Cell Connections

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Students will be able to explain that special structures in cells perform roles that contribute to cell function.

Big Idea

In a new spin on the traditional "Cell City", students create a model of a cell using a scenario of their choosing -a video game, television show, sporting event, etc. - as they have people, places and things represent cell organelles based on their functi

Introduction and Connection to the NGSS and Common Core

This lesson takes a new spin on the traditional "Cell City".  Students create a model of a cell using a scenario of their choosing- a video game, television show, sporting event, etc. - as they have people, places and things represent cell organelles based on their function.

This lesson is specifically designed to address the following NGSS and Common Core Standards:

MS-LS1-2  Develop and use a model to describe the function of a cell as a whole and ways parts of cells contribute to the function.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.7 Integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually (e.g., in a flowchart, diagram, model, graph, or table).

Science and Engineering Practices:

The NGSS explains that modeling can begin in the earliest grades, with students’ models progressing from concrete “pictures” and/or physical scale models (e.g., a toy car) to more abstract representations of relevant relationships (SP2).  In this lesson, students use a scenario they connect to in their own lives to draw parallel connections to the functions of cell organelles in a pictorial representation.

Connecting to the Essential Question: What are you supposed to learn today?

5 minutes

Begin class by asking, "What are you going to learn today?".  Students should respond by referring to the Essential Question, "How do cells contribute to the function of living organisms?".  This EQ can be referenced both on my front board as well as on their Cells Unit Plan.

Have students get out their Cells Unit Plan.  Explain that their focus of this particular lesson is Skill 2: I can provide evidence that cells are made up of organelles that have specific jobs.  As this is the students first lesson on this learning target, have students read the skill and self-assess where they are at with their learning.  Students rank themselves on a scale of 1 to 4 (4 being mastery).  Remind them that it is understandable that they might be at a 1 or 2 at this point.  This is their first exposure to this material!  Learning is about growth and the path to mastery.  It is not expected that the skill be mastered today.

As the unit moves forward, I have the students continually self-assess on each skill.  Check out the student's unit plan below to see how students update their mastery level with each lesson.

Day 1: Obtaining Information and Making a Plan

30 minutes

Explain to the students that cells are made up of organelles that help them function.  Explain that organelle means “tiny organ”.  Just like the human body has different organs that do special jobs for us, cells have special structures that have specific roles and do “jobs for them.  Then, I explain to the students what their task is.

In a group of 1 to 3, students must design and draw a place/scenario that will model an animal cell and its organelles.  I explain that they will be obtaining information about the organelles from the text (Skill 2 Notes Sheet in the resource section) and then using the people, places, and things in their scenario to represent the organelles based on their function.  I give them an example of a "Cell City" (although they will not be doing a city).  I have them turn to the text and read the function of the nucleus.  Then as a class we brainstorm what the nucleus of a town is.  Students often say "the mayor" or "the town hall" as that is the center of the town and directs the towns activities just like the cell.  

I explain that they will be working in groups of 1 - 3.  Then, I project this procedure:

1.  Read and "talk to the text" using Cell Organelle Notes Page page.**

2.  The required organelles that must be included in your scenario/place include:

  • nucleus
  • mitochondria
  • cell membrane
  • cytoplasm
  • golgi bodies
  • endoplasmic reticulum
  • vesicle
  • lysosome

3.  For an added challenge, you could choose to make your model a plant cell and additionally include:

  • chloroplast
  • cell wall
  • central vacuole

4.  As a group, make a plan on a lined piece of paper, naming what people, places and things in your scenario will represent each organelle.

5.  Discuss your plan with Mrs. Roehm for approval. 

6.  Begin to draw your model, in pencil, on a large white sheet of paper.

7.  Next to each part of your model, write the name of the person place or thing AND the name of the organelle that is represented by that part (example: next to the town hall in our scenario, write town hall/nucleus).

8.  Provide a key with your model that explains why you chose that person, place or thing to represent the organelle.  This explanation could connect the function of the organelle to the object in the model.

9.  If time, color your model.

**"Talking to the text" is a way that students document what they are thinking as they read.  Below is an example of what this might look like:

From a teaching perspective, there are a couple of reasons behind my choices here that I wanted to share.  First, the traditional cell city is great.  However, after years of doing it that way, I felt that there were many limitations.  I found students would end up creating almost identical models.  It was difficult to distinguish if the group actually had made the connection between the function of the organelle and the object or if they had simply heard another group talking about it.  By allowing them to choose their own scenario, not only do I get unique individual work, but the students are invested in it.  For me, the purpose of this activity is to provide students with a visual representation and connection to each organelle that they can recall later.  By allowing them to choose something relevant in their life, they are much more likely to to create lasting images in their brain.

Notice that I did not spend a class period giving a lecture about each organelle and their function.  I simply allow the students to read the text/notes sheet to find their own meaning.  When students bring me their plan to discuss, I will be able to see any misconceptions they have.  In my experience, it is way more effective to allow the students to research and obtain the information about the functions of the organelles than for me to "stand and deliver".  

Next, step 4 is critical to this procedure.  When students bring their plan to me, it is my formative assessment and opportunity to help them gain understanding.  It is a great opportunity for individualized conversation surrounding the skill.  The discussion should be more than just the student handing you the plan on paper, you looking over it, and saying "ok".  Ask students to explain the choices they made in their model and ask them questions that forces them to defend their choices with the text.

Check out the video below to see what this conversation might look like:


Day 2: Drawing Model and Creating a Key

45 minutes

Students typically begin drawing and making their key at the end of Day 1 and for sure by the beginning of Day 2.  During work time, I encourage my students to divide roles.  If one person is drawing and one person is watching the other draw, we are missing an opportunity for both students to learn.  I encourage them to have one person draw while the other person begins on the key.  Moreover, if one person only draws and one person only writes the key, there is also unbalanced learning taking place.  Thus, I ask that they switch roles every once in a while so that all members of the group take part in each step of the process.

Check out this completed student model and key:

Notice in the key the student noted both the function of the "Queen Bee" as well as the function of the actual "nucleus".  This is critical.  Students sometimes can have the tendency to just mention one or the other.  It is so important to make the connection between the two.  For the full and complete key, see the resource bin.

Other Student Scenarios: I find providing students with models of exemplary student work can help set expectations.  If you don't have your own students examples because this is your first time using this lesson, show them my students work!



Closure: Exit Ticket

5 minutes

As an exit slip, have students complete this Formative Assessment .  For an upcoming lesson, sort these slips in to stacks of similar learners that have common needs.  Then, you can pull these groups and conference with them.


It is important that the student not only mentions the name of the organelle, but the need/function of the organelle.  This student mentions the chloroplast is used to produce food for the plant and that the cell wall is used to provide structure and support.  Students that have reached an understanding at a higher level, may even note the difference in the size of vacuoles due to the plant's need to store water.

I tend to see the following groups of learners:

  1. Those that do not recognize that there are any organelles that are different between plant and animal cells.
  2. Those that recognize the need for different organelles, but cannot name them.  For example, the student may write, "A plant would need an organelle to produce food and something to protect them because they can't move."  This student actually has a great foundation and is thinking about structure function relationships.  When I conference with them, I can just help them add vocabulary to their reasoning.
  3. Those that remember the names of the organelles, but do not mention the reasoning.  When conferencing it is important to determine the reason for this mistake for each student.  Some students may know the reasons/functions and simply forgot to write it down; others may have just memorized the organelles and are not aware of the functions.  For each of these reasons, the students will require different instruction.
  4. Those that identify the cell wall and chloroplast as well as their functions for the plant.  This group is right on target.  I meet with them to push their learning to recognize the central vacuole and why a plant requires it.
  5. Those that identify the cell wall, chloroplast, and large central vacuole as their functions for the plant.

When meeting with students, have students graph their level of mastery on their Working Towards Mastery List list.  This is a place for students to track their growth and the specific feedback they receive during the unit.  The picture below shows a student that recorded their score and feedback after meeting in a conference group with me about this exit ticket in a lesson following this one.