Going Deeper: Photosynthesis and Cellular Respiration in the Carbon Cycle

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SWBAT identify and compare the major steps, reactants, and products of photosynthesis and cellular respiration.

Big Idea

Your students become the teachers as they author children's books about photosynthesis and cellular respiration!

Notes for the Teacher

The processes of cellular respiration and photosynthesis are complex and introduce high-level scientific concepts like the electron transport chain.  I have found that students will stay engaged in this challenging material when we shift into a visual creative activity that asks them to unpack the information for a younger audience.  The use of children's books is one I have experimented with for a variety of biology topics but this is my favorite one.  We have also worked with using iPad apps for book making, but that has proven to be a bit limiting and at times distracting if students are not already familiar with the app.  I prefer using standard book format (paper and pens) so that students have the opportunity to slow down and engage deeply while they color and write.  I also find that students demonstrate a higher level of collaboration and discussion as they color and create in part because they are eager to make something beautiful and accurate.  Whenever I can, I make sure that their books will be read by an elementary school class and this only enhances student interest in understanding and delivering an engaging book experience.  

Prior to this activity, students have reviewed the steps of both photosynthesis and cellular respiration, seen animations of each process, viewed diagrams of each step, and compared the products and reactants of both processes.  Students have also seen and have continued access to our unit powerpoint presentation and other support documents to refer to as they outline their books and decide upon content they want to include.

The Classroom Flow: Introducing the Activity

10 minutes

1.  Tell students that today they will be working with a partner to create a children's book discussing the processes of cellular respiration and photosynthesis.

2. Pass out the Cellular Respiration and Photosynthesis Book document and review the directions with the class.

  • Note: The key to a good book seems to be to have an engaging narrator.  This gives students opportunities to show their creativity and humor and prevents the book format from becoming too similar to a textbook.  I tell students that I want their narrator to speak in the first person…either they are an expert talking about the processes or they are a carbon or other atom going through the processes.

3.  You may decide that this activity is too broad for your students; in some years, I have had student groups decide which of the two processes they will work on.  In other years, I have assigned specific class periods to do either one or the other.  

4.  It is important that students choose their own partner for this activity.  There will be additional collaboration time needed outside of the class period and for that to be successful, students need to be comfortable with their partner within their home space and life.

5.  I do not allow students to work alone on this project; quite a bit of the learning happens in discussion with their partner.  I encourage and suggest pairings and work to ensure that every student leaves the class with a partner. 

The Classroom Flow: Time to Brainstorm and Create

30 minutes

1.  Once students have found a partner, ask them to move to a space around the room where they can begin to brainstorm.  Post these questions on the board to help them with this conversation:

  • What kind of theme or narrator do we want to have for this book?
  • How do we want to break up the work load?
  • What is the most important information we need to include for photosynthesis?
  • What is the most important information we need to include for cellular respiration?

2.  Give students at least ten minutes to work through these big topics before circulating to answer questions.  This gives these students time and space to establish their working groups independently.  As you circulate, observe closely how groups are interacting and be sure to ask each pair for clarifying questions about the project or the processes.

3.  Remind students of their support materials:

Cellular respiration and photosynthesis slide presentation

Cellular respiration steps summary document

Cellular respiration popplet

Photosynthesis Summary document

Photosynthesis and respiration comparison chart document

  • Note:  Students may need support when discussing the electron transport chain.  They will also appreciate seeing samples of other books for ideas about themes/visual imagery/narratives.  Be careful to limit time with samples.  I find that if students take them back to their desks, they use them as  shortcut for content instead of doing that work themselves.  I also find that they assume samples are the highest level of teacher expectations and will mirror them exactly.  Sharing them with the class when talking about narrators is the best way to give them a starting place for their own creativity.  

4.  Check out my short video showing the many different ways students approached this activity.  Although their approaches were diverse, all of them had a clear theme/narrator as a way of making engaging text outlining content in their own words, with strong visuals for viewer comprehension and engagement.

The Classroom Flow: Wrapping Up

10 minutes

1.  Before the class period ends, ask students to clean up their work stations and come back to the main group for a final check in about the project.

2. Use the spokesperson protocol to hear from students regarding their questions, using prompts such as:

Have you decided on your project theme/narrator?
What are your next tasks to complete and who will be responsible for them?
What questions do you still have about this work?

  • Note:  Typical questions will be about the level of detail required for a high mark as well as the use of a narrator/first person writing.  Showing examples helps with the narrator piece as well as reminding them that the goal is to make this appealing to kids and that a spokesperson helps add interest.  Refer students to the breakdown of steps in photosynthesis and respiration for support regarding detail. 

3.  Set the due date for this project with the students and remind them that you are here to support their work and that they should feel comfortable asking you to look over drafts or talk through/brainstorm specific issues they might be having.  

  • Note:  Students love this project and the chance to tackle tough material in a creative and engaging way.  I tend to set aside 5-10 minutes in class on multiple days before the deadline to ensure students are planning together effectively and to encourage student-teacher conversations as well.