I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Once you choose your anchor, you have to USE it. Anchor phenomena are meant to drive instruction, connecting all the disparate concepts back to one single, relevant THING. To do that, you have to visit and revisit your anchor. By coming back to the anchor, again and again, students understand how each fact, figure, or idea connects. They build their big-picture understanding, which is the ultimate goal of the NGSS. Big picture understanding PLUS strong science skills!
But what does this look like in practice?
My unit on cells is part of a bundle that includes both cells and body systems. For so long, we have taught these concepts one idea after another, one chapter after another. Cell theory. Types of cells. Cell organelles. So on and so forth.
While as the science educator, YOU see the connection between these concepts – and why it’s relevant to their lives today – your STUDENTS, frankly, don’t. They see one fact after another, and they may or may not be interested. Let’s be honest – they probably aren’t.
But what if you frame these ideas along with something they can relate to? Something like… disease? Illnesses? Pathogens! Zombie viruses. (Hah, just kidding… or maybe not.)
I bundle my cells and body systems standards (MS-LS1-1, MS-LS1-2, and MS-LS1-3) together in a unit called Body Invaders: The Organization of Living Things. My anchor phenomenon is the flu – specifically the Spanish Flu of 1918, although students then investigate the flu in general. You might be wondering how the flu connects to cells and body systems?
First, by examining viruses, students are able to develop an understanding of the characteristics of living things and then the cell as the basic unit of life. Viruses aren’t considered alive because for one, they don’t have cells (among other reasons). We can then flow this understanding into what makes cells… cells.
In the activity sequence outlined in Discovering Prokaryotic and Eukaryotic Cells, I have students first examine different cells under a microscope and record their observations. Through analysis questions followed by discussion, students compare and contrast what they have observed. They are able to develop a clear understanding of what all cells have — a cell membrane, structures within the cell, and so on. By understanding what cells ARE, they can understand why viruses aren’t made of cells.
That said, students aren’t going to make that connection on their own, so it’s important to tie back to the phenomenon after each activity. Simple questioning and discussion is the best way to do this. “So how does what we have learned to help us better understand the flu?” That said, I highly recommend having students document their growing understanding of the paper, as well. Using an “Aha!” Page in their notebooks is a great approach. As students master individual concepts, they describe those concepts and how they relate back to the big anchor. This log of their learning helps build that big-picture understanding we are always aiming for!
It’s important to go farther…
When I choose my anchor, I have to consider how it connects to the MANY concepts students will learn in my unit. Viruses – or the flu – continues to drive student learning forward in this NGSS unit.
As students explore eukaryotic cells in greater depth, they learn the organelles that are relevant to my anchor –
the flu! This is an important distinction in a truly NGSS-aligned unit… you’re not just teaching all the content you always have taught. You’re teaching the content that’s relevant to your phenomenon. Now, granted, I chose my phenomenon to connect to the content I wanted to highlight (described in the Evidence Statements!). That said, it’s still important to note that you aren’t teaching EVERY ORGANELLE IN THE CELL. Those days are behind you. Your goal is for students to understand how the RELEVANT organelles connect to the BIG PICTURE. For me, it’s specifically how the cell membrane works to regulate the entrance and exit of substances (like viruses) and the role of the nucleus in creating new cells. When we get to body systems, it’s how the cells, tissues, and organs of the circulatory system work with other body systems to fight disease.
Because my focus is on the content relevant to the phenomena, and my goal is for students to DISCOVER that content, I engage students in inquiry-based activities where students discover the key parts of cells (getting them closer to my real goal – the cell membrane). Then, we focus specifically on the cell membrane, its role and how it works. Through an inquiry modeling activity where students use a strainer to represent a semipermeable membrane, students develop their understanding that barriers let some things through while preventing others.
We tie this idea back, through discussion, to our anchor — viruses and bacteria are one thing we want to keep out of our cells! Why? Because (as we have already learned), viruses hijack the cell’s nucleus and start replicating themselves! We can also discuss what things we might want to leave our cells – waste, for example, across the board — but also in specialized cells, antibodies that can help fight disease.
Students improve their understanding of the cell membrane through additional activities — a diffusion lab and then an engineering challenge. Always, through discussion and meaning-making, we come back to our anchor.
For more on anchors and phenomena…
You can find more resources on anchors and phenomena at the Science Teacher Tribe Course + Community. Our professional development program was designed to walk teachers through their transition to the NGSS, providing a step-by-step approach with quick workshops, actionable tasks, and expert support.
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