January/February 2018 – Vol. 31 No. 2

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 http://crosscutsymbols.weebly.com/

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


Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the 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.

Leave a Reply


Accelerating into NGSS – A Statewide Rollout Series Now Accepting Registrations

Posted: Friday, January 19th, 2018

Are you feeling behind on the implementation of NGSS? Then Accelerating into NGSS – the Statewide Rollout event – is right for you!

If you have not experienced Phases 1-4 of the Statewide Rollout, or are feeling behind with the implementation of NGSS, the Accelerating Into NGSS Statewide Rollout will provide you with the greatest hits from Phases 1-4!

Accelerating Into NGSS Statewide Rollout is a two-day training geared toward grade K-12 academic coaches, administrators, curriculum leads, and teacher leaders. Check-in for the two-day rollout begins at 7:30 a.m., followed by a continental breakfast. Sessions run from 8:00 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. on Day One and from 8:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Day Two.

Cost of training is $250 per attendee. Fee includes all materials, continental breakfast, and lunch on both days. It is recommended that districts send teams of four to six, which include at least one administrator. Payment can be made by check or credit card. If paying by check, registration is NOT complete until payment has been received. All payments must be received prior to the Rollout location date you are attending. Paying by credit card secures your seat at time of registration. No purchase orders accepted. No participant cancellation refunds.

For questions or more information, please contact Amy Kennedy at akennedy@sjcoe.net or (209) 468-9027.



MARCH 28-29, 2018
Host: San Mateo County Office of Education
Location: San Mateo County Office of Education, Redwood City

APRIL 10-11, 2018
Host: Orange County Office of Education
Location: Brandman University, Irvine

MAY 1-2, 2018
Host: Tulare County Office of Education
Location: Tulare County Office of Education, Visalia

MAY 3-4, 2018
Host: San Bernardino Superintendent of Schools
Location: West End Educational Service Center, Rancho Cucamonga

MAY 7-8, 2018
Host: Sacramento County Office of Education
Location: Sacramento County Office of Education Conference Center and David P. Meaney Education Center, Mather

JUNE 14-15, 2018
Host: Imperial County Office of Education
Location: Imperial Valley College, Imperial

Presented by the California Department of Education, California County Superintendents Educational Services Association/County Offices of Education, K-12 Alliance @WestEd, California Science Project, and the California Science Teachers Association.

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.

The Teaching and Learning Collaborative, Reflections from an Administrator

Posted: Friday, January 19th, 2018

by Kelly Patchen

My name is Mrs. Kelly Patchen, and I am proud to be an elementary assistant principal working in the Tracy Unified School District (TUSD) at Louis Bohn and McKinley Elementary Schools. Each of the schools I support are Title I K-5 schools with about 450 students, a diverse student population, a high percentage of English Language Learners, and students living in poverty. We’re also lucky to be part of the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative with the K-12 Alliance. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the California NGSS k-8 Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

2018 CSTA Conference Call for Proposals

Posted: Wednesday, January 17th, 2018

CSTA is pleased to announce that we are now accepting proposals for 90-minute workshops and three- and six-hour short courses for the 2018 California Science Education Conference. Workshops and short courses make up the bulk of the content and professional learning opportunities available at the conference. In recognition of their contribution, members who present a workshop or short course receive 50% off of their registration fees. Click for more information regarding proposals, or submit one today by following the links below.

Short Course Proposal

Workshop Proposal 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.

CSTA’s New Administrator Facebook Group Page

Posted: Monday, January 15th, 2018

by Holly Steele

The California Science Teachers Association’s mission is to promote high-quality science education, and one of the best practice’s we use to fulfill that mission is through the use of our Facebook group pages. CSTA hosts several closed and moderated Facebook group pages for specific grade levels, (Elementary, Middle, and High School), pages for district coaches and science education faculty, and the official CSTA Facebook page. These pages serve as an online resource for teachers and coaches to exchange teaching methods, materials, staying update on science events in California and asking questions. CSTA is happy to announce the creation of a 6th group page called, California Administrators Supporting Science. Learn More…

Written by Guest Contributor

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: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

Find Your Reason to Engage

Posted: Monday, January 15th, 2018

by Jill Grace

I was recently reflecting on events in the news and remembered that several years ago, National Public Radio had a story about a man named Stéphane Hessel, a World War II French resistance fighter, Nazi concentration camp survivor, and contributor to the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The story focused on a book he had published, Time for Outrage (2010).

In it, Hessel makes the argument that the worst attitude is indifference:

“Who is in charge; who are the decision makers? It’s not always easy to discern. We’re not dealing with a small elite anymore, whose actions we can clearly identify. We are dealing with a vast, interdependent world that is interconnected in unprecedented ways. But there are unbearable things all around us. You have to look for them; search carefully. Open your eyes and you will see. This is what I tell young people: If you spend a little time searching, you will find your reasons to engage. The worst attitude is indifference. ‘There’s nothing I can do; I get by’ – adopting this mindset will deprive you of one of the fundamental qualities of being human: outrage.  Our capacity for protest is indispensable, as is our freedom to engage.”

His words make me take pause when I think of the status of science in the United States. A general “mistrust” of science is increasingly pervasive, as outlined in a New Yorker article from the summer of 2016. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.