How To Create an NGSS Aligned Curriculum for Middle School Life Science

Step By Step: Creating An NGSS-Aligned Life Science Curriculum

A Step by Step Guide to developing a life science curriculum aligned to the NGSS. Hit all the life science and related standards in one year!One of my favorite times of the school year actually happens right before school starts. I love the excitement of August — decorating my classroom, establishing my classroom management strategy, and developing my curriculum and unit plans. I love that I have the time to really dive into everything, to explore new ideas and approaches, and even get ahead. Unlike planning during the school year, when you squeeze it in during 20 minutes of your prep period (the 20 that weren’t spent peeing, copying, or dealing with parents), you really have the time to thoughtfully consider the progression of your lessons, the developing understanding of your student. I just love it.

Considering this, it shouldn’t be surprising that the first thing I did after officially accepting an offer in our city school district was to email the principal and ask about the courses I would be teaching and the curriculum for them. In response, I was directed toward the district webpage, where all of the curriculum documents could be found.

And probably a familiar experience for many of you — what I found left me wanting. Essentially, the ninth grade course curriculum was a list of Next Generation Science Standards, followed by a list of student learning objectives. The “pacing guide” that was meant to structure the course was a table that included the week of the school year, the topic, and the textbook chapter I was supposed to cover. When I got my hands on the textbook, I found it had last been printed in the late 90s and its reading level was far beyond that of my future students.

Aside from issues with the textbook, the most disappointing aspect of that “curriculum” was the fact that they essentially just took the old-school science approach of listing facts and ideas, copied and pasted in the relevant Next Generation Science Standards, and handed it out to their new and old teachers to do with what they will. And while I was ready to take on that challenge (because I am a nerd and love lesson planning), I can imagine many of my colleagues were not as thrilled about the idea of developing entire unit concepts, let alone the lessons that went with them. I’m sure many of them simply resorted to that awful textbook — or taught whatever they felt like for the week.

Neither approach is particularly ideal, but at the same time, I don’t blame them. Teachers are busy — we spend the bulk of our days with our students (sometimes even eating lunch with them!), our prep times are often intruded upon by meetings with parents, administration, or other faculty, and districts and states are constantly adding additional requirements in the form of data tracking, student documentation, professional development, so on and so forth. And while I absolutely support all of those measures — there simply isn’t enough time in the day to get it done… so what do you do? You spend your nights, and your weekends, and your holidays… and that’s rough. That’s rough to do when you’re single, and it’s even worse when you have a family. I’ve been there, and it’s not fair.

That said, because it is something I actually do enjoy doing, I’ve taken the time to create curriculum for a number of courses that I have taught — integrating the three dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards into a conceptual storyline that hits all of the relevant standards in a way that builds upon prior knowledge and provides a “flow” for the year. You can access one of my favorite curricula here — my middle school life science curriculum — but in case you would like to dive into writing curriculum yourself, I’m going to briefly walk you through my process.

(I’d like to side note — developing NGSS-aligned curricula is best accomplished when working with a multi-grade level team, and I want to recognize that.  Ideally, districts can implement the NGSS as they are intended, building on knowledge and skills each year, K-12.  That said, that has yet to be my experience. On a few occasions, I have been able to work with colleagues to develop curricula, but in other positions, I have been the sole science teacher in the school.  Obviously, no one else was interested in working on science curricula. So as always, you do what you have to!)

Step One: Identify The Standards

First, I identify the standards I’m going to be expected to cover in this course. It’s pretty easy to do if you are structured on a disciplinary model — life science, earth science, physical science, biology, chemistry, etc. It can be a bit trickier if you are using an integrated model, and ideally, you would need to work with the other grade levels to ensure all standards are being addressed. For the sake of simplicity here, let’s focus on the disciplinary model, and in a future blog post, I’ll discuss how to develop an integrated curriculum.

For middle school life science, it’s pretty obvious which ones I would be including — the “life sciences” performance expectations would be where I would want to start.

Step Two: Identify The “Topics” That May Be Explored

First, I make a concept map of any topics I MIGHT cover in my curriculum.

This concept map is from my earth/space science curriculum.

For this step, I usually create a concept map with topics that are relevant to life science courses. At this point, they are not aligned to the NGSS or in any sort of order.

With my life science course, I looked at the curriculum I was provided (as well as some unit ideas from other school districts), I browsed a life science textbook to see which concepts are generally covered, and lastly, I scanned the Disciplinary Core Ideas from the NGSS. I figured out that typically life science courses are going to cover things like ecosystems, living things, evolution, cells, and sometimes health/human body systems. As I move forward, I will align the content under these concepts to the NGSS, but this was my starting point.

Step Three: Creating A Storyline Structure

After identifying the standards and topics, the goal is to develop a conceptual storyline based on the standards — not just a list of facts or topics students need to memorize. We want students to understand where they came from (prior knowledge), how it connects to current learning, and then to build on to that in the future.

In the life sciences, I have found two approaches that work well — starting BIG and moving SMALL, or starting SMALL and moving BIG. I personally prefer the starting BIG and moving SMALL, but I know many life science teachers that do the opposite. I totally understand their reasoning — obviously the small things build up into the big things — but I have found students can relate to the concepts in a unit on ecosystems better than they can a unit on cell biology or processes, and at the beginning of the year, my focus is very much on building relationships and rapport, establishing classroom norms, building confidence in science skills and practices, so on and so forth. I want to excite them with science early on, and I find it’s easier to do by starting with the BIG concepts. But again, that’s just my preference.

So after I’ve decided that my storyline is going to move from BIG to SMALL, I start organizing the topics I identified earlier using my BIG to SMALL structure. For the middle school life science standards, I came up with:

Ecosystems → Life → Evolution → Genetics and Heredity → Cell Biology → Health/Human Body

I figured I could do the health/human body stuff at the end of the year, because it’s engaging, testing isn’t super focused on it (in my state, at least), and if I didn’t get to it, oh well. It’s not really a major part of my district’s standards.

Also, you’ll notice that while that’s what I came up with at first, as I delved deeper into this process, I actually flipped Genetics and Heredity and Evolution. I realized as I was investigating the concepts and standards that it would be helpful for students to have a firmer grasp on the mechanics of genetics/heredity before getting into natural selection and evolution.

Step Four: Elaborating On The Conceptual Storyline

But anyway, after creating my initial outline of topics, I started to consider what I wanted students to be discovering in these units and how I could tie it all together. This is the storyline — connecting one thing to the next. For example, in the ecosystem unit, they are considering things like, “What is biodiversity? Why should we care about it? How is everything connected?” This takes them into a unit on living things (life), where they then look at, “What kind of life is there on Earth? How are things similar and different?” You can see the rest of my questions there on my notebook page.

I organize my topics by a predetermined structure (big to small? chronologically? local to global?), sort my topics, and start identifying standards, practices, and crosscutting concepts.

As I moved more into the units, I realized (as I said above) that Genetics and Heredity needed to come before Evolution. I switched my focus from “How does evolution happen?” to “Why do we have so many differences?” I can then focus on the idea that organisms have traits that may help them survive in their ecosystem that were inherited from their parents — how the diversity of environments (ecosystems unit!) is connected to the diversity of organisms (life unit!) through the mechanisms of genetics and heredity. Then, in the evolution unit, they will dive deeper into how it works on large scales to produce changes in populations through natural selection.

Step Five: Assigning The Performance Expectations

Once I have the general storyline down, I went through all of the performance expectations for the NGSS in my disciplinary area and jotted down which category it would fall under. If it might relate but maybe wasn’t totally my focus, I put it in parenthesis. That indicates I will touch on the concept, but it would be better addressed in other units. I also then scanned through the other disciplinary areas (although the NGSS does a good job of pointing you in that direction if you look in the orange box on the performance expectation pages) to see if there were any other standards I might touch on in my life science units. Even in a disciplinary model curriculum, you can still have some overlap (because Earth is an interconnected system!), so it’s great to incorporate other science disciplines when you can so that students understand that.

Step Six: Creating The Sub-Units

My last step is to start identifying the general ideas or units I would need to address all of those performance expectations. I come up with these ideas by examining the performance expectations and disciplinary core ideas I had already sorted into my broad categories. And I also repeat the process I completed above, where I worked to flow one sub-unit into the next. For example, in my ecosystems unit, I have several sub-units. Students move from studying biomes (answering questions like “Why can’t a cacti live in Pennsylvania?” and “What is the relationship between living organisms and abiotic factors?”) to investigating Interactions and Interdependence in Ecosystems (looking into “How do organisms survive in their environment?” and “How do the interactions between organisms affect the survival, growth, and reproduction of individual organisms and entire populations?”). Then, they move into the transfer of energy, the cycling of matter, and lastly changes in ecosystems. The concepts build one upon another until they can complete a unit task that unifies the many ideas. As they move into the next unit, I always try to find connections to the previous unit to keep that conceptual storyline rolling.

Step Seven: Focusing The Sub-Units With Essential Questions

One of the last things I do is create those essential questions I have been giving examples of above. For each unit, I try to identify a real world case study students can connect with and interact with throughout the unit. While I usually have one very general essential question, I develop a few specific questions based around that case study (like How do organisms survive in a frozen desert? vs. How do organisms survive in their environment?). Students should be able to answer the first one initially, and then through elaboration activities, answer the second more generally (or with other specific ecosystems).

Step Eight: Incorporate the Three Dimensions (Science and Engineering Practices & Crosscutting Concepts)

To add that three dimensional learning component, I identify the practices I am focusing on in this unit. While you should be incorporating a variety of science and engineering practices in your lessons and units daily, I do focus on the one most relevant to the performance expectation throughout the sub-unit. By doing that, I can be sure that I have really addressed all of the practices in depth by the end of the course. I just identify the practice I’m focusing on and keep it on my unit plan, so that I have a frequent reminder to incorporate that whenever I can create an opportunity to do so.

I do the same with the Crosscutting Concepts. These are identified in the NGSS – it literally tells you which performance expectation each is aligned to – so that you can easily notate that that is the “lens” you want to be looking through throughout the unit. I keep that there as a reminder to touch on those big ideas as we explore the disciplinary concepts.

Step Nine: Pacing

To figure out pacing, I simply examine which big ideas have the most performance expectations and disciplinary knowledge and chunk out time from there to start with. If there are more Performance Expectations and Disciplinary Core Ideas in a particular area, that area should be given more time during the course.

I always give myself a few weeks of a buffer, because I know I always go over with everything. And then after running through the curriculum and getting a better idea of my student population, I can usually pinpoint the timing a bit better for subsequent years. I just know that if I don’t give myself a time limit for each unit up front, I would end up with a five year long science course.

Step Ten: RELAX!

Voila! You have your curriculum, and at least now you can answer the question: WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO TEACH?

join our community to get access to ngss-Aligned curriculum, pacing guides, lesson plans, and instructional materials in our free resource library!

Teaching With Invasive Species

Meet NGSS standards with this place-based education project!One of my favorite ways to teach ecology is through the lens of invasive species. Because they are SO disruptive to ecosystems, it is incredibly easy to interweave all the “ecology concepts” into a unit about their introduction and consequences. It’s easy to add discussions about their effects on the environment, the food web, relationships in ecosystems, and so on as we learn about the basics of ecology.

To wrap up the unit and address the NGSS standard, my students complete a unit capstone – invasive species project.  They start by researching an invasive species in their local region and evaluate how it has affected biodiversity. Then, they work in groups to create a community action plan to address the problem, identifying criteria and constraints and evaluating several proposed solutions.

Students learn ecology by investigating invasive species!

The present their learning in two parts — a “WANTED” poster and then a presentation of their community action plan.  I just finished an update of my project a few weeks ago so that it is now COMPLETELY aligned to the NGSS! The update includes additional resources for organizing research, more detailed descriptions of the understanding to be demonstrated (based on the PE), and an improved rubric for both parts of the project (more fully aligned to the PE). It also includes more detailed teacher instructions.

Teaching with invasive species creates a connection to the local environment AND engage students in real world problems!

Planner Strategies for Teachers

If you’re anything like me, I LOVE my planners! I figure if I’m going to look at it every day, it needs to be PRETTY as well as functional.  I’ve been all over the map when it comes to planners – buying the standard ones from our local teaching store, downloading editable ones I’ve printed myself, purchasing customized ones on Etsy, and eventually settling myself into a customizable Happy Planner. So how do I use my planner?

I love the beginning of the week because I get to start a fresh page in my planner — and the beginning of a new month is even better! Yay for May! This was a recent spread I did — I’m not very good at layouts yet and honestly, my #beforethepen is never very photo-worthy, but I just loved how it turned out so bright and cheerful in the end! * The one thing I love about my customizable #happyplanner is that I can change the colors, designs, and layouts whenever I want. I NEVER make it a full year through a planner – I was just talking with a friend about this! I might make it 6 months before I need a change… love that I can make a change every single week now, if my heart desires! #plannernerd #teacherplanner #iteach #iteachmiddleschool #iteachhighschool #plannercommunity #plannerjunkie #planneraddict #plannerlove

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1. The Obvious: Daily Plans

At certain times during the year, I find it incredibly difficult to remember what I am doing class to class, day to day. This issue is especially pronounced at the beginning of the year before I get into a routine, but it surfaces from time to time.  Without a doubt, my planner is the only thing that keeps me sane during those times.

While the lesson plans I write for my supervisor are much more detailed, I keep an “agenda” of the day’s activities in my planner for each class.  I always choose a VERTICAL planner that has the same number of sections as I do blocks/periods.  So if I have prep and then three classes in the day, I would find a planner that had 3 vertical blocks.  Each block was one class.

In that box, I would list the activities we were doing that day.  This was just a brief list to keep me on track, and I might note something I needed to remember to do (like check homework or collect permission slips). I also am notorious for forgetting to pass out homework (because I honestly don’t do it a TON), so on the homework days, I had to make a note of that in BIG LETTERS!

These lists gave me a quick preview of what I needed to accomplish each class and kept me on track on a day to day and week to week basis. It also helped me figure out early on the pacing of the class – if I was consistently NOT getting through everything planned (or alternatively, finishing everything with time to spare), I would know to make adjustments moving forward.

DAILY PLAN TIP: Cross out each activity as you complete it.  Use arrows to indicate when an activity needs to be completed the next class and add it to the top of the following class’s agenda.

#2 I really upped my game when I started using my planner attendance sheet for recording grades...2. Attendance & Grading

I started keeping attendance sheets right in my planner using those graph paper insert sheets.  If a student was present, I used my Stabilo colorful pens to draw a line along the left hand box border. If they came late, I put a line along the right side box border. And if they didn’t come at all, I left it blank.

Attendance Tip: Stand at your door in between classes and take attendance as students walk in. It sets the tone for your interactions with students when you welcome them in by name, and it saves you time because the majority of your attendance is done before the bell even rings.  If you teach clear procedures for starting class at the beginning of the year, students will know what to do when they enter, reducing the need for supervision prior to the start of class.

I really upped my game when I started using that same attendance sheet to track grades.  First, it makes it SO MUCH EASIER when you are trying to identify what work students might have missed during absences or why certain assignments are missing.  Second, it reduces the paper-load.  Third, you have a visual of the number of grades you’ve collected, as well as how those grades are distributed over the course of the quarter.  I typically aim to collect one piece of data (typically a grade) each class when I work on a block schedule.  Sometimes, it is something I collect (a lab sheet, a quiz, etc.) while other times it’s a notebook check done in class, participation points based on student performance that day, or even just a “3-2-1” based on a formative assessment we completed.

When I enter my grades each week, I can easily enter the assignment name, the date it was completed, and the student grade. I then highlight the entire column so I know I have entered the grade.  If a student is missing a grade for that assignment, I do not highlight their box so I remember to go back and enter the missing grade later.

3. Parent/Guardian Contact Information & Log

In addition to the plans, attendance, and grading, I also keep an organizer with parent contact information and notes about parent communications.  I keep a record of any time I make contact with a parent, no matter who initiated it. I jot down what it was about — great job, disruptive behavior, missing work, etc.  While this is a practice that is recommended by our teacher’s union to cover our butts, I have found it is helpful for me. I can easily access contact information at any time, so I can send emails or make calls when it’s convenient.  I can reference the last time I spoke to the parent and what we discussed, which has been invaluable a few times that a parent has claimed they hadn’t heard from me about their son’s poor grades.  And I can provide my administrator with the exact dates of incidents and interventions when behaviors escalate and administrative actions are necessary.  It also makes it super easy to send out those “great work!” emails, because I can do it while I’m in a waiting room or relaxing on the couch.

Parent Contact Tip: Make an effort to establish a relationship with parents BEFORE you start calling for the not-so-good things. How? I always spend the first week of school making phone calls home — I introduce myself and find one positive thing to share with them about their child.  That way, if I have to call later about grades or behavior, it’s not the first time we’ve chatted.

So that’s how I use my planner to keep myself and my classroom organized! The one thing I love about the Happy Planners is that I can remove and add pages SUPER EASILY.  I don’t have to keep a ridiculous FAT planner – I can add weekly pages as they come up, and remove those that I have completed. I can add in a new attendance sheet at the start of the quarter, and remove the old ones when they are filled.  I also love that I can customize everything – the colors, the organizers, the add ins.  I’ve found that after about 6 months I get sick of the planner I have… this way I can get a “new” planner whenever I want, simply by customizing it to fit my mood and needs. It’s win/win!

What are your favorite planner organization hacks?

YOU Are Your Super Power

As we near the end of the year – no matter what kind of year you have had – keep this in mind.  Your students need YOU — YOUR strengths, YOUR passions, YOUR authenticity. It’s not too late to wrap up the year with positive relationships, meaningful interactions, and a better classroom environment.

When I first started teaching, I thought I had to be like all the other teachers I had known – I had to lecture, I had to be “tough” and “mean” and never smile. I tried it… it was an epic failure. Only when I realized I had to be ME – a teacher who hated to lecture, who always smiled, who won students over with kindness, respect, patience, high expectations, clear instruction and consistency – that’s when I excelled. You’ve gotta be true to YOU. #teachersfollowteachers #iteachhighschool #iteachmiddleschool #iteach #scienceteacher #teacherspayteachers • • • #Repost @pegfitzpatrick with @get_repost ・・・ Can I get an amen? Double tap if you agree. 🙌🏻 Being you is MORE than enough. It’s your super power. OWN IT! #calledtobecreative #creativelifehappylife #creativityfound #creativeprenuer #creativelife #communityovercompetition #contentcreator #makemoments #youbelong #theeverygirl #creativeprocess #dowhatyoulove #oneofthebunch #dontquityourdaydream

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Why I left the classroom and how I'm helping teachers take home less work, have more time, and be more present.

Why I Stepped Out Of The Classroom

When you create a website, you’re supposed to make an “About Me” page. I have always struggled with what to write in things like that – little blurb biographies you have to do for your school websites, applications, program award pamphlets, so on and so forth. It can kind of be hard to figure out a balance between being “professional” and “personal.” Do I tell you I’m really into pretty pens and decorating my planner? If I mention the awards I’ve received, does it sound like I’m bragging? If I don’t mention the awards I’ve received, have I lost out on an opportunity to prove I know what I’m talking about? I may be overthinking this, but I find those kind of blurbs difficult.

Since I’ve gotta write it though, I’m going to fall back on being “real” — and just tell you a bit about my story. I am a science teacher, curriculum developer, instructional resource maker, STEM program educator, wife, and mother to two little monsters. I am not always all of those things at one time, but those are the many hats I’ve worn.

I have worked in education in various roles for the last 11 years – everything from summer camp counselor and preschool teacher (while I was in grad school) to full-time teaching positions in English/Language Arts, Social Studies, Integrated Science, Earth/Space and Environmental Science classrooms. (Confession: I never know which of those subjects requires capitalization, and I also think it looks weird when just one isn’t capitalized, so I just capitalized them all!) I didn’t start my undergrad degree planning to teach, but through a series of fortunate events, I kind of fell into it, and I have loved teaching ever since. Don’t get me wrong – my first year in I very nearly quit the profession entirely (that first year is a nightmare!) – but I made it through, and education (particularly science education) is absolutely my passion. Under that broad umbrella, middle schoolers are definitely my favorite.

I started my career teaching in an urban school district in North Carolina, moved back home to Pennsylvania where I worked in a private school, and then switched back over to an urban school district in my hometown. While that first teaching job nearly broke me, without a doubt it forced me to develop the classroom management skills that made my positions in Pennsylvania so enjoyable (and allowed me to handle all the hands-on activity that comes with a science classroom), and I came to LOVE working with my “challenging” kids. I wouldn’t have left my “city kids” for any suburban district in the area.

But I did leave. Before you start getting all judgy and thinking, “What does she know if she isn’t even teaching now?!”, please let me explain. Before meeting my husband, I sometimes wondered if I even wanted to have children. I loved working, I loved being devoted to my career, and I had so many dreams to advance it. While I knew I could definitely still do all of those things with children, I wasn’t sure I wanted to have to split my attention. Whether it’s hormones or love or maturity or whatever, I eventually realized I did want children, but I knew I would still work. I am a career-oriented individual – I am highly motivated, incredibly driven, and I want to be the best at everything I put my effort into.

I moved to a ninth grade science position the fall that my daughter was born. In the months before her birth – like literally the few months of school prior to her arrival in November – I brought all of my passion to the job and created an awesome classroom, wrote the curriculum for the year for my Earth and space science class (based on the awful list of objectives and textbook chapters my district handed over), and spent nearly every day at work from before 7AM to nearly 6PM. I also spent early mornings to late afternoons at Panera on the weekend, developing engaging lesson plans and instructional materials, grading materials and providing feedback, and completing whatever additional tasks needed done for my classroom — parent emails, district and state mandates, data tracking, classroom management programs, so on and so forth. I don’t say any of this to complain – I loved it! I enjoyed what I was doing, and I didn’t mind putting in so many hours.

But it was also something I had to do, if I wanted to do a good job in the classroom. The “curriculum” I had been given was literally a list of Next Generation Science Standards, followed by a list of student learning objectives. The “pacing guide” that was meant to structure the course was a table that included the week of the school year, the topic, and the textbook chapter I was supposed to cover. While maybe if you had a good textbook you could get by with something like that, my textbooks were last printed in the late 90s. They were awful. They were also way above my students’ reading level and totally NOT aligned to the NGSS. So as much as I loved all of the curriculum writing I was doing, it also wasn’t entirely an option if I wanted to give my students access to, you know, a quality science education.

However, I also knew I couldn’t keep that up after my daughter’s birth. I would have to scale back my ambition (to be the best at everything) and find a bit more balance. So at that point, I had no intention at all of ever leaving the classroom.

My daughter arrived three weeks before her expected due date, which threw a small wrench into my lesson plans. I wasn’t able to finish the plate tectonics unit we had begun, and my district-mandated SLO project was thrown off. But overall, I wasn’t terribly worried. I enjoyed my six weeks off with her, and then returned to work two days before Christmas break. (Well timed, right?) While I dreaded the thought of going back before the day arrived, once I was there – it was great to see my students and friends again. It was also great to only work two days – get myself situated and eased back into the work routine – and then have another two weeks off with my baby!

I knew I needed to get my butt moving as well, so I made arrangements for childcare with my mom for the week after Christmas and planned to focus on getting prepared for the next few weeks. I would enjoy the Christmas holidays with family — our first one with our new baby — and then focus on school afterward.

All of my plans changed the night of December 26. After our final Christmas celebration — the one where my mom and dad, sister, aunt and uncle, husband, and new baby all exchange our gifts for each other — my sister went out with friends. We went home to bed, and I spent the night up every three hours like usual. Around 2 AM, she called my dad to pick her up from the bar. She never made it home. A drunk driver ran a red light and smashed into my dad’s car, killing my 24-year old sister and severely injuring my dad. I spent the week after Christmas dragging my husband and daughter back and forth from the hospital, dealing with my parents’ grief, my dad’s medical issues, police reports, insurance claims, and all the stupid stuff like cancelling cell phone accounts and iTunes radio.


The night before I was supposed to return to work for good – the day after New Years – I freaked out and called in sick. I was given an additional four days of bereavement (a favor really, because technically those days should have overlapped the holiday break), and then I did return to my classroom for the remainder of the year.

And it was actually ok. I enjoyed finishing out the year with my students at the time, and I was excited to plan for the following year. But then summer rolled around and I got a taste of what it would be like to spend my days with my little one. And as the summer went on and she got older (and more fun), the more I wasn’t as thrilled about going back.

I tried hard to get back into the spirit, and I had moments of excitement followed by moments of “Ugh, I just want to be home with my baby!” Around my daughter’s first birthday, I found out I was pregnant with my second child, and this wishy-washy feeling came and went all throughout the year. When my son was born that following summer, I knew I couldn’t go back. At least not right away. I wanted to experience what it was like to take my daughter to preschool, spend our days at the zoo, and just be around. I didn’t want to be stressed out when I was at home because I had so much to do for school, and I didn’t want to be miserable at school because I couldn’t live up to my personal expectations (because I was too busy with things at home). I couldn’t give both 130%, and I didn’t want to live my life stressed out about it.

But I do love teaching. And honestly, one of my favorite parts of being a teacher was developing the curriculum and instructional resources. That’s probably why I spent so much time working outside the work day… but anyway, I realized that while I might not be able to do everything I wanted to (be an amazing teacher who has an amazing classroom, makes amazing connections with home and school and community, and facilitates amazing learning experiences for my amazing students) — while I might not be able to do all of those things and balance being an amazing mom, I could maybe do just some of them.

In February of 2018, I accepted a part-time position with a local university providing STEM programs and workshops to school, teacher, and community groups.  When I’m not keeping my teaching skills on point at work (or doing my best to be an amazing mommy at home), I’m doing the thing I love best: creating curriculum and resources.

So that’s why I created this site — iExploreScience allows me to do some of the parts of teaching I love – and am good at – while still living the life I want, the life that allows me to be here a little more for my little ones. I’ve learned how short life can be, and I want to be truly present for it.

And it also allows me to make life a little easier for others, so that they can be more present for their friends and families, have time for their own interests, and frankly, their life! I know teaching is hard, and there just isn’t enough time to get everything done. So if units and lessons and standards are not something you love to dive into, why should you have to?

I just think we should all do more of what we love when we can, and this is a little of what I love:

Why did I step out of the classroom? It has to do with these two little loves and a desire for us all to treat out time like the precious commodity (for lack of better phrase) that it is. It's the ONLY thing you can't ever get back.


Learn how you can engage students and assess their understanding of ecology concepts through a mystery-based problem-solving activity.

Making Detectives in Middle School: Engaging Students In A Science Mystery

While I have spent time teaching everything from fifth grade physical science to high school earth science, environmental science has always been where my heart is. I actually never even liked science until I took Intro to Environmental Science in college! Becoming a science teacher was definitely at the bottom of my career choices prior to that course!

Anyway, environmental science is essentially an interdisciplinary field that looks at how humans and human systems fit into the “natural” world (granted, we are a part of that natural world).  While there’s all kinds of theories on different lenses through which to study environmental science, I’m not going to get into that here. I just want to say – I love environmental science, and so anytime I have the opportunity to incorporate some type of environmental theme into a unit, I do! In Earth Science, I build my atmospheric science unit around the issue of global warming and climate change, and I use a water resources unit to discuss water quality issues and pollution.

Ecology is another disciplinary area where it is SO EASY to incorporate environmental issues.  I actually frame my entire ecology unit around the issue of invasive species. Believe it or not, you can meet every single one of the performance expectations in the middle school Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics DCI by studying invasive species.

Check out this teaching strategy to engage middle and high school students in an ecology unit through puzzle-based mystery activities.While I can’t wait to share more with you about that in a future post (it’s coming soon, I promise!), today I just want to share one of my favorite activities in honor of April’s status as National Frog Month – an Ecology Mystery: Where Have All The Tree Frogs Gone?

After working through our ecology unit, and one students have a firm grasp on the many factors that can play a role in maintaining stability or causing change in ecosystems, my students will participate in this detective-style activity designed to solve an ecology mystery — a sudden decline in the tree frog population in a fictional Florida town.  That said, a decline in amphibian populations is NOT a fictional issue, as year after year scientists are seeing population levels plummet in response to a host of issues — from climate change to water pollution to habitat destruction.

Anyway, in this activity, students are provided with a stack of fictitious clues to explore — from advertisements from the local garden shop, company memos about the success of a recent sale, and diary entries, to newspaper articles and graphs of data collected by local scientists.  They have to use these clues to answer the question, What happened to the tree frogs in Mayberry? For this activity, there is not a right or wrong answer — a “right” answer is one they can support with evidence and reasoning. After working together to examine the clues, students use a graphic organizer to propose three plausible causes of the population decline, and then they write a Claim-Evidence-Reasoning argumentative response based on the theory they believe is best supported by the evidence.  

Students can demonstrate their understanding of ecology concepts in this problem-based learning assessment.

I created this project all the way back in 2014, so it is definitely in need of a revision. I plan to update the teacher and student instructions, add additional clues, and align the rubric to better meet the NGSS in the near future.  As it is, it does currently align with MS-LS2-4, “Construct an argument supported by empirical evidence that changes to physical and biological components of an ecosystem affect populations.” Until then, the activity is available in my TeachersPayTeachers store for a discounted price. If you purchase it before the update – or you already have it – don’t worry – I will send out the new version once I get it updated! That said, it is one of the most fun and engaging activities I have created, and I am so proud of it! I need to create more resources like it, actually…

If you’re interested in creating your own detective-style activity like this, you can follow the same steps I did below!

Step 1: Identify The Problem

For my ecology unit, using a change in population was a no-brainer.  I chose frogs because amphibian populations are actually declining in the real world, and I was able to find a ton of resources about that issue to help me build my clues.  That said, you could choose any number of animals to focus on — a fish population in a stream or the ocean, a population or community of macro-invertebrates, honey bees, or something larger like bald eagles.  The most important thing is to find a problem that could have several potential causes.

This could be done with other disciplinary areas as well.  For example, in an earth science class where students are learning about water resources, you could investigate water contamination.  What caused the contamination — mining? A hazardous waste site? Non point source pollution from nearby farms or fields? Factory dumping? Was the water contaminated as it traveled through the pipes? Was it a combination of factors? In a health science class, students could track the source of an epidemic, using clues about when symptoms started and where people traveled to work their way to patient zero and the disease’s source. Whatever topic you choose, it is important that there is some ambiguity in terms of the correct answer.  Students need to be able to argue their point – finding the evidence to support it – while still reasonably considering other options.

Step 2: Identify Several Possible Solutions

So you’ve picked a topic with several possible solutions — now, list those out. You’ll want to provide at least one – potentially two or three – clues for each solution.  Before you can construct the clues, you need to know what you’re “clueing” people into. So write out those solutions!

Step 3: Create Your Clues

Beneath each solution, start brainstorming clues.  For example, if we were looking at water contamination, I might include a brochure for historic mine tours, as well as a memo from the EPA (or a fictitious agency) about the dangers of acid mine drainage.  I could include a map of hazardous waste sites which indicates a site near the source of water (stream, lake, whatever). I could include a company email about factory dumping, as well as a diary entry from a young person who witnessed some sort of dumping event.  I may include research on how certain characteristics of water can degrade lead pipes and a note from a plumber about disposing of lead pipes he replaced at an old home. Lastly, I could provide graphs about land usage in the area, indicating a significant amount of farmland and fields, and a newspaper article with an interview of a farmer who discusses the challenges of farming and his use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.  These are some examples of clues that students can use to build a case. You could also include some actual news articles and research papers to provide supplemental information that could help students – information about the consequences of commercial farming, the difference between point source and nonpoint source pollution, or how hazardous waste is disposed of.

To maximize the “engagement” factor, make your clues look authentic.  Use notebook paper for the diary entries (or invest in some notebook paper clip art and handwritten fonts) and bright colors for the advertisements.  Format the memos and emails as they would appear in real life. Make the students believe they are truly science detectives!

Step 4: Teach

For this activity to be successful, students must have been introduced to these concepts before beginning.  They need to have an understanding of the content in order to recognize the clues for what they are and piece together their argument.  So make sure you cover the topics you are discussing — acid mine drainage, hazardous waste, agriculture, lead pollution, and so on.

Step 5: Create The Task

While exploring the clues is the fun part, to get some value from this activity, you will want to create some sort of assessment.  To understand my students’ thinking, I asked them to identify three possible solutions and list the pieces of evidence that supported that solution.  This showed me that they understood several different concepts that we had learned throughout the unit. To assess their ability to use that evidence to construct an argument, I had my students write a Claim-Evidence-Reasoning written response in which they identified the solution they thought best fit the evidence and then used the evidence to support it.  This is an exercise not only in the content itself but also in important science skills and content literacy.

You could also have students present their arguments or discuss them in a “Socratic Smackdown” type activity.  If you haven’t heard of it, it is an amazing activity to generate TRUE discussion and engage students in the content and issues they are learning about.  I’ll have to tell you more about that another time.

Anyway, there you go! You have an awesome and engaging activity to wrap up your unit, and if your students are anything like mine, they will love it! They might not even mind writing the essay at the end.

What the heck does that performance expectation mean!?

NGSS Quick Tip: Evidence Statements

Pin - performance expectations mean.jpgEver struggled to figure out what the HECK the NGSS performance expectations are ACTUALLY asking?!? I will admit, I have! When I figured out the EASIEST way to decipher them, my mind was BLOWN.

Check out this quick video to learn a little bit about Evidence Statements — or visit my post from earlier this month Designing 5E Instruction: Unpacking The Standard to dive a little deeper into understanding the standards!

I’ll be using MS-LS2-3 as the example here: “Develop a model to describe the cycling of matter and flow of energy among living and nonliving parts of an ecosystem.”

Be sure to LIKE the video and follow iExploreScience on Facebook!

glasses on book, quote saying designing instruction from the ngss

Designing 5E Instruction: Unpacking The Standard

glasses on book, quote saying designing instruction from the ngss

Top Three Takeaways

  1. Identify the Performance Expectation you are focusing on, and its accompanying Disciplinary Core Ideas, Science and Engineering Practices, and Crosscutting Concepts. You can find this on the NGSS site.
  2. Use the Evidence Statements (available on the NGSS site or via Google Search) to clarify what students should be able to do. You can use these to build your assignment and your rubric.
  3. Develop the assessment before planning any further unit activities. This backwards design approach will focus your instruction so that you, your students, and the activities planned are all working toward the same learning goal.

I started my first public school job as an Earth Science teacher at an urban high school.  I was coming from a private school where I kind of “owned” the science domain as the veteran science teacher in the school. I taught fifth and sixth grade general science, planned the school’s science fair (turned STEM Expo under my direction!), and developed summer science camps for school students.  I was used to “doing my own thing,” to say the least.

photo of author

But, I will be honest, it was hard making ends meet on a private school salary (I made less per day than public school substitutes!), and after attending the interview, I had a HUGE “boss-crush” on the public school’s principal. I knew this was an administrator I wanted to work for.

So when they offered me the job, I jumped on it! I knew it would be a huge change — wealthy middle school students to urban high school students, general science to earth/space science, and private school to public school — but I was excited for a new challenge. It didn’t occur to me right off the bat that I might lose some autonomy when it came to lesson planning.

Like many teachers, I spent the few weeks before school started preparing my classroom and planning my first lessons. I examined the curriculum my school provided (a list of basic objectives and the NGSS standards the course should cover) and began to piece together units. I had it all mapped out in my head!

So when I first heard that I had to participate in team planning, I freaked out a little inside. Was all the work I had put into planning my course going to be wasted? Was I going to be stuck doing dumb activities from a dumb textbook from a dumb curriculum? (Can you sense the “pout” here?)

Well, as it turns out, I lucked out. There were two other teachers who had earth/space science courses.  One of them was, like me, a new teacher to the district. She, also like me, was a veteran teacher. And also like me, she was all about the NGSS, 5E learning, technology, so on and so forth. She was on board! The other teacher was an older gentleman who might not have been entirely on board EXCEPT for the fact that, if we wrote the lessons – he didn’t have to! So basically, in that first meeting, I pretty much volunteered to write all of our lessons. Because I’m insane. And also, because I love it.

Oh, do I love it! I love lessons and planning and standards! I could probably go on and on about it, but I’ll refrain. Let’s move on to the real purpose of this post, which is to provide some information on how I develop my lessons and units.  While there are absolutely many approaches, and there are absolutely many experts, I have found that this way is relatively quick, definitely efficient, and it’s something any teacher can do! You DON’T need to be a NGSS-expert to put together a unit plan aligned to the standards.  Yes, ideally, curriculum should be developed by a team of teachers who can examine the standards and combine their many years of experience to develop engaging, authentic topics and investigations, three-dimensional assessments, so on and so forth. But realistically, how many of you have the TIME to do that, let alone the resources?

Since many of us work for schools and districts with outdated curriculums, ancient textbooks, and high demands, developing amazing curricular materials when you need them can be a challenge. So consider that this is simply a starting point — something you can do as you work through the year (you know, how EVERY teacher spends the first few years). That said, you SHOULD go back each year and improve your investigations, strengthen your assessments, and incorporate additional opportunities for interdisciplinary learning. But in the meantime, you have to do what you need to in order to get by — while still providing high-quality, standards-aligned instruction, of course.

So let’s get to it.

Starting With A Standard

So each Next Generation Science Standard is built on a three dimensional structure — basically, there are three components to each standard: the science and engineering practices, the science concepts (aka disciplinary core ideas), and overarching themes (aka crosscutting concepts).  We’re going to look at MS-LS2-4 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, because I just got familiar with it this past week while working on an (extensive) update of one of my best-selling resources.

So the standard itself is Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, but what does that mean? To get an idea of the content you’ll be covering, you would want to check out the Disciplinary Core Ideas section of the standard. Now, if you look below, there’s a whole big long list. You aren’t going to cover every single one of those points in the same unit — more likely, you are going to break those up into the Performance Expectations you see at the top of the page.

NGSS MS-LS2 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics

Performance Expectations are statements about what a student should be able to do. They are, essentially, your unit assessment.  For that reason, if you were to fully align to the NGSS, you would really have between three and five mini-units as a part of an ecosystems unit. (I say three to five because you can usually bundle a few performance standards together into a single assessment.)

So like I said, PEs are basically what you are going to build your unit assessment on. I always start here – I need to know what I’m going to be assessing before I can start building my unit. There’s tons of wonderful information out there, but I simply don’t have time to cover it all. And while I will likely touch on other PEs in my final assessment, the PE we are looking at right now is, “MS-LS2-4. Construct an argument supported by empirical evidence that changes to physical or biological components of an ecosystem affect populations.”

NGSS standard LS2.C

To get a better idea what that means, I’ll take a look at those boxes at the bottom again. The information that aligns with that standard under DCI includes: LS2.C: Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience “Ecosystems are dynamic in nature; their characteristics can vary over time. Disruptions to any physical or biological component of an ecosystem can lead to shifts in all its populations. (MS-LS2-4)” So that’s the general idea we want students to walk away with: ecosystems change, and any change in an ecosystem can lead to changes in its populations.

science and engineering practices NGSS MS-LS2-4 We also want students to have some skills — the skills included in the PE are pretty obvious, “construct an argument supported by evidence.” The Science and Engineering Practices (blue) box gives you a little more information on that – Engaging in Argument from Evidence:
Engaging in argument from evidence in 6–8 builds on K–5 experiences and progresses to constructing a convincing argument that supports or refutes claims for either explanations or solutions about the natural and designed world(s). “Construct an oral and written argument supported by empirical evidence and scientific reasoning to support or refute an explanation or a model for a phenomenon or a solution to a problem. (MS-LS2-4)”

Lastly, the overarching themes (green box, crosscutting concepts) for this standard include Stability and Change, i.e. small changes can lead to large changes. That is basically a “lens” through which you can examine information and issues.  

So anyway, we want students to be able to argue that populations are affected by physical and biological components of ecosystems.  We want them to use evidence to do that. And we want them to understand that even small changes can result in large changes.  While it took a little bit of deciphering, the NGSS does a lot of the work of figuring out, “well what should I teach!?” for us!

NGSS standards - how to find evidence statementsAnd in case you didn’t already know, they give you even more information to help you construct an actual assessment! If you venture on over to the right side margin of the standards page, you’ll see “Related Evidence Statements.”  When you choose the set of statements for your PE (MS-LS2-4 for us), it opens up a PDF that shows you the standard information relevant to specifically our PE. So basically everything we found above, we could have just skipped the searching and clicked on Evidence Statements. Well, now you know.

But you’ll find the real reason we are here if you scroll down a little farther on this Evidence Statement page.  The creators of the NGSS basically tell you what students need to be able to do in order to meet this part of the standard — this makes both the construction of the assessment and the construction of your entire unit incredibly easy!

Using Evidence Statements

I always like to print out my Evidence Statements and start breaking it down before I construct the assessment itself. It helps me to put everything in the simplest terms possible, and it allows me to list out some of the important information students need to know.

For example, looking just at that first box, I jotted down — “changes to phys/bio components lead to changes in population.” And I also bulleted, “population, biotic and abiotic factors.” Those are two topics we will need to discuss during the unit to meet this standard.

annotations on NGSS MS-LS2-4

In the next box, it states that students must identify and describe changes in an ecosystem, and then it provides a bunch of examples. This part really helps to clarify the topics you will study — you can choose the “case study” you want to work with (or work with several) over the course of the unit.  MS-LS2-4 suggests “rainfall, predator removal, species introduction.” These suggestions offhand bring to mind possible case studies related to global warming, the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone, or any number of invasive species scenarios.  While I ended up providing examples of many of these changes in ecosystems in my mini-unit, I focused my end-of-unit activities on the introduction of cane toads in Australia — the introduction of an invasive species.

Side Note: As much as possible, you want to incorporate real data and scenarios into your NGSS standards.  While it might take some digging, you can find real data tables and graphs online that you can use in your assessments. Another great resource for data – and simplified data designed just for student use – is Data Nuggets. So before you select your case study, I highly suggest finding the data you will have students use as evidence.

After students explain the change that occurred (introduction of cane toads), they will need to be able to describe how populations in the ecosystem changed as a result. For my assessment, cane toad populations rose, native frog populations dropped. During a unit activity, students concluded this consequence themselves by examining graphs I found from a study conducted in Australia.

Lastly, they will need to provide evidence that there is a causal or correlational relationship between those two events — the arrival of cane toads and the decline in native frog populations.  These are concepts students would need to be introduced to during the unit – cause vs. correlation.

How can you tell the difference between causation versus correlation? It can be tricky. Some things you might want to point out for students:

  • Plausability: Considering the cause, does the effect make sense? For example, we know cane toads eat native frogs. Therefore, it is logical that an increase in cane toad (predator) populations would cause a decrease in native frog (prey) populations.
  • Consistency: Could this relationship be replicated? Obviously, we aren’t testing it.  That said, we can look at other examples of the introduction of new species to an area. Do native species often decline as a result of the introduction of a new species?
  • Specificity: Could there be any other likely cause? This requires additional research.  Were there any other changes in the ecosystem at the same time that could have resulted in a decrease in the native frog population?

When evaluating cause and effect, students will not have all of the answers. That said, students can discuss these ideas, what they do know, and even what questions remain as a part of their assessment to demonstrate their understanding of this concept.

blog post title building assessments

Don’t forget to pin this for later!

I continue to break down the standard in this fashion.  Because this is a “construct an argument” PE, I developed a Claim-Evidence-Reasoning writing task to assess the PE.  While I chose writing, students could alternatively participate in a debate, a Socratic Seminar, or complete an oral presentation to present their argument. Either way, after students have engaged in some learning activities about the general concepts (physical and biological components aka biotic/abiotic factors, ecological structure, interactions in ecosystems, invasive species, specifically cane toads, etc), they will have the knowledge and resources they need to “construct an argument based on evidence.”  

No matter what means you will have students present their arguments, I have found that they typically need some guidance.  I always try to scaffold the task so it is very clear what I expect.  I use the C-E-R format to guide student writing, and I use a graphic organizer with specific questions to help them prepare.  This way, they have a better understanding of the information they should be including. And how do I create those questions? By looking at those Evidence Statements. It is all based on what the Evidence Statement asks for, and I likewise use the Evidence Statements to develop my rubric.


For MS-LS2-4, the questions I asked students to address in the Reasoning section include:

  • How can a change in a biotic factor – like the introduction of invasive cane toads – result in changes in other populations?
  • Explain how a single change in a biotic factor can cause a chain reaction of changes in an ecosystem

Then, the top level of my rubric asks for:

  • States that a change in one factor can affect the likelihood of survival of other species. Uses the example of the cane toad to illustrate this concept. Explains how the arrival of the cane toads led to hardship for native frogs, which led to decreases in their populations.
  • Provides detailed examples of other potential biotic and abiotic factors that can impact an ecosystem.
  • Describes how the immediate effect on native frogs could have long term consequences for the ecosystem. Provides detailed examples.

Voila! Standard unpacked, and assessment complete.  Check back in soon to see how I continue to develop a 5E, NGSS-aligned science unit.


3 Myths About The 5E Model

While the 5E Model seems pretty self-explanatory — engage students, explore stuff, explain it, elaborate or extend the learning, and evaluate — I’ve personally seen many seasoned teachers and competent administrators alike misunderstand some key concepts about the model.  Are YOU using it correctly?

Myth #1: Each class period should follow the 5E model.

No. Unless you and your students don’t need to do things like eat or sleep (and can therefore remain in class for SUPER extended periods of time), the entire model should NOT fit into a single class.  The 5E model is designed for use with instructional sequences — thus a UNIT may be planned using the 5E as a template — but there is no way to adequately meet the expectations of each stage between your daily classroom bells.

When implementing an instructional sequence based on the 5E model, you may spend an entire class participating in an ENGAGE activity.  Alternatively, you may spend just five minutes with an engagement activity and use the rest of your class time that day exploring the content.  To truly use the model as it was intended, students need time to delve into their current understandings and develop new understandings.  For that reason, it is important teachers are not rushing through EXPLORE and EXPLAIN activities in order to fit the model into a single class period.  That was NOT the authors’ intentions.

Myth #2: The 5E Model is linear.

Although it is often listed as five steps, the 5E model was not intended to be a linear sequence.  Sure, the majority of units will start with an engagement activity and move to a period of exploration.  After that, students should begin to make sense of their learning by developing their explanations.  But just remember, there are options.  Will the students evaluate their learning through a formative assessment? Will they extend what they have learned by applying it to new situations? Will they return to their earlier explorations to delve deeper into the concept? Perhaps, as the teacher, you will direct their attention back to the engagement activity to better understand the phenomena they had witnessed.


In my own classroom, I frequently use a zig zag approach, bouncing back and forth between EXPLORE and EXPLAIN.  I throw in quick evaluations – both teacher and student assessed – to check for understanding.  After students have established a firm grasp of the content, we move into extension activities to elaborate on their learning.  Like all units, we will wrap up with a summative assessment. While this is what I often do in my classroom, the exact paths I take are determined in part by the content but also by the students and their needs. In the same way, the progression you follow through the 5E model should likewise remain flexible.

Myth #3: The EXPLAIN phase is where the teaching starts.

This is probably the biggest misunderstanding of the 5E model.  Most educators understand that students are grappling with the content in the exploration phase, and many educators quickly pick up that evaluation should be interspersed throughout the instructional sequence. We’ve all heard the words formative assessment, right?

But many great teachers struggle with what is truly intended in the EXPLAIN stage of the 5E model, because it’s in our nature to TEACH! Right? That’s what we signed up for. We want to share what we know with students! Unfortunately, that’s not how students learn.  Learning is not a process of transmission — it is a process of meaning-making, and it is the students that must do the making-of-the-meaning. If you know what I mean?

The EXPLAIN phase is where students reflect on their experiences, take their observations, examine their data, and FIND THE MEANING! As the teacher, your job is to ask the right questions, to direct or redirect when necessary, to help them find the patterns or the key points.  To truly learn, the students must be the ones that put those pieces together – to complete the picture.

Just like in all the other phases, the students are doing the work explaining, and your job is simply to help them do that.  Provide the terminology they may be searching for, point them to the data they have already collected, clarify the explanations they are providing, and simply help them work their way toward understanding.


Whatever you do, just know: the EXPLAIN phase is NOT where you step on stage.  In the 5E Model, it is NOT your job to provide all of the answers.

That said, it can be difficult for students who have long been TAUGHT what to know and believe to make their own meanings.  Many students would prefer you simply “give them the answer” — it’s easier, after all. What can you do? If you’re struggling with this in your own classroom, try out my FREE resource that helps students make meaning from their own observations and data: Making Meaning From Data.

Meaning-Making From Data