Student Driven Learning With Spark Storyline Pathways

Pin Image showing Let's Talk Trash, a NGSS Storyline and a photo of a landfillWhen teaching science using NGSS correctly, your science units and storylines are going to look vastly different than more traditional storylines. There are no lecture notes, presentation slides or vocabulary cards. Your students won’t be asked to memorize and regurgitate facts. Instead, learning will naturally unfold as students work to understand the natural world through a storyline that they helped create.

You may wonder what that would look like inside a classroom, and the answer can be found in Spark Storylines lessons.

What are Spark Storylines?

In short, Spark Storylines are learning expeditions into fundamental science ideas where teachers work solely as guides to provide the opportunity to students to find something that is happening, and then investigate what happened. We want students take the lead in guiding the storylines through the questions that they want answered.

In a more traditional setting, storylines are entirely mapped out ahead of time by the teacher/curriculum creator. This just creates an illusion of students driving the learning through their questions. However, it doesn’t actually shift any storyline mapping responsibilities to students. While this is well intentioned by teachers, we need to change that. We need to be able to balance the teacher’s need to plan ahead with a real opportunity for students to determine the route they take and the flow of learning. Essentially, the goal is for students and teachers to co-construct the learning experience together.


What does a Spark Storyline look like in the classroom?

You may be thinking, “That all sounds great, but what does it actually look like?” Maybe the best way to describe what a Spark Storyline looks like in a real classroom is by taking a look at a specific example. In this post, let’s dive into what engaging students with a phenomenon might look like by exploring the Let’s Talk Trash anchor experience.


Let’s Talk Trash

Let’s Talk Trash is an example of a Spark Storyline. First, teachers introduce the “spark” — or the phenomenon to students. It is simply designed to engage students with a real-world phenomenon, placing it on the world stage, and uncovering why it matters to everyone. In lesson 1 of  the Let’s Talk Trash Spark Storyline, this is done by crafting an experience that allows students to discover that we have a trash problem and that it is a problem that will continually get worse over time. (PS: You can grab this anchor experience for free here!)

The Spark

As a first step, students view different headlines that have been collected. “Local Hazards Grow as More Americans Churn Out Garbage”, and “The World’s 2-Billion Ton Trash Problem Just Got More Alarming,” point out that the trash problem is both widespread and a real issue that people are facing. You can also provide students with photographs of large landfills or even include other media like videos that show the vast amounts of trash in places around the world. Then, in groups or individually, students can then begin thinking about their observations and questions.

Afterwards, you can compile student responses. Record their questions and observations either on a poster board or digitally. Then, as a class, you can begin classifying what you recorded. Consider things like cause and effect, solutions, types of waste, etc. Encourage students to be the leaders in creating categories, just as they were the leaders in questioning.

As the unit progresses, you will refer back to this board often so that students revise their thinking and consider which questions have been answered.

Connecting To Student Experience

Another huge component to implementing NGSS is relevancy to students. It keeps them more engaged, and helps them to develop meaningful questions. At this point in the lesson, students will already begin to see how it is relevant to them on the world-stage. However, it is important for them to also see things from a more personal level.

Have students take a look around the room or even the school. Encourage them to consider how much trash is currently in the cans. Then, think about how much trash is collected at school alone over the course of a day, a week, and a year. Discuss if they even know what happens to their trash after it is thrown away? These questions and considerations help students begin to see the personal connection to this problem and are a great segue into students’ next task.

Investigating Data

After thinking of initial questions and considering their own trash production, students will then work in groups to collect and analyze data. Each group will be assigned a year to focus on. First, students will consider what the population was for their given year. Then, they will see how many thousands of tons of trash was produced that year. The task is to convert thousands of tons of trash to pounds produced by each individual.

Afterwards, students will compare the data collected in their given year to different years that were analyzed by their classmates. Guide students to consider how the amount of trash produced has changed over time. What patterns or trends do they notice? They may even look at and discuss specific types of trash like food waste and the trends that can be observed there. More than likely, after having these discussions, students will have new thoughts and wonderings to add to the class questioning board. They will also begin seeing how large of a trash problem we truly do have.

It is important to note that all students questions and comments are valid. While student questions will guide your instruction, it is perfectly fine to have some questions that are left unanswered at the end. There is absolutely no harm done in recording a question that you know you will not be able to answer over the course of your unit.

Continuing The Storyline

As the storyline continues, you will continue building upon students questions to discover more about our trash problem. In later lessons, students can dive deeper into their role by looking at the home-stage and connecting to the phenomenon at a more personal level. Of course, the questions that students generated will continue to drive your storyline.

In the educator’s guide of this Spark Storyline I have also given a little guidance when it comes to directions your students might take with their questioning. Your students may be most curious about landfills. Why are they so bad? What are the alternative options to landfills? In that case, you will probably want to delve deeper into those topics by exploring what happens to the waste in landfills and how the number of landfills has changed over the years.

Some may even wonder why this problem hasn’t been solved yet? In that case, you will probably spend some time discovering why recycling doesn’t always work, and how consumption behaviors play a role. Or they might begin making the connection between our trash problem and the Climate Change problem. Depending on the most burning questions they have, your storyline is going to take a different pathway.

Overall, Spark Storylines simply give you as the educator a potential plan by suggesting possible pathways into science content ideas. Teachers can still meet their content objectives, while students continue to guide the storyline. And, if you’re taking advantage of the Spark Subscription, you’ll find additional resources and support through grab-and-go explorations and other learning opportunities to connect science content to the phenomenon at hand.


Spark Subscription

If you’re ready to give Spark Storylines a try in your classroom, you’ll want to check out the Spark Subscription. You can create a truly student-owned science experience in your classroom and still have time to be a human. Your students can experience high-quality, phenomenon-based teaching, and you don’t have to burn out. Check it out for yourself!