Creating Storylines To Drive Instruction

Using Storylines to Drive Instruction

One goal of NGSS instruction is to develop in students a conceptual understanding of the content studied.  We can’t just ask students to memorize and spit back isolated facts and ideas. Students need to actually understand the concepts and connections between them.  And they need to transfer and apply that knowledge to new situations and contexts. Storylines are one tool that teachers can use to help build that conceptual understanding.


What Are Storylines?

Storylines are logical sequences of lessons that build knowledge to answer questions or solve problems.  Ideally, students are engaged in developing the questions that drive each lesson through the use of phenomena and exploration.  But don’t worry too much right now if that sounds overwhelming — that transition may take time in classrooms where students are not typically given that task. And as the teacher, you will want to direct their inquiry anyway so that you can meet the standards.  That said, as students become more proficient at this process, your role will likely diminish. But again – don’t worry too much about that right now!



How Do You Construct A Storyline?

Step 1: Bundle Your Standards

The first thing I do when I am outlining my curriculum – or even just a unit – is identify the Performance Expectations (PEs) that I am targeting.  For example, my Interactions in Ecosystems instructional sequence focuses on two PEs:

MS-LS2-1 Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for the effects of resource availability on organisms and populations of organisms.

MS-LS2-2 Construct an explanation that predicts patterns of interactions among organisms across multiple ecosystems.

If you aren’t sure how to bundle your standards, check out the free workshop Bundling The Standards at the Science Teacher Tribe. Register as a Limited Member (it’s free!) to get access to the videos and resources!


Step 2: Identify An Anchoring Phenomenon

You can read more about selecting an Anchoring Phenomenon here, but this is where YOUR science knowledge comes in to play.  I would look at the content for this unit and think, What situation could I use to show these concepts in action? What situation would peak student interest and engage them in the learning?

Years ago, I read about the snowy owl population and how it rises and falls cyclically in response to changes in the lemming population.  I found this fascinating, and I think my students might, too. This is my anchoring phenomena. It shows how resource availability (lemmings) causes changes in populations of snowy owls.  Throughout the unit, I’ll need to address those other pieces — the analyzing data, what exactly a cause and effect relationship is, and the basics of ecological organization. But I’ve found an example that will tie it all together.


Step 3: Generate Questions

Questions – ideally student questions – drive storylines forward.  They connect the anchoring phenomenon to the ultimate objectives of your unit (which should be based on the Performance Expectation!).  While ideally your students would generate all of the questions that they would then investigate during the unit, there often isn’t time for that in our standardized-testing, large-class world.  For that reason, the first time you use a storyline, you will try to anticipate the questions that students will ask when presented with the phenomenon.

I do suggest you keep a list of questions that students actually ask during the unit, so that you can revise your storylines using your students own ideas for the future.  If one student asked it this year, it’s likely another will ask it next year.

For my unit, some questions I may anticipate my students asking include:

  • Why does the population of lemmings change so much?
  • What causes changes in populations?
  • Why are there so many snowy owl nests one year and so little the next?
  • What happened to all of the snowy owls?
  • What explains the pattern in changes in the populations?
  • Why do both snowy owl and lemming populations rise and fall in the same years?
  • How many snowy owls are born each year?
  • How many lemmings are there in total?
  • What do snowy owls eat?
  • Where did all of the lemmings go?
  • What happens to all of the dead lemmings?


Step 4: Use the Performance Expectations to Narrow Your Focus

Obviously, some of those questions aren’t really going to bring us closer to the Disciplinary Core Ideas, Science and Engineering Practices, and Crosscutting Concepts we are targeting in our standards.  For that reason, use the Performance Expectations to narrow your focus to one to three questions that directly stem from your anchor phenomenon.

These questions don’t have to address everything in your PEs — you will use additional investigative phenomena to drive instruction forward through your storylines.  The anchor just gets you started and provides a framework “big idea” to connect each smaller concept to.

From my list above, I would likely choose to have students investigate questions like: What causes changes in populations? and Why do snowy owl and lemming populations rise and fall in the same years?


Step 5: Establish Learning Targets and Success Criteria.

After breaking down the content and identifying my anchor, I go one step further and establish Learning Targets (LTs) and Success Criteria (SCs). These are the “outcomes” in my storylines, and they keep me on track as I design learning activities. I am constantly asking myself, does this activity align with my LT? You will be surprised how often activities and lessons morph into something we hadn’t intended.  The Learning Targets also explain to students what they should be learning, and the Success Criteria help them understand exactly what I want them to be able to do by the time we are done.

While this might not be my FIRST Learning Target for the unit, an eventual objective might be:

LT: Today we will learn what factors can affect populations.

SC: I can analyze case studies to identify factors that affect populations.

Step 6: Move Forward With Investigative Phenomena

While I used my anchoring phenomenon to generate student questions and activate prior knowledge about the relationships between populations and causes of changes to populations, students will need to participate in additional investigations to develop their understanding about these concepts.

In my unit on interactions in ecosystems, additional investigative phenomena could include videos that describe other types of interactions between organisms, a research article about the effects of global warming on mosquito reproduction, or a simulation lab that tracks interactions and their effects on population size.  Each of these phenomena would drive student understanding forward and help them to understand the big picture idea about interactions in ecosystems.


Some Final Thoughts

I base my instructional sequences on the 5E model.  This typically walks students through:

Explore: “What do we notice?”

Explain: “How can I explain this?”

Elaborate: “Where else can I see this happen?” (This is where you can generate new questions and bring in related phenomena to carry students into the next learning sequence! This is also where students apply their understanding during independent practice.)

At this point, you may go back and Explore more, Explain more, or Elaborate more. You will definitely want to throw in some Evaluations – formative at the very least, but summative eventually. 

The 5E Model works perfectly with the Storylines approach.  While your Storyline shows the big picture flow of your unit, you will still need to break down your Storyline components into actual instruction — aka your 5E Model sequence.

Additionally, make sure you are keeping touch with your anchoring phenomena.  For this lesson, the anchor phenomenon was the change in populations of lemmings and owls.  My end game is for students to understand the connection between a change in resources (lemmings) and changes in related populations (snowy owls).  In addition to that, I am tying in relationships and interactions in ecosystems and examining how they affect both “things” at the organism and population levels. I want students to be able to explain how and why these changes happen and to use data (my SEP) to support their explanation.  

Because it’s my anchoring phenomena, it’s going to launch my unit, sprinkle itself throughout, and typically end my unit as well. That said, I will use additional anchors to flesh out the concepts and dive deeper into the learning. Some examples might include the predatory interaction between lynx and hares, or the example of competition between birds in the Galapagos.  But again and again, we will come back to that initial scenario that got us started. (Side Note: Comparisons are a great way to do this! How is this example like our snowy owl/lemming example? How is it different? What patterns do you notice between these two examples? What patterns do you notice between the interactions between these species?)


More Help Please?

If you are looking for more help on creating storylines — or anything else NGSS related — head over to the Science Teacher Tribe and enroll in the NGSS Your Science Class course.  This 12-module course covers everything you need to know about transitioning your curriculum, instruction, and assessment to the NGSS.  Plus, you also get access to a growing library of sample NGSS-aligned resources and lessons, a weekly virtual PLC meetup, and personal feedback and support as you dive into NGSS implementation.