September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

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 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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State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. 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.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

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

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.

News and Happenings in CSTA’s Region 1 – Fall 2017

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw


This month I was fortunate enough to hear about some new topics to share with our entire region. Some of you may access the online or newsletter options, others may attend events in person that are nearer to you. Long time CSTA member and environmental science educator Mike Roa is well known to North Bay Area teachers for his volunteer work sharing events and resources. In this month’s Region 1 updates I am happy to make a few of the options Mike offers available to our region. 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.