Every week during the school year, I send an email to teachers who are using If you want to be on my mailing list, please sign up for a free trial license for sciencemusicvideos. If you want to learn more about first, then click here.

Useful Links

  1. AP Biology curriculum on
  2. AP Bio calendar/scope and sequence
  3. My Weekly Agenda  (weekly lesson plans)
  4. Google Slideshows
    1. Slideshow 3: (Introduction to Cell Structure and Function)
    2. Slideshow 2 (Monomers and Polymers, Carbs, Lipids, Proteins, Nucleic acids)
    3. Slideshow 1 (Getting started, key themes of biology, properties of water, standard error)
  5. Guide to distance learning on (how to set up your account, invite your students, etc.)

Table of Contents

  1. Email 1 (sent 8/9/20). Be sure to read the section below that says “Important: every week for me is (probably) two weeks for you.
  2. Email 2 (sent 8/16/20)
  3. Email 3 (sent 8/23/20)
  4. Email 4 (sent 8/30/20)
  5. Email 5 (sent on 9/5/20)
  6. Email 6 (sent on 9/12/20)

Email 1, Sent on 8/9/20

Here’s my first weekly planning email for 2020-21. My goal is to help you use the interactive tutorials and other learning aids on (and whatever else I can offer) to help you plan your upcoming week. I’ll try to send these about a week ahead of time. What’s below focuses on what’s going to be my first week of instruction, which starts on August 17. If you’re ahead of me (and already teaching) I hope that this is still useful. Please feel free to email me for ideas, support, etc. We can also talk one-to-one. Please use this link to find a time that works for both of us, and I’ll send you a Zoom invitation.

Important: Every week for me is (probably) two weeks for you

I wish this weren’t the case, but my District has decided on a teaching calendar that is probably different from yours. Our year has been organized into terms that last for 4 or 5 weeks. After teaching content for one term, I’ll repeat that same content with another group of students. Specifically, I’m teaching two of my classes for the next 4 weeks, starting on 8/17/20 and ending on 9/11/20. Then I’m teaching that same content to my 3rd class between 9/14/20 and ending 10/9/20. Then, on 10/12/20, I go back to my first two classes for another 4 or 5 weeks, alternating back and forth until the end of the year.

The long and short is that instead of teaching AP Bio over the course of the next 35 weeks, I’m only going to have contact with my students for about 17 weeks.

In terms of me modeling how to use to teach AP Biology this year, this has a couple of consequences.

  1. Every week of instruction in my weekly plan and weekly agenda is really two weeks of instruction. If you’re on a regular calendar where you meet with your students every week throughout the year, you can take two weeks to do what I have to do in one week.
  2. My curriculum is going to be very lean. Even though my students will have to manage only 3 classes at a time (which is the whole point of our calendar), I can only assign them so much work. A lot of things that I would have done, I’m going to have to strip out. You can use this spreadsheet to see some of those other activities, and I’ll talk more about them at the end of this email.

How I’m organizing my electronic world for my students (and for you)

There are a couple of key documents that I’ll be sharing with you. Both of these documents are live and dynamic, and I’ll be changing them on an ongoing basis. Because they’re designed for me to use with my students, you’ll have to modify both of them for use with your students. But if you’re interested in using them, my hope is that they’ll serve as useful starting points.

The Weekly Agenda

My weekly agenda is my most important means of communicating to my students about what we’re doing in class, and what’s due for homework. It’s also available to parents, administrators, etc. Note that while my yearly calendar is a big challenge, my weekly schedule is very generous. I get to be in contact (via Zoom) with my students for 7 hours/week. These extra periods are described as “labs.”

My students will have access to the Agenda as a Google doc which I’ll share with them. I’ll also post it as a resource in my Google Classroom (which is how I’ll deliver assignments, handouts, etc.). And it’s linked on my website (for you) on the “Teacher” page. Here’s a direct link to it, but I suggest that you read what’s below before digging into it.

A weekly Google Slide Presentation

When I’m doing Zoom meetings with my students, this is how I’m going to organize the presentation. As you’ll see, it’s going to require some modification for you to use with your students. And my guess is that I’ll be changing it a lot as I get a sense of what works and what doesn’t.

I’ll share this presentation with my students, parents, administrators, etc. Here’s a link to the slideshow for week 1.

Almost everything else is in Google Classroom

As I said above, I’m providing my students with materials via Google Classroom. I’m pretty sure that I can only share my Classroom within my District (but if I can open it up to you, I will).

My First Week

Day 1

It’s day 1. My goals are to

  • Connect with my students.
  • Inspire them for the journey ahead.
  • Let them know enough about how things work in my class so that they can do their first assignment on

In the slideshow, you can see this in my first couple of slides. I’m  going to try to communicate how much I love biology and how cool it is. I actually (in the past), have had my students do a class cheer that goes
“B-I-O-L-O-G-Y: That’s our classes Battle Cry!” I don’t know if that’s going to work on Zoom, but that’s the energy I’m trying to bring.

Then I talk about me: a little bit about my life story. I’m just trying for a bit of personalization.

Next, I put on my motivational speaker hat. Just like us, our students are facing an unbelievable challenge. I’m going to try to inspire them every step of the way, and day 1 is the time to start. Note that while I mention the pandemic and SARS-Cov-2, I’m going to save teaching about the virus for later (maybe next week). I just didn’t want to do it during the first few days. The one slide about the pandemic enables me to mention the virus (and assure students that I will be teaching about it), without going into the details.

Then I briefly introduce Biology’s 4 big ideas. This framework receded into the background a bit when the College Board redesigned the curriculum in 2019, but I still find it to be a very useful thematic scaffold. Again, most of what I’m communicating here is how mind-blowingly cool biology is.

Finally, I get my students onto for their first assignment: the Biology Core Concepts module. This module is like the first chapter in almost any biology textbook. It lays down a conceptual framework for all the biology that’s going to come. It’s also very easy material, and I wanted to pair easy content with a new use of technology ( for my students.

I haven’t ever had to get students registered onto without being there in the room with them. I’ve added a couple of slides to guide them through the process. Because I’m distributing my student learning guides through Google Classroom, I also have to register them for Classroom. It’s gonna be quite a day…

Day 2

I’ll start with a general check in. Knowing my BHS students, they are probably going to ask me about grades. Unless I have some huge epiphany between now and a week from now, I’m going to have to answer very vaguely. I don’t have my head around assessment in this new online-only world. So I’ll start with grades being mostly about quality of work on assignments. I’m sure I’ll be talking about this with my BHS colleagues (and, hopefully, with you) throughout the year.

After that, I’m going to have my students work in breakout groups to consolidate what they learned yesterday in the tutorials about the key themes of biology. I’ve been investigating Google Jamboards as a means of having students collaborate in this type of task. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Then I introduce natural selection. Why now? Because I agree with Dobzhansky: it’s the idea that makes everything else in biology make sense. In my lesson, I’m not lecturing through the content. I’m just laying out some of the big issues, stimulating thinking, etc. I’m going to leave the details to the tutorial about natural selection on It’s called “Thinking Like Darwin,” and it goes with this student learning guide.

Then I’m doing two more personalization activities: 1) “Grill the teacher,” and 2) a short written assignment by each student where they tell me a bit about themselves.

After that, it’s on to

Remember that for you, this is probably the fourth day of your first week.

Day 3

I’m going to start with some checking for understanding about artificial and natural selection. Note that we’ll cover natural selection again when we study evolution in unit 7. For now, my goal is for students to be able to explain things like why the shape of an enzyme complements its substrate, why the spike protein of Sars-Cov-2 complements the shape of the ACE receptor, etc.

Once I feel that’s accomplished, I’ll move on to the properties of water. My introduction consists of a few slides showing water’s importance to life, its basic structure (polarity), and hydrogen bonding. Then it’s on to Structure of water and hydrogen bonding on This module has two videos, one of which is a virtual lab about the properties of water. If you’re in the classroom and you can do the actual lab, that’s much better.

Day 4

Here we turn to standard error, which is an important statistical concept in the AP Bio curriculum. Ultimately, students just need to understand how to determine when the difference between two sets of data in an experiment is statistically significant. In most tests of this at the AP level, the answer is “when the error bars don’t overlap.”

In these introductory readings/activities, I’ll take students through the process of actually calculating standard error. In later labs (that we would have done if we were in the classroom together) we’d use a google sheet to combine our data, look at class means, and graph the data with error bars (and let the spreadsheet do all the calculations).

My slideshow seems a little thin here, but that’s because I’m using two handouts.

  • This one will introduce your students to standard error and error bars. It consists of explanatory readings, followed by practice problems. I modified this from a handout that was posted in the AP Bio Facebook teacher’s group by Crystal Jenkins Stawiery.
  • This one applies what’s learned in the previous handout to MRSA and antibiotic resistance.

I’m allotting two Zoom meetings to doing both of these. The second activity involves measuring zones of inhibition around antibiotic disks (in diagrams, not the real thing). Later in the year I think that I’ll be able to make sure that every student has a metric ruler to complete an activity like this. But this is week one, and I might just give them the data. Their main job will be graphing with error bars.

Day 5

I’m starting biochemistry. The first slides on the slideshow introduce the fact that life is based on carbon (and why). Then I briefly introduce functional groups. And then it’s on to Carbon and Functional Groups on This module is pretty short, and it’s supported by two videos. Use it with this student learning guide.

Over the weekend, I’m going to have my students do an open-ended reflection (see Friday on the agenda). That means that I’m going to need my students to keep some kind of online journal. This is probably going to be something as simple as a Google doc that they share with me, with the most recent journal entries always going on top.

There’s so much more that I wish I was doing.

If my calendar were different (if I had 35 weeks to teach instead of 17), I’d be doing much more. This spreadsheet shows what my plan would have been if I had been in the classroom for that amount of time. Obviously, the in-person labs aren’t doable in an online context. But there’s a lot of other activities that would have worked. If you have time to fit these in, check out the “Peppered moth simulation” and the HHMI Rock Pocket Mouse Evolution activities. I’m hoping that I can figure out how to fit some of these in later in the semester.

Email 2, sent on 8/16/20

Useful Links

  1. AP Biology curriculum on
  2. AP Bio calendar/scope and sequence
  3. My Weekly Agenda  (weekly lesson plans)
  4. Google Slideshow for Weeks 1 and 2
  5. Guide to distance learning on (how to set up your account, invite your students, etc.)
  6. Your sciencemusicvideos teacher portal:

My first day of teaching is tomorrow, August 17. I’m pretty confident that I have a good plan for day 1 and the first week. Whether you’re in the classroom or online, the things I’d encourage you to focus on are connection and direction.

  • Share enough about yourself to let your students know that you’ll be their enthusiastic, competent guide for the difficult journey ahead.
  • Let your students know how much you love biology, and how much they’ll gain from this journey.
  • Let them know that you’ll be flexible and responsive to their needs.
  • Get them started on some work.

If you want to see how I’m going to try to do this with my students, take a look at the slideshow I’ll be using while I’m on Zoom. Remember that if you’re teaching online (but also if you’re in the room with your students) super-clear directions about everything are extremely important.

Please be kind to yourself. In this new world of distance learning, or hybrid schedules, or whatever situation you’re faced with, things that are beyond our control and outside of our comfort zone are going to happen. Just do your best. It’s a pandemic. That’s all anybody can ask of you.

A Plan for Week 2

Just a reminder: one week of instruction for me is probably two weeks for you. So, If you’re following this sequence, here’s a couple of ideas for week 2. If you want to see more about week 1, look at last week’s email, or go to my planning email archive.

In terms of AP Bio topic 1.1 (properties of water), has a lot of resources to support you. This video about water and hydrogen bonding explains all the chemistry. This video shows how hydrogen bonding affects water’s physical and chemical properties. On the same pages where you’ll find the videos, there are also interactive tutorials that will lead your students to mastery of this material. Deeper mastery will come if you also have your students complete this student learning guide, which walks them through through the tutorials.

If you’re in the room with your students, you can do this Properties of water lab. which is a qualitative lab comparing water with a much less polar substance, isopropyl alcohol.

After you do the qualitative lab about water, you can follow it with a quantitative lab about the properties of water. This lab was originally posted by Crystal Jenkins Stawiery on the AP Bio Teachers Facebook group (which has tons of great resources). The purpose of this lab is to use some lab data (again, a comparison of water and isopropyl alcohol) to enable students to understand the concept of standard error and how error bars work. You can work through the the first part of the handout (which teaches about standard error) even if you can’t do the lab.

Ultimately, what you’re trying to get your students to understand is the idea of statistically significant differences between sets of data. This table (which is in the lab handout) says it all:

Teaching this material depends on your context.

  • If you’re in the room with your students, read the handout, work through the practice problems, and then do the lab.
  • If you’re teaching completely online, then use this version of the handout (which drops out the lab portion, and just teaches standard error).

Note that both versions of the lab have solutions to the sample problems on the last page (which you might or might not want to delete before you share the handout with your students.

The next lesson about standard error involves a case study from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science. I have a slightly modified version of this handout (I dropped out the last section). The original one is here (and I highly recommend subscribing to the NCCSTS). The first section of this handout is a simulated lab activity where students measure the zone of inhibition generated by growing a variety of  bacterial strains (one of which is MRSA) in the presence of one of four antibiotics. The second part talks about how antibiotics work.

If you’re in the classroom, the lab pretty much runs itself. The only equipment you need is a class set of metric rulers. If you are 100% online, you might have to give your students the data. I haven’t figured out how I’m going to share this data with my students, but you can access the data through this Google spreadsheet.  In my Google slideshow, there’s a graph of this data on about slide 74 (the slide number may change as I adjust the slideshow throughout the week). Also note that the graph is not great (and that statistics is not my greatest strength as a teacher).

In my compressed calendar, I’m going to end the first week by moving on to biochemistry, starting with Carbon and Functional groups. That’s a good way for you to consider ending your second week. You’ll find pretty much everything you need to teach this topic in this sciencemusicvideos module, which includes videos and interactive tutorials.

The College Board won’t explicitly test your students about which functional group is which. However, your students will be expected to understand how proteins fold into their specific shapes. This is impossible to understand without knowing that some functional groups are polar, others are nonpolar, while others are acidic or basic. My experience is that it’s much easier to teach about proteins if you can say things like: “you see this carbonyl group? Remember how it’s polar, with a partial negative charge. When it comes into close contact with this hydroxyl, over here, the two will form a hydrogen bond. When you have dozens of these, if can lead this shape to emerge…” It’s worth it to lay down a foundation now. Functional groups will also come in handy when you’re talking about DNA, membranes, phosphorylation cascades, etc.

A Biology Learning Journal

I’m still in the process of putting this together, so please note that what I write here might get adjusted as the next few weeks and months unfold. But I’ve been thinking that I want my students to have some forum for writing beyond what they’ll do on their student learning guides. I’ve always been a believer in writing for learning, and I want some place where students can do ongoing reflections on their learning, and build understanding over time. On top of that, I’m anticipating that the start of a Zoom class might be a bit messy. You have to admit students one by one, and that’s going to take a bit of time. For about as long as I’ve been a teacher, I’ve always wanted students to have something to do when the come into the room. I want that to happen my virtual classroom, too.

To do all of that, I’m going to experiment with having my students keep an online Biology learning journal. It’s just a google doc, but I’ve organized it as a template where students can do some writing as they enter the room. I call that a daily bit of writing a daily Catalyst. In addition, it’s where students can do some reflection or creative science writing at the end of the week.

Here’s a link to the template.

The major sections are

  • Author introduction: a way for a student to introduce themselves to me and their peers
  • Showcase: a piece of writing that they want to show off, bring to my and others’ attention, etc.
  • Weekly work, consisting of
    • Daily catalysts: a short piece of review writing that students will do as they start the zoom session.
    • Weekly reflection. This might be a response to something as general as “Write a paragraph or two explaining to your parents/guardians the three most important things you learned in class.” Or they might be more specific.

I’ll try to have more to say about it at our next webinar, on Thursday night.

Join the next sciencemusicvideos AP Bio Planning Webinar: Thursday, 8/ 20/20, 5pm PST

We held our first weekly planning webinar last Thursday, and I plan to keep on doing these every week. I’ll go over the weekly plan outlined above, and answer any questions. In addition, it’s a great chance to get to talk to and hear from other AP Bio teachers who are also using

Note from Mr. W: use the contact link to get an invitation to our webinars.

My Teacher Anxiety Dream, and My Hopes for You

For years, I’ve had a dream the night before school starts. I’m in bed, under the covers, undressed. Students are all over the room: sitting on my dresser, on the bookshelf, on the little niche we have above our closet. They’re waiting for me to start teaching…but I can’t get out of bed, because I’m undressed.

What we do in the classroom is so difficult. We’re exposed. I first taught in 1987. I still feel nervous on the first day. We’re just one person, and we have to hold the attention and set the agenda for dozens of teenagers. It’s not easy. Whenever you start, I wish for you the strength to hold the space.

Email 3, sent on 08/23/20

Useful Links

  1. AP Biology curriculum on
  2. AP Bio calendar/scope and sequence
  3. My Weekly Agenda  (weekly lesson plans)
  4. My google Slideshows:
    1. Slideshow 1: (Core concepts, Properties of Water, Standard Error)
    2. Slideshow 2 (Biochemistry: Carbs, Lipids, Proteins, and Nucleic Acids)
  5. Guide to distance learning on (how to set up your account, invite your students, etc.)

I hope that you’re doing well.

Here in the Bay Area, the environment is pretty challenging. As if a pandemic weren’t enough, we have dozens of raging wildfires that were ignited by dry thunderstorms last weekend. Nothing’s burning in my immediate area, but smoke from more distant fires has pushed the air quality to unhealthy levels. We might have more of these thunderstorms tonight…I keep telling myself that I’m lucky. I have a roof over my head. Our house is safe, and I even can ride an old stationary bike that we bought 25 years ago when my son was a toddler. But it’s hard not to be able to go outside.

Despite that, my first week of teaching went well. I feel like even though I’m 100% online, I’m starting to get to know my students. The kind of classroom banter and small talk that’s a big part of how we build relationships in the classroom is mostly gone — you can do it a little bit as students enter your Zoom classroom. But I’m hoping that over time, I’ll be able to connect more and more. Additionally, as I noted last Spring, there’s a lot of good teaching practices, particularly checking for understanding, that you can do over Zoom. For example, if your students are looking at a numbered diagram, you can have them raise fingers in response to a question. Or they can put their responses in the chat. And one of my go to techniques, which is asking a question, followed by wait time (3 – 5 seconds), followed by randomly calling on a student to answer, works well.

Group work is also very doable in an online context. I’m becoming much more comfortable putting students into breakout rooms, and I make a point to do random drop-ins, just as I would listen in if I’d assigned my students to work in pairs or in groups of four in my classroom. I’m trying to some group work every day during our synchronous class meeting time. My students are isolated at home. Being in a breakout room is a way to recreate at least a smidgen of the social interaction that students are missing because of the pandemic.

Because of my high school’s calendar (you can read the details here if you’re interested), I’m covering a lot of material very quickly. I’m not sure if that’s sustainable, but a very high percentage of my students (over 90%) completed the three modules that I assigned last week. I’m not sure how much time they’re working out of class. I’m planning on surveying them about the amount of homework they’re doing next week, and I’ll share the results.

Here comes biochemistry

We actually started biochemistry last week. I had my students do the tutorials about Carbon and Functional groups for homework on Friday. Checking my teacher portal (at, I can see that about 40% of my students have completed it (it’s not due until tomorrow). I’m hoping that number is higher by 8 am tomorrow!

You can see how I’ll get through biochemistry by looking at my Weekly Agenda for week 2 and my Google slideshow. Both take my students completely through Unit 1, but I’m only going to talk about the first half of the week, since that corresponds to what you’ll probably be doing with your students during your 3rd week of instruction (the link goes to my scope and sequence spreadsheet).

On Monday, after a brief check-in about the weekend, I’m going to do a little more evolutionary biology with my students. We’re going to watch the 11 minute “Rock Pocket Mouse” video, a fantastic example of natural selection, and then students are going to work in groups to complete this worksheet (designed by my BHS colleague Sydney Aardal). Why? I want my students to have a bit more natural selection under their belts before we dive into the molecules of life. It’ll be worth it when we’re discussing COVID-19, or enzymes, or sickle cell anemia (later this week).

Then I’ll do some checking for understanding about the weekend’s homework. As I wrote last week, our students don’t need to memorize the functional groups: they just need to know if they make the molecule they’re attached to polar, nonpolar, acidic, or basic. After that, I’ll give my students a brief overview of monomers and polymers and carbohydrates. For homework, I’ll have them do the tutorials about both topics (see the previous links).

Tuesday, I’ll do some checking for understanding about carbohydrates. Once I feel that material is secure, I’ll do a brief overview of lipids. Because I’m leaving the deeper acquisition of content to the Lipids Tutorial on, my goal is just to motivate and set some context.

Wednesday, it’s the same pattern. I’ll check for understanding about lipids. To see how I’m doing that, you can look at this slide and the following five slides in my google slideshow (but remember that I’m probably going to be adding, deleting and  editing slides over the course of the next week, so you might have to look around a little bit). Then I’ll introduce proteins. On this first day, my focus will be on big picture issues (the multiple roles played by proteins in living things), followed by amino acid structure and peptide bonds.

In the slideshow and the weekly agenda, you’ll find embedded videos about Monomers and Polymers, The Four Families of Biological MoleculesCarbohydrates, and Proteins (but not lipids: sorry!). If you’re teaching asynchronously with little student contact time, these will help your students a lot.

In next week’s email, I’ll get into the details of teaching about the four levels of protein structure, and write about how I introduce nucleic acids.

If I had more time (and face-to-face contact) here’s what I’d be doing.

Here’s a few recommended biochemistry activities:

  1. Molecular model building lab. This works best if you have a Molymod kit (or any other brand). But if you’re on a budget, you can probably make it work with marshmallows and paper clips.
  2. Starch Amylase Lab. This is one of those labs that makes it great to be a biology teacher. Students spit in a test tube filled with starch solution. Salivary amylase hydrolyzes the starch into glucose, which you can test with a test strip, or with Benedict’s reagent. If you can’t stand saliva (or if your school regulations would prohibit it), this lab is not for you. It’s also great for teaching about experimental design and control groups.
  3. The Biochemistry Basics POGIL. You can buy the POGIL packets from Flinn Scientific.

Email 4, sent on 08/30/20

Even at doubletime, it’s doable

One thing I’ve been worried about this year is whether the pace of work would crush my students (and make them hate biology). My students are taking 3 classes at a time in a very compressed academic calendar (about 90 days and 18 weeks for all of AP Biology).  In terms of homework, here’s what they reported to me in a survey I gave them on Friday.

  • 15% are spending an hour or less/night doing biology homework.
  • About two hours/night: 52%
  • About 3 hours/night: 25%
  • Over 3 hours: 8.3%

Three hours or more/night is brutal. But the takeaway for you is that if you have the whole year, then most of your students can get by on a bit over an hour/night. That’s not, in my estimation, unreasonable for an AP Biology course. In a follow-up question, only one student rated my class as having an “insane amount of work.” What I would recommend is that you do what I do: use as your main supplement for teaching content. Last year, I stopped assigning readings from our textbook. My students all told me that on top of, it was redundant (and not a good use of time). From everything I could measure (test scores, AP exam scores), they were right.

This year, what I’m finding is that offloading the direct instruction to is freeing me up to check my students’ understanding and fill in the gaps during class meetings. It’s also giving me time to have students work on practice FRQs, do activities from HHMI, do real or virtual labs, etc. It should be the same for you.

Teaching Proteins and Nucleic Acids

Last week, I finished unit 1, completing proteins and nucleic acids. If you’re following this scope and sequence, then this is content that you’ll cover in about your fourth week of instruction. There’s a lot of resources on to support you with this material. This includes

  1. A video about the four levels of protein structure.
  2. An interactive tutorial about proteins (follows the video on the same page as above).
  3. A tutorial about nucleic acids.

Remember that this is only an overview of nucleic acids. You’ll touch on DNA and RNA in greater depth when you get to AP Bio unit 6 (DNA and molecular genetics).

I also had my students work in groups to do Flinn’s POGIL on proteins. This is a great worksheet, and it was also a great opportunity for my students to work in groups for an extended period of time. If you’re doing this activity online, just have the students make up an accompanying Google doc where they can write their responses. It’s not perfect (there’s some drawing required that students can only do with difficulty online) but it’s still a great activity.

To help students review the material in Unit 1, I have a set of flashcards and a quiz on this page. I also give my students this review worksheet.

We’re going to give our students some type of assessment about the material in unit 1 on Friday. It might just be a practice test (we’re 100% online, and we’re assuming that any test is, whether we want it or not, going to be a team effort). I’ll let you know how it goes.

Introducing SARS-CoV-2

Now that we’re finishing unit 1, it seemed like a great time for my students to see proteins, nucleic acids, and phospholipids in the context of the novel coronavirus. I’m having them look at two great web pages (one from Scientific American, one from the NY Times), analyze some diagrams, and answer some questions. Here’s the worksheet I put together (it includes the links to the two articles).

Email 5, sent on 09/6/20

In the scope and sequence spreadsheet that I’m using to plan instruction, this week is devoted to teaching about proteins and nucleic acids. That’s a topic that I covered in last week’s email, which you can access above.

In next week’s email, I’ll talk about how to use to teach about cells. But if you want to jump ahead, you can see what I’m doing by looking at my weekly agenda (see week 3) and my slideshow for week 3 (remember that I’m only have 90 days to teach my course, so week 3 for me is probably week 6 for you).

This week I want to share …

The MICE Method

I’ve been thinking about how I’m doing teaching using It’s the MICE method:

  • M is for Motivation. Before sending my students to learn material on, I’m trying to motivate them and set some context. This is where I have to put on a motivational speaker hat, and tell my students how incredibly cool whatever they’re about to learn is. Usually that’s not hard. We’re biology teachers because we love biology, so I just have to dip into that well of fascination that led me to become a biology teacher. For this week’s material, for example, you can set context by talking about the specificity of proteins. Think about how the entire COVD-19 pandemic is based on a mutation that enabled the spike protein on SARS-CoV-2 (a quaternary protein) to bind with the ACE2 receptor on the cells in our respiratory (and other) tissues. Or how a COVID-19 vaccine will work only if it can elicit plasma cells to secrete antibodies that block that same spike protein (or some other essential viral protein).
  • I is for interactivity. After motivating my students, I’m sending them to interact with that content through the interactive tutorials on In almost every module on, students can learn the necessary content from interacting with the website: no other material is needed. Students do even more interaction through the summarizing, comparing and contrasting, and explaining they’ll do on the student learning guide that comes with each learning module in our curriculum.
  • C is for checking for understanding. After my students finish with the tutorials on, I spend a lot of time checking for understanding. That can happen in a whole class context, with me asking questions and students responding with short answers in the chat on Zoom, which lets me monitor the extent to which students are understanding. Note that this works much better if you have students send you a private chat, so that they can’t see other students’ answers. Or, I put my students into breakout rooms where they’re quizzing each other, and I’ll drop in to check on their progress. Note that both of these ways of checking for understanding are highly interactive. I think that every time you can substitute active learning for something passive, your students’ level of achievement will increase.
  • E is for extension: I’m using online student journaling to get my students to reflect on what they’ve learned, and to go beyond what I’m teaching in class to pursue areas that they’re are interested in. This is very experimental for me, and I’m still figuring it out…If you look at my slideshows and agendas, you can see some of the prompts that I’m giving to my students. I promise to write more about this in a future email.

So far, I think this is working. Doing assessment is still a big mystery. but I’ll share with you an interesting result. We (the BHS AP Bio team) gave our first test on Friday. It was a multiple choice test on biochemistry that we administered through our school’s LMS. We told our students that the test was mostly for us to be able to assess how well online instruction was working. We set the point value of the assessment to be negligible (mine was worth 1 point out of hundreds of points students have accrued so far this year). We asked the students to not collaborate, or use their notes, or the internet. Did they cheat? I hope not! But assuming that they didn’t cheat (a hopeful assumption, I know), their performance was almost exactly the same as last year (when I was a face-to-face teacher). I’ll know more as the year progresses.

Email 6

Teaching Cell Structure and Function

Surface Area and Volume (explaining why cells are small, and many other biological phenomena)

One of my favorite labs in the entire curriculum is the surface area to volume lab that involves phenolphthalein agar cubes. The lab is great, and the concept is one of the richest in all of biology, showing up in adaptations that happen at the organelle, cellular, tissue, organ, and organismal levels of biology. So I felt a bit sad that my students weren’t having the “oh wow” experience that comes from pouring vinegar onto these magenta cubes, slicing them open after a few minutes, and seeing the amount of diffusion and how it varies with the surface area to volume ratio of each cube.

However, I think that I was able to get the idea across by using my video “Surface Area, Volume, and Life” and doing a virtual version of the lab. You can use the video in conjunction with the interactive tutorial that follows (see the previous link), or with this handout (I did both). If you’re 100% online, you can refer to this spreadsheet for data that you can selectively share with your students to help them fill in some of the data in the tables.

If you’re not familiar with the lab, then please watch the video for context. The basic idea is that the rate of diffusion should be constant across all of the cubes. So if you allow the smallest cube (0.5 cm) to completely change color, then you know that it takes X minutes (usually about 5, but it’ll depend on the thickness of your agar) for the vinegar to diffuse 0.25 cm. If that’s constant across all cubes, then you’ll get the data in the spreadsheet that’s linked above.

If you’re in the room with your students, doing the lab, then this is a great chance to collect measured data from multiple groups, work out an average, calculate standard error, and graph the data with error bars. That’s not part of the handout, but since it’s a Google doc, it should be easy enough for you to add that. If you do, let me know how it goes.

Organelles (Cell Parts and their Functions)

Since I’m online, I’m not able to have my students view various types of cells through microscopes. But if you are, then this lab handout might be useful.

When teaching about cells, it can be difficult to to give students a sense of how dynamic cells are. To communicate that, I like to start with this excerpt from Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (which is a fabulous survey of pretty much all of science: I can’t’ recommend it highly enough).

Following that excerpt I have my students complete the tutorials on sciencemusicvideos about cell structure and function. Much of that material is about connecting organelles with their functions. Other topics, like the endomembrane system and the origins of cell compartmentalization, are more complex. So after my students do the tutorials, I do a lot of careful checking for understanding. That involves interspersing readings from this outline with images and breakout room tasks from this slideshow. If you move through the slideshow, you can get a sense of the flow of the lesson (which usually take about two days).

I’m a huge fan of Nick Lane, a British biochemist who’s written some wonderful books that are squarely aimed at biology lovers like you and me. If you’re wondering about Model 2 on this slide and this page on my website,  my original source is Chapter 2 of Nick Lane’s Life Ascending. You might have to save reading that that for your next vacation, but I strongly recommend it. An easier way to access some of the same ideas are the two articles linked on the bottom of the tutorial about cell compartmentalization. This one by Carl Zimmer  is completely accessible to any AP Bio student (and I recommended it to my students as optional reading). The second one will require quite a bit of supportive scaffolding if you want your students to read it (but you’ll probably love it!)