March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

NGSS: Storytellers Wanted

Posted: Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

by Pete A’Hearn

Great teachers are great storytellers. They can take the dry facts and procedures in the standards or a textbook and weave them into a story that grips a kid’s attention. Stories are important. We know about some of humanity’s oldest ideas – The Illiad, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Bible – because they were great stories worth remembering and repeating long before they were written down. In the right hands, science can be a great story too. In episode 7 of Cosmos, (spoiler alert!) Neil DeGrasse-Tyson told a gripping tale about how the quest to find the age of Earth led to the realization that leaded gasoline was poisoning us. Having a compelling mystery to solve is what drives science but for some reason often doesn’t drive science education. It certainly has never been part of the standards.

The NGSS, on the other hand, all but explicitly asks for stories. Read the Case Studies in Appendix D on “All Students, All Standards,” and you will see teachers using stories to motivate instruction.

What caused a railroad tank car to collapse after being steam cleaned and sealed? This is the compelling question (with a video to go with it) that drives a high school chemistry unit for a group of high school students living in poverty as they work to develop a conceptual model to explain what they observed, and then add to it a series of experiments.

Similarly, a racially and ethnically diverse group of middle school students learns about the cycling of energy in ecosystems by considering the effect of oil spills in Nigeria in the second case study. An interesting and challenging variation shows the teacher eliciting student questions from English Language Learners to inspire a second grade geology unit.



In an often-cited article on NGSS Professional development (page 10), Dr. Brian Reiser identifies the use of coherent storylines to promote instruction as one of the major shifts that NGSS will demand of classroom instruction. Reiser explains that teaching and learning need to be based on answering questions raised by compelling phenomena rather than being about “what’s next in the textbook.”

The obvious question at this point is, “Where can I find these great science stories to use in my classroom?” Coherent storylines will be an important component of the new curriculum to be developed. Does it tell a good story that will hook our students? In the meantime, in the next few years as we move toward NGSS in steps and jumps (and wrong turns), were do find the stories?

There are two great processes for developing storylines that can either work independently or together. Both will be featured in the coming statewide NGSS rollouts. One is the conceptual flow tool developed by K-12 Alliance. It’s in Chapter 3 of Assessment Centered Teaching: A Reflective Practice[1]. This tool helps teachers combine their prior knowledge with the standards to create a flow for unit design that incorporates formative assessment.

The other is the PQP tool developed by the Sacramento Area Science Project as a way to think about teaching and developing a story:

PQP tool developed by the Sacramento Area Science Project

PQP tool developed by the Sacramento Area Science Project

Start with some science content that you want to use in class. Place it the first column (DCI stands for Disciplinary Core Idea- science concepts). Now brainstorm, preferably with others who are smarter, more creative, and experienced than you about what phenomena might help to drive students to want to understand that science idea. These ideas go in column 2. I would also add real world problems to be solved to column 2, as that helps make strong connections between science and engineering. Pick the best idea and go to column 3 to come up with a series of driving questions that will help the students to think about and understand the phenomenon (or problem). Column 4 prompts thought about which of the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices your students will engage in as they try to understand or problem-solve. Finally, column 5 is for calling out the crosscutting concepts – which of the big ideas of science best help students to engage with the phenomenon. Here is a completed example:

Completed PQP Example

Completed PQP Example

Symbols for the crosscutting concepts at

Click here for an editable (Word) version of the PQP tables available for download. (.doc, 1MB)

Now you have the elements of a great story: a problem to solve, some questions to move the story forward, some ways of resolving the problem (practices), and some overarching themes to make the story meaningful (crosscutting concepts).

Happy Storytelling!

[1] DiRanna, K., Osmundson, E., Topps, J., Barakos, L., Gearhart, M., Cerwin, K., Carnahan, D., Strang, C. (2008). Assessment-centered teaching:  A reflective practice.  Corwin Press:  Thousand Oaks


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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

3 Responses

  1. I found this completely verifying. I am using the same terms as we develop our curriculum- storylines, driving students to understanding phenomena, driving questions. I love it when co-evolution happens!

  2. Storylines? Who would have thunk it? Somewhere in the archives at UCI, in the vaults of the K-12 Alliance, or in Kathy DiRanna’s basement (don’t scratch the parquet floor) are starting points for story lines on a whole range of concepts and big ideas. It will probably take a clever person a bit of time to translate some of that stuff to the NGSS, and some may be totally unusable (they were developed, after all, in the last century), but if no one else has the time to take a stab, I know someone retired in Oregon who would be willing to get the ball rolling. That would be me.

  3. In your most recent post you claim “integration promotes stronger storyline” and provide a link here, yet none of the examples here require the untested “integrated” model being promoted. Focus on changing practices (more storylines, engineering, and inquiry) and leave the content (which is fine as it is) for another day. Changing the practices is work enough!

    Claims without evidence do not help support your case.

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California Science Curriculum Framework Now Available

Posted: Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

The pre-publication version of the new California Science Curriculum Framework is now available for download. This publication incorporates all the edits that were approved by the State Board of Education in November 2016 and was many months in the making. Our sincere thanks to the dozens of CSTA members were involved in its development. Our appreciation is also extended to the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education, the Instructional Quality Commission, and the Science Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee and their staff for their hard work and dedication to produce this document and for their commitment to the public input process. To the many writers and contributors to the Framework CSTA thanks you for your many hours of work to produce a world-class document.

For tips on how to approach this document see our article from December 2016: California Has Adopted a New Science Curriculum Framework – Now What …? If you would like to learn more about the Framework, consider participating in one of the Framework Launch events (a.k.a. Rollout #4) scheduled throughout 2017.

The final publication version (formatted for printing) will be available in July 2017. This document will not be available in printed format, only electronically.

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Call for CSTA Awards Nominations

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017

The 2017 Award Season is now open! One of the benefits of being a CSTA member is your eligibility for awards as well as your eligibility to nominate someone for an award. CSTA offers several awards and members may nominate individuals and organizations for the Future Science Teacher Award, the prestigious Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, and the CSTA Distinguished Contributions Award (organizational award). May 9, 2017 is the deadline for nominations for these awards. CSTA believes that the importance of science education cannot be overstated. Given the essential presence of the sciences in understanding the past and planning for the future, science education remains, and will increasingly be one of the most important disciplines in education. CSTA is committed to recognizing and encouraging excellence in science teaching through the presentation of awards to science educators and organizations who have made outstanding contributions in science education in the state and who are poised to continue the momentum of providing high quality, relevant science education into the future. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Call for Volunteers – CSTA Committees

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017


CSTA is now accepting applications from regular, preservice, and retired members to serve on our volunteer committees! CSTA’s all-volunteer board of directors invites you to consider maximizing your member experience by volunteering for CSTA. CSTA committee service offers you the opportunity to share your expertise, learn a new skill, or do something you love to do but never have the opportunity to do in your regular day. CSTA committee volunteers do some pretty amazing things: Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

A Friend in CA Science Education Now at CSTA Region 1 Science Center

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw

If you attended an NGSS Rollout phase 1-3 or CDE workshops at CSTA’s annual conference you may recall hearing from Chris Breazeale when he was working with the CDE. Chris has relocated professionally, with his passion for science education, and is now the Executive Director at the Explorit Science Center, a hands-on exploration museum featuring interactive STEM exhibits located at the beautiful Mace Ranch, 3141 5th St. in Davis, CA. Visitors can “think it, try it, and explorit” with a variety of displays that allow visitors to “do science.” To preview the museum, or schedule a classroom visit, see Learn More…

Written by Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw is the student services director at Siskiyou County Office of Education and is CSTA’s Region 1 Director and chair of CSTA’s Policy Committee.

Learning to Teach in 3D

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017

by Joseph Calmer

Probably like you, NGSS has been at the forefront of many department meetings, lunch conversations, and solitary lesson planning sessions. Despite reading the original NRC Framework, the Ca Draft Frameworks, and many CSTA writings, I am still left with the question: “what does it actually mean for my classroom?”

I had an eye-opening experience that helped me with that question. It came out of a conversation that I had with a student teacher. It turns out that I’ve found the secret to learning how to teach with NGSS: I need to engage in dialogue about teaching with novice teachers. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching science in some capacity for 12 years. During that time pedagogy and student learning become sort of a “hidden curriculum.” It is difficult to plan a lesson for the hidden curriculum; the best way is to just have two or more professionals talk and see what emerges. I was surprised it took me so long to realize this epiphany. Learn More…

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From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: