revisited. After all, how can ideas be organized when there are none?

In order to internalize ways to organize writing, students need to know how to create their own outlines and graphic organizers. However, meeting this goal takes effective teacher modeling as well as practice and repetition. Teacher-created graphic organizers can serve as initial models, but these should be  phased out during the year as students draw them and memorize them. Although it doesn’t make sense for students to memorize a unique organizer for every genre encountered, students should develop the following general repertoire:

  •      a narrative or fiction summary consisting of characters, setting, and major beginning, middle, and end plot points
  •      a non-fiction summary with main idea and at least 3 supporting details
  •      a process writing essay
  •      an enumerative essay
  •      a comparison essay
  •      a contrast essay
  •      a compare and contrast essay
  •      a brief or 5-paragraph essay

A wonderful source for expository graphic organizers is the book From Talking to Writing: Strategies for Scaffolding Expository Expression by Terrill M. Jennings and Charles W. Haynes. This Landmark School publication is an incredible resource on explicit teaching of writing that I use nearly daily in my practice.

Compare and Contrast

At the beginning of the year, I often spend a class period or two using transparencies or chart paper to model using an organizer. For example, when my intermediate ESL class studied World Mythology, students read various myths of Heracles. The students then had to select three episodes from the life of Heracles to write as diary entries. In order to do this, the students needed to create a narrative summary organizer with a detailed list of the important plot points. I used the story of infant Heracles killing the snakes who invaded his nursery to model the organization task on a transparency, showing the students how I continually returned to the text to identify the characters, setting, and plot points. Because the students had read the story prior to this modeling, they were also able to engage in the conversation and orally assist with the completion of the model organizer.

After this demonstration, students had a solid model of how to complete their own organizers for their diary entries. As another checkpoint, I highly recommend collecting and assessing organizers, to ensure that the students now have substance acquired from the planning phase and the structure acquired from the organization phase to finally move on to writing.

Honestly, the writing phase of the writing process is such a joyful moment for me as the facilitator. Before the pleasure of our first “writing” session of the year, I review my norms and expectations with the class.

On our writing days, students must:

  •      come prepared with their planning and organizing documents
  •     have sharpened pencils and working pens
  •      enter the room quietly
  •      write silently for the entire time

Of course, this does not happen perfectly the first time. The first time that we embark upon this journey, I time the class in order to gauge their writing stamina. I also make a rule that students may not get up from their seats for any reason for the first fifteen minutes.

The secret is that, usually, after fifteen minutes have passed, the students have become absorbed in their work, and I get to sit back and watch the fruits of my labor – young writers putting words on paper for an extended period of time. To encourage the children, when fifteen minutes have passed, I walk around quietly and put a small candy next to each child, but I am careful not to interrupt their writing.

When students know why they are writing and have ideas to write about, they are more successful in the writing stage. Students are able to fill a page or two (or even more) with their ideas.

This article is the second in a three part series on the topic of “Internalizing the Writing Process”.