Engineering In Science: Why You Should Be Teaching It

Why you should be incorporating engineering standards and practices into your science classroom. For the science teachers amongst us (me!), engineering can be pretty intimidating.  There’s a very real possibility that your education did NOT prepare you to teach it. Yet if you’re following the Next Generation Science Standards, it’s your JOB to.  Engineering is woven into the NGSS across the board:

  • standing alone as Disciplinary Core Ideas,
  • represented in the Science and Engineering Practices,
  • popping up in a number of Performance Expectations,
  • and integrated into some of the Crosscutting Concepts.

You can’t align to the NGSS without addressing engineering.

But if that’s not enough to convince you to jump on the engineering bandwagon, here are THREE more reasons to get your butt in GEAR. (Does that count as an engineering joke?!)

1. engineering Engages students with Real-World Problems

Engineering activities are a great way to lend authenticity and urgency to your science content, because you can engage students in solving real-world problems. Even simply DEFINING the problems is an engineering practice that students can get into!

I firmly believe middle school students want to do things that matter. Both my own memories of middle school and my observations of my middle school students have proven this to me time and again.  Engagement skyrockets when middle school students have a real-world rationale to understand and apply, and engineering can be the vehicle through which you accomplish that.

Sure, learning about thermal transfer is great — but wouldn’t it be even more awesome if they had to use their understanding of thermal transfer to design a house for some over-heated penguins?

Science concepts are so much more engaging when students can apply them to solve real world problems — like learning about thermal transfer to design homes for over-heated penguins!

2. Engineering develops 21st Century Skills

I know we are all working really hard to move away from “drill and kill” methods of teaching, trying to pour content into empty receptacles (aka student brains) and hoping they can spit it back out when test day comes.  That’s what the NGSS is all about, right? Less content, bigger concepts, more depth, and more practices.  But even so, many of our classrooms still probably look pretty traditional.  We have students working at desks with pen and paper, reading and writing, some computer work, with the occasional presentation or project.  I get it. Not only is this how we were taught, but it’s also how most of our curriculums have been designed.  And on top of that, reading and writing is absolutely a critical skill our students must master.  No argument here.

But there are some other skills, too — like creativity, problem-solving, determination, and teamwork — that need to have a place in our classroom.  These skills are really just as vital, but they often don’t receive the focus they deserve.

Engineering develops ALL of those skills.  When you give students engineering challenges, they must think creatively to solve the problem.  They must work as a team.  They are bound to fail the first time around (especially if you throw in design changes, my favorite!), so they have to develop that grit and determination to keep on going and keep on trying.  In fact, engineering normalizes failure and can help develop the growth mindsets we all want our students to have! (For a free growth mindset poster set, be sure to access the Free Resource Library!)

The great thing about teaching these skills through engineering is you’re never sacrificing content for character. Students are learning and developing both simultaneously.

3. engineering is a lucrative career option

… that we aren’t preparing our students for.  Let’s be honest – engineers can make a lot of money.  They can make a lot of money with just FOUR years of post-secondary education.  I have a Bachelor’s, a Master’s, and some post-Master’s credits… and I made a third of what some engineers with a four year degree are making coming out of college. When I worked at a private, school, some engineers made EIGHT TIMES what my annual salary was! WHAT!?!

I’m not saying that all of your students are going to – or should – be engineers. But by failing to expose our students to the field, we are failing to prepare them for a career they may be perfect for.  On top of that, engineering might just be the perfect field for that student who can’t get into the novel you’re teaching or the documentary you showed, the student who can’t follow the step-by-step instructions you printed for that lab today.  By exposing them to a different kind of “science,” you could be opening a door to their future.

Great! I’m on board… now what?

I’m going to dive deeper into this subject over the next few weeks. My goal is to give you some practical tips, tricks, and resources to integrate engineering into your curriculum this year.

If you’d like to be notified of future blog posts, be sure to subscribe to the blog.  You can also follow me on Instagram to stay in touch.

And if you’re interested in continuing this conversation – and participating in an exclusive Integrating Engineering Workshop on July 12 – be sure to join our Facebook Community!

Connect with a community of middle and high school science teachers to discover and share NGSS aligned and 5E model based instructional strategies and teaching resources.

Finding A Good Anchor Phenomenon For Your NGSS Unit

How to find a good anchoring phenomenon for your NGSS unit!One of the big shifts with the Next Generation Science Standards is that you are no longer teaching content for content’s sake — science instruction is no longer based around a list of facts, but rather, the focus is on the broader concepts that connect those facts together and the skill development necessary to investigate and understand those concepts. One way of focusing students on the “big picture” in a unit is to present an anchoring phenomenon that students work toward understanding and explaining.

When I first learned about anchors, I will be honest – I didn’t know what the heck they were talking about. I mean, I understood that doing a demo in a physical science classroom could be an anchor that students could explore throughout the unit — but what about my life science class? What about my earth science class?

Since then, I have spent some time learning about anchoring phenomenon, and I really feel my students benefited from what I was able to implement. Whenever we started a unit, students were immediately engaged in the content and prior knowledge began to surface. They were able to connect with what we were learning about, and they were able to see how one concept connected to the next by seeing how it all related to our anchor.

And in terms of planning, I actually always identify the anchoring phenomenon before I develop any activities in a unit. I want to be sure that my activities are tied into the anchor and providing the information they need to solve that problem or answer that question. The anchors literally hold the content together, in a way.

Obviously, choosing a good anchor is important!

So What Is An Anchor?

An anchoring phenomenon (or “anchor”) is either a fascinating natural phenomenon or a meaningful design problem that studnets must engage in science and engineering practices to investigate. Anchors can keep instructional sequences coherent and on target, allowing a storyline to develop that help students understand the concepts they are learning and how they are all interconnected.

What Makes A Good Anchor?

Choosing an anchor is an important step when you are designing your units and instructional sequences, and not every natural phenomenon makes a good anchor. So what does make a good anchor?

  • an anchor builds upon student experiences. Ideally, students should have some prior knowledge of or experience with the material. This does not mean they must fully understand it or be able to explain it — in fact, that wouldn’t be a good anchor at all! — but they should be able to connect with it in some way. For example, all students have probably watched rainwater run down the road, carrying dirt and debris with it. An anchor for a watershed unit could simply be that very description, along with the question: where does all the water go?
  • an anchor connects multiple NGSS performance expectations. When you lay out your units, you should be developing a storyline that takes you from one performance expectation to another. The anchor phenomenon should be able to flow through each of those PEs. For our watershed example above, your instructional sequence may move from the properties of water and their effects on Earth’s surfaces (HS-ESS2-5) to how changes in Earth’s surfaces affect water resources (HS-ESS2-2) to reducing the impact of human activity on watersheds (HS-ESS3-4).
  • an anchor is too complex to explain or solve after just one lesson. Students aren’t able to figure out an answer without instruction, and an online search can’t provide a quick answer that students could copy.
  • an anchor is observable — whether it is through a demo, a video presentation, through the use of a scientific procedure or technological tool (telescope, microscope, computer to see patterns, etc.).
  • an anchor should have resources available that students can explore for themselves: data, images, and texts that can provide students with what they need to know to explain the phenomenon or solve the problem. Students should be able to learn about the anchoring phenomenon and related concepts through first-hand or second-hand investigations. (First hand investigations: students conduct the investigation and collect the data; second-hand investigations: students utilize others data to draw their own conclusions or examine others’ conclusions to evaluate their reasoning.

Give Me Examples, Please!

My husband can attest to this – I am an examples person. I really need examples to understand what someone means. So what are some types of anchoring phenomena that I use in my lessons?

  • case studies (pine beetle infestation, cane toad invasive species, algal blooms in the Great Lakes, water shortages in California),
  • a problem and a challenge (how to eradicate an invasive species? how to provide clean water after a natural disaster?)
  • something puzzling (is there life on other planets? or why is Earth the only planet with life? why aren’t earthquakes common here? why do we get so much snow?),
  • or something students may be curious about (how do we know what Earth was like millions of years ago? how do we know what’s inside of Earth? why do I have blue eyes but my parents don’t? why does a giraffe have a long neck?)
  • demos (Newton’s Cradle and the transfer of energy; using elements to change the color of a flame; changing the color of flowers; osmosis demo)

What are your favorite anchoring phenomena to use in your classroom? Hop over to our Facebook COMMUNITY to join the conversation. I’d LOVE to hear what’s working for you!

An NGSS-Aligned Earth and Space Science Curriculum

A conceptual storyline for teaching Earth and Space Science at the high school level - aligned to the NGSS.As I mentioned in my previous posts, the curriculum I was given for my first year as a ninth grade earth/space science teacher was basically a list of content students had to “identify” or “explain” plus a copy/paste of the relevant Next Generation Science Standards, coupled with a “pacing guide” that was essentially a table of weeks aligned to textbook pages. Real top notch, right?


Obviously, I needed to make some changes. That said, it was my first year in a new school in a new district, and I had to co-plan with another earth science teacher who had been there for ages. I was determined to align the units with the NGSS, but at the same time, I definitely wasn’t in a place where I could make drastic changes to the structure of the course.

That would change, however.

By the end of the year, I had enough clout with my principal – as well as the support of a great colleague (who had moved into an academic coaching position!) – to write a proposal for a revamped earth/space science curriculum. And it was accepted by our district’s science coordinator for use at our high school!

NSTA Conferences 2016 // You always have a travel companion when you’re nursing. #teachermom

How did this come about? Well, first I attended the National Science Teachers Association’s National Conference in Nashville in 2016 and was able to participate in a workshop about writing curriculum aligned to the NGSS. They provided an amazing tool to help organize units into conceptual storylines, which is what we worked from to build our new earth/space science curriculum. While I have developed my own “tool” I use to plan my year-long courses now, this was very helpful to us as we started our process. If you would like to learn more about the process I use today, check out my previous blog post – How To Create An NGSS-Aligned Course Curriculum.

Working together, Mindy and I created an awesome curriculum that our principal and science coordinator loved, and this was even shared with other earth/space science teachers in the district through our shared drive. While the district has yet to officially revise and adopt a new earth/space science curriculum (one actually aligned to the NGSS!), we were given permission to use this new model at our school – which I’ll call a success!

Sign up for access to my Free Resource Library TO DOWNLOAD the curriculum outline and pacing guide for the ninth grade earth/space science (Earth Systems) course.

a high school earth science curriculum, ngss-aligned

please join OUR private Facebook group for support in implementing NGSS-aligned units.

a pacing guide for the high school earth science curriculum, ngss-aligned

Up your assessment game with these creative formative assessments. Who doesn't love #FormativeFriday!

Formative Friday: Formative Assessments To Mix It Up!

The Basics: There are two types of assessments – formative and summative. Formative assessments are used during the learning cycle to inform instruction.  Summative assessments are the, “DID YOU LEARN IT?!” moments. There are tons of ways to formatively assess your students, but like most people, teachers tend to fall into using the same strategies over and over. While there isn’t anything wrong with that, I know I like to mix things up sometimes.  I’ve compiled just a few ideas here, and I’ll be posting more in the future!

*Please excuse my art. I didn’t keep any of my student’s notebooks from the last two years, so I had to recreate it myself… I’m still working on that beautiful calligraphy thing.*

Odd One OUt

Select ideas/concepts you are studying that group together and add one that justifiably does not fit. Make sure to choose items where the relationship requires some deeper thinking to make the connection – don’t make it too easy! You can provide the list on a handout or just post on the board, but make sure to give students a focus for their thinking — characteristics of matter, organism classifications, the periodic table, geologic processes. Have students spend some time thinking alone before adding in a partner, and provide enough time for students to consider many possibilities. Then, feel free to reveal the “odd one out” and see if students agree!


Paint THe Picture

Paint the Picture is perfect for identifying student misconceptions at any point in the learning cycle – prior to the unit, after the explore cycle, or as a final evaluation. Use it in your #interactivenotebooks to track understanding and progress toward student #learninggoals. Paint the Picture allows students to express their conceptual model in a visual format – often revealing facets of understanding not easily expressed in words. In this picture, the student understands the molecules are moving toward each other, but they may mistakenly believe they are also getting smaller. Would you have caught that in a written response?


annotated drawings

Annotated drawings are a great way to see what’s going on in students brains, especially when they may not have the vocabulary to fully explain their ideas. It opens up opportunities to catch misconceptions and identify exactly where students are in their understanding of a concept – especially when it’s a struggle to get students to write anything at all! I love using annotated drawings as both an assessment (formative, summative, you name it!) AND as a way to take notes!


First word, last word

This is an awesome way to assess prior knowledge and assess understanding at the end of a unit. The gist is that you give students a term, and they use each letter of the word to express one thing they know about that term. You repeat the activity at the end of the lesson or unit to see how their understanding has changed.

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

A post shared by Nicole | iExplore Science (@iexplorescience) on

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

A post shared by Nicole | iExplore Science (@iexplorescience) on

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.