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 the community at the Science Teacher Tribe to access my Middle School Life Science Scope & Sequence (Topic Model).  Simply click here and then join as a limited member (free!) to find this resource and many others!