Introducing the Cell Cycle Using Diagrams and Gestures

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SWBAT narrate the phases of mitosis using diagrams and hand gestures.

Big Idea

Use colorful diagrams and hand gestures to unpack the cell cycle and mitosis as an effective pre-writing activity!

Notes for the Teacher

Cell division and the cell cycle are standard pieces of a biology curriculum.  What makes this lesson stand out is the use of hand gestures to cue vocabulary and sequence.  The kids love doing it together with me, especially after I make a ridiculous display of getting into it!  I giggle a bit thinking of the number of students who flash me one of our mitosis dance hand gestures as I walk down the hall.  

I'm also finding that diagrams and drawings in biology class take on a different meaning and level of engagement with the introduction of color.  I make a point to keep colored pencils out on desks or in open drawers labeled and available to students anytime they wish to get up and retrieve them, along with highlighters, rulers, and drawing paper.  The more colorful their drawings, the morel likely I am to see them refer back to them again later on in our unit and throughout our exam review sessions.  I am also less likely to find them on the floor or in the recycle bin!  More and more, I am finding that these tiny, foundational shifts have a larger impact on the learning culture and engagement in our classroom and I am excited for the students to experience what it is like to be driving their own education!  I'd love to hear more about the little things you and your students do to encourage deeper learning and involvement in class activities!


The Classroom Flow: Introducing Cell Division

10 minutes

1.  Ask students to take out materials to take notes today (use whatever method you typically use).  Provide colored pencils or markers for greater student engagement and more precise note taking and sketching.

2.  Announce that today you will be going deeper into the concept of cell division.  Start by talking about the two major types of division  (sexual and asexual) and put this information on the board.  This brief flow chart ties together terms like mitosis, meiosis, body cells, sex cells into the idea of asexual vs. sexual reproduction.  Leave this up on display for the rest of the unit.  You will find students referring back to it each time they acquire new vocabulary or add to their understanding about each specific cell division process.

3.  Point to the word 'mitosis' on the board flow chart and tell students that the focus of today's lesson will be on asexual reproduction: mitosis. 

The Classroom Flow: Focusing on the Cell Cycle and Mitosis

20 minutes

1.  Remind students of the conversation you have already had and the summary of steps you created together on the board about the cell cycle.  Tell students that today you will be working to understand the process cell division by using diagrams and gestures.

2.  Draw the cell cycle on the board.  As you draw each phase, talk students through each one and write down the most important points for each.  Follow this format to give students time to draw, read, listen, and understand:

Write down the name of the phase.

Draw the phase using colored pens. Give students time to draw in their notes before moving to the next step.

Write in bullet points the main events that happen in that phase. Read each bullet point slowly as students write it in their own notes.  

Use the diagram to point out the events in action in your drawing.

Take clarifying questions as they come up.  Typically, students will be focused on writing and drawing and more specific questions come up later in the lesson series. 

  • Note:  I typically take up the entire board and save the drawings of each for the rest of the unit.  Students come up to the board throughout our time studying this topic to discuss, compare, and ask questions.  They often like to take photos of it as well to compare to their own notes. The use of color, the bullet points, vocabulary list, and size of the drawings helps students use them effectively each day of the unit as they add in additional knowledge about the phases and discuss them with their peers.


3.  Write out the essential vocabulary for this topic as a list on the side of the board phase drawings: chromosome, chromatin, sister chromatids, homologous, daughter cells, spindle, centromeres, centrioles, cytokinesis, diploid.  

4. Underline them in your drawings with bullet points each time they appear.  Ask students to help you find them.

5. Remind students that these sketches and explanations will be posted in the room for the rest of the unit and that we will be referring to them each day as we learn more about cell division and connect what we learn into a broader sense of the different types of reproduction, their outcomes, and their purposes.


The Classroom Flow: Time for the Mitosis Hand Dance!

10 minutes

1.  Tell students that it is time to learn the mitosis hand dance!  There are many versions of this activity and you can find a variety of options/versions online.  Here is one version, check it out!

2. The mitosis hand dance I use is very similar and it goes like this:

  • Interphase (early):  Closed fist (or a closed fist with a thumbs up just for fun!) symbolizing that the nuclear membrane is present and the DNA can't be seen.
  • Interphase (late):  Clap your hands together to symbolize that the DNA has replicated and that there are sister chromatids (identical copies) of each of the original DNA strands in the cell.
  • Prophase: Squeeze clasped hands together after clapping and describe all of the events happening in prophase:  breakdown of the nuclear membrane, construction of the spindle, attachment of sister chromatids to the spindle by their centromeres.
  • Metaphase:  Touch fingertips together (like Mr. Burns in the Simpsons) to indicate that the sister chromatids have lined up along the center axis of the spindle.
  • Anaphase:  Wiggle fingers away from each other to opposite sides of the body (like the famous dance move in Pulp Fiction) to show that the sister chromatids are breaking apart and each one is moving to the opposite side (pole) of the cell.
  • Telophase:  Create two closed fists (or thumbs up) and hold them high to show that at the end of mitosis there are two identical daughter cells that match the original cell you started with.  While you hold up your fists, describe all of the events that happen (the reverse of prophase events):  the spindle disappears, the nuclear membrane returns, and the chromosomes relax out into chromatin). 

3.  Repeat the moves as a class 2-3 times in unison as you call out the names of each phase and the major events that happen in each phase.

  • Note:  I tell students with a smile that I expect every one to participate and that if someone doesn't, they get a solo turn in the front of the room!  The bigger and more dramatic my moves, the easier it is for students to participate at their desks despite the inherent lack of teenager cool in doing hand dances with their teachers in public!  I typically tease students about getting our claps in time together and we generally have a fun, silly time putting together easy to remember hand gestures with the sequence of events in each phase of mitosis.  Every year, I will see students using their mitosis hand dance as they work on assignments and our unit assessment.  Even funnier is when students will give me the thumbs up (Interphase) gesture in the hallways! 

4.  Once the class has the movements down and in unison, ask students to turn to their lab partners.  Each pattern in the pair will take a turn leading the mitosis hand dance

Ask students to turn to their lab partner and do the mitosis hand dance for each other while they narrate the major happenings in each phase of mitosis.  

4.  If time allows, ask for 1-2 lab partner pairs to share their hand gestures and narration for the class.


The Classroom Flow: Wrapping Up

10 minutes

1. Refer the students back to the board drawings and vocabulary list.

2. Using the spokesperson protocol, ask each group to discuss and pick out one word they want to discuss/clarify further.   

3.  As students share out their group's word, discuss and clarify as needed.  If time is running short, ask each group to send their spokesperson up to the board to mark their choices.  Tell them you will discuss them in more detail during the next class session.  You can also refer them to the cell cycle ppt slides for additional support.

4.  Students typically want more information about the following concepts:

  • Early vs. late interphase (chromatin-->chromosomes-->sister chromatids)
  • Cytokinesis: When does it begin? When does it end? (early anaphase through the end of telophase)
  • Centriole shape/structure: Sometimes they look like dots and other times like rectangles.  Why? (perspective/angle)

 5.  To wrap up, ask students to take out a sheet of paper and sketch out their understanding of the phases of the cell cycle.  This student's work sample shows a deep level of understanding of the phases and their major events in both words and diagrams.  Most students will be able to get the basic drawings, but will have gaps in their vocabulary usage.  You can use this activity as a formative self-assessment throughout the unit, something that students revisit and add to in relation to each day's lessons and vocabulary highlights.