Using Analogies to Study the Organelles of the Cell (Day 1 of 2)

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Students will be able to understand and connect the roles of each organelle within a cell.

Big Idea

Use student created analogies to deepen their understanding of the organelles in a cell!

Notes for the Teacher

This two day lesson series gives students the opportunity to create their own analogies to help them understand and recall the names and functions of the main organelles in the cell.  

During Day 1, students brainstorm potential ideas for their analogy writing and visual project.

Standards: W.9-10.9SL.9-10.1SL.9-10.5RST.9-10.2RST.9-10.4HS-LS1-2SP2SP8XC-SF-HS-2

On Day 2 students share their collaborative work with their classmates for further review and deeper understanding of the organelles and how they work together.

Standards: W.9-10.9SL.9-10.1SL.9-10.1aSL.9-10.4SL.9-10.5RST.9-10.2RST.9-10.4HS-LS1-2SP2SP8XC-SF-HS-2

Students come into biology having first been exposed to cell structure in function in junior high school.  However, the level of understanding and recall varies greatly from student to student and between their previous school sites.  This activity is one that can be scaffolded up or down to meet students where they are and progress them forward in their overall understanding.  All students benefit from the collaborative experience and appreciate getting to choose a partner and a topic unique and interesting to them personally; they enjoy working together with teacher support within the classroom setting and are proud to share their work with their classmates.  Finally, allowing the students to reflect upon their challenges and growth in problem solving though our whole class discussion on Day 2 gives students the opportunity to think about their metacognition and recognize their strengths as a learner.

Our school is currently implementing the CCSS and are beginning to transition to the NGSS.  These new standards emphasize collaborative settings, content area reading and writing, and opportunities to translate information from words to numbers to graphics.  This project is something I will continue to tweak to enhance all three areas already present so that I can better support my students.  I look forward to hear how you have shaped this activity to fit the needs of your students!


The Classroom Flow: Introducing the Activity

15 minutes

 1.  Use the popcorn strategy or any other large group discussion protocol for students to brainstorm and share answers to the following prompt:

What do you know about analogies?

3. Once you have written out the students' brainstorm list of things they know about analogies, announce that today they will work with a partner to choose something to compare a cell to and describe each organelle in reference to their analogy choice.  

  • Note:  I typically allow students to choose their own partners for pair projects; this helps to promote the best possible collaborative working conditions for students.  

4.  Hand out the activity guidelines document and briefly review it together.  Here is a sample rubric for the activity as well.  

5.  Give students 5-10 minutes to discuss with their chosen partner any analogy ideas they might have.  Tell students you will take ideas (one analogy per class) after that time.  

  • Note: I tend to be pretty strict about this planning time so that students don't rush up to me in a panic all with the same first idea that came to them, worried they won't have a good one or that theirs will be taken.  I am firm about the one analogy per class rule because otherwise I wind up with 20 football/soccer fields and high school campuses/classrooms and not much else.  This time allows me to encourage groups to be creative and to troubleshoot any situations where a student might need help finding the right partner for them.

The Classroom Flow: Collaborative Work

35 minutes

1.  Once students have chosen partners and signed up with you to approve their analogy idea, it is time to get to work!

2.  It is best if students work together on their initial outline of organelle structure/functions in relation to their analogy.  Allow students quiet space and time to collaborate.  Remind them that they can use any resource they have to assist them, including their textbook, online sources, and classroom materials such as our powerpoint presentation or our cell organelle board drawing.


  • Students will have already viewed the slide presentation at home prior to coming to our class session.  It is an exhaustive resource that students tell me is very helpful to them.  In order to save paper, I do not print out the slides but I do upload them to our class website and I have them available during class in both paper form and on my desktop computer for students who may need a copy to take home with them or for those who wish to view specific slides together with your partner and me in order to talk about specific organelle related questions.  I also allow students to access the slides on their personal devices during their pair work time and when I am working with groups I can refer them to specific slides that might be helpful to them.
  • I do not typically answer too many questions at this point.  The goal of today's activity is for students to stretch themselves to figure out how each organelle best fits into their analogy.  Answering these questions for them within the first 20 minutes of the project defeats the purpose in many ways. I find that if I reassure students they can check back in with me the next day after really talking it through with their partner and reflecting on their ideas at home on their own, they happily go back to the process of thinking and puzzling together!  

3. As student groups work together, observe their interactions and progress and intervene when appropriate.

Note: I try to keep my initial support as minimal as possible so that students can attempt to work out their issues together as a team.  I find that the real stumper questions come later in the class period and if students aren't seeking me out to talk about the connections between the ribosome and golgi body or the nucleus and chromosomes, I seek them out to check in.  I will ask questions like

  • Have you thought about….?
  • Why did you decide that this organelle analogy works best for….?
  • Can you think not any other comparisons that might work here?

4. To give you an idea of the creativity you will see in the student projects, here is a quick story:  I had shown a student a website of the artist Theo Jansen who creates these huge moving art installations he calls strandbeests.  The student and his partner created a strandbeest cell analogy project and brought in a motor device so they could demonstrate its movement and how each part relates to the cell structure and function.  

5.  The kind of written work you can expect is evident in this student work sample for a pair of students who chose to compare the parts of a cell to Disneyland.  The writing makes explicit connections between the cell organelle and the Disneyland attraction with a clear rationale for their choices.  I do not ask students to include an official definition for each cell organelle.  In the past, this has led to academic honesty issues as students simply cut and past definitions from an online source and results in vague explanations as if somehow the definition takes the place of a discussion of each analogy chosen for their topic.  Eliminating that piece has allowed students to describe their choices more clearly in ways that show me that they understand the function of the individual organelles.

5.  Announce the due date for this activity before the class period ends.  Indicate if you will give more class time for analogy brainstorming, written work, or the visual product.  

Now on to Day 2!