Teaching heredity in middle school is so much fun because kids have so many cool questions about how it works! And you get to give them answers!
“How come I have blue eyes and both of my parents have brown eyes?”
“How come all siblings don’t look the same if they have the same parents?”
“Is it true that cancer is genetic?”
“If freckles are genetic, are a moles?”
Kids are so engaged and interested in heredity once you start talking about it, so you have to really be prepared because the ins and outs of teaching heredity are pretty tricky!
So, here are five tips to teaching heredity to help you be 100% ready and for students to be successful tackling this tricky topic!
I’m guessing since you’re reading this, you’ve looked at your standards and know you need to teach heredity. That’s the first step! Spend a little bit of time really looking into those standards and figure out what major benchmarks students need to walk away knowing.
Emphasize your time on teaching and practicing vocabulary, Punnett squares, and a culminating project where students can see traits being passed from parents to offspring.
The most important aspect to teaching genetics and heredity is for you to learn the content. There are so many new and content specific words students never hear anywhere else. Genetics and heredity is very abstract (we see the outcome, not the process), and some students will have a hard time getting it.
If you are unsure about the content, you won’t teach it to kids well. Then they get confused and frustrated. And you get frustrated. So spend some time to learn, or refresh, what you have to teach. Do some research and reading. Watch some Youtube videos. Write some notes to be sure it makes sense. And make sure you know the vocabulary!
Want your complete heredity unit laid out for you? Download the free Middle School Science Teacher’s Guide to Heredity so that you will save time planning and stop stressing over your heredity unit!
2. Speak Their Language
Please don’t try and learn the latest middle school lingo. That is not what I mean!
First, as you get a handle on heredity content knowledge for yourself, try to think of ways to explain it better to your middle school students. When I was in 6th grade (pre-technology), my science teacher Mr. Zecher would draw pictures in different colors on the board as he taught and we drew the same pictures in our notebooks.
I still remember the different types of fault lines, and I kept my science notebooks for years! If you can plan for one or more of your lessons on heredity to include drawing pictures, awesome!
Next, try to use everyday language or examples wherever you can while teaching heredity. My students could not figure out dominant and recessive alleles, so we talked about wrestlers going against each other from the same and different weight classes. Which wrestler is stronger? Which one would win in each match? How does that relate to dominant and recessive alleles? In this particular heredity lesson, my 8th graders finally got it!
Read this blog post explaining how I compare density to suitcases! It illustrates this point perfectly!
Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of making simple connections while teaching heredity.
3. Simplify Teaching Heredity
You do not have to teach every life science standard before you start teaching heredity. Simply put, students need to know these few things, and only these few things, before they can fully understand heredity:
First… each sperm and egg cell has 23 chromosomes and when they fuse to create an embryo, they create 46 chromosomes, or 23 pairs – one from mom and one from dad, and
Second… genes, or alleles, are located on the DNA inside of each cell.
Consider spending a little bit of time reviewing or skimming the Cell Theory or how DNA is structured, but don’t go too deep. There is no need to spend weeks teaching every cell-related topic.
Keeping it simple in preparation for teaching genetics and heredity will free up your middle school student’s brains to think about it more clearly without all the noise of every other lesson they’ve heard about DNA in the last month. Of course, this wouldn’t apply unless you’re expected to teach cells and DNA before your hereditary unit based on state standards.
4. Emphasize Vocabulary
How the heck do you get a 12 year old to remember what phenotype is shown by a homozygous recessive allele pair?!
I actually have an answer for you. Teach vocabulary.
In my opinion, there is a lot of emphasis put on investigation in science. While that’s actually a very good thing, there is a time and place for direct instruction and this is one of them.
Asking middle school students to learn these hard words requires teachers to teach vocabulary strategies. Front-load vocabulary by introducing it through stations, teach prefix and suffix strategies, or asking kids to draw pictures.
Whatever vocabulary strategy you decide to use, include some direct instruction. Say the words and have kids repeat them. A “homozygous recessive allele” pair includes three new words that all need to be in the same sentence, but also sound like gibberish. Practice how these words relate to each other.
Finally, spend a few days on practice through games, worksheets, or activities.
5. Build On Previous Lessons
Many students have noticed family resemblance. Maybe they have the same eye color as a parent or they look very similar to a sibling. That’s the easy part of planning a middle school genetics lesson. That’s what students observe. Use it as a launching point for your heredity unit.
Fortunately, that’s not where we stop teaching heredity! Teachers begin the process of explaining how kids look like the rest of their family. It’s tricky because student’s can’t observe the process, just the outcome.
The key is to give students the proper support as they learn more and more.
First, start with vocabulary because that’s necessary for Punnett squares. Use simple, straight forward Punnett squares at first.
Punnett Square Story Problems Are A Perfect Example
Then, add more complex concepts once you know they’re doing it correctly. Think of this like using simple addition before giving kids story problems. Your simple addition would be a Punnett square with given alleles all set for them to complete. The story problems require students to think and understand.
For example, you could say, parent one has blue eyes and parent two has heterozygous alleles and has brown eyes. Create this cross.
The story problem is more complicated and shows the student’s knowledge of vocabulary and Punnett squares. Students need to know both to level up to the critical thinking required for a story problem
There are a lot of things to consider while planning for your heredity unit. You want students to be successful. By preparing, speaking their language, simplifying it, emphasizing vocab, and scaffolding every step, you’ll set your students up for a win!
Don’t forget to download your free Middle School Science Teacher’s Guide to Heredity filled with easy strategies, clear information, and the step-by-step order you should teach your heredity unit in! Download the guide here so you can stop Googling, curl up on the couch, and watch your favorite show without stressing!