Category Archives: STEM lesson planning

Do It Yourselves NGSS Planning Guide: Resources for Building an NGSS Aligned Curriculum

In an earlier post, I reviewed an excellent free resource from the National Research Council that addressed the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards and surveyed some of the stumbling blocks to a seamless and effective transition from earlier standards and curricula to the new curricula, largely teacher developed, that the NGSS requires. The Guide to Implementing the Next Generation Science Standards was released on January 8, 2015. (It’s free here.)

But we’re two years past the publication of that still helpful guide, and there are now many additional resources available for you and your colleagues to tap as you develop your curriculum maps, units, lessons, and activities in alignment with the NGSS.

A Team of Teachers Assembled to Work on NGSS Aligned Curriculum

So where to begin?

Top Go-To Sites

First I’d like to point you in the direction of several “top go-to sites” for anyone planning NGSS aligned lessons. There are three sites that I highly recommend as starting points for your work, sites where content is vetted and reliable. NSTA, the National Science Teachers Association, has been developing NGSS aligned resources and guidelines, and Next Generation Science, the parent organization for the NGSS, has a wealth of resources for you to use free of charge, including guidelines for and examples of model course maps. You’ll find lots of helpful resources at both of the first two sites. The third, Bozeman Science, offers a series of videos, one for each of the fifty-nine NGSS standards, provides a good overview review of the science by grade level bands in short, easily digested programs, each under 15 minutes. Once you know your content topics (the disciplinary core ideas), the crosscutting concepts and the science and engineering practices you want to focus on, watching these video can help jumpstart the actually planning by serving as a content refresher and by getting everyone on the planning team on the same page. Paul Anderson, the Bozeman, Montana, high school teacher who created this series, is a hero of mine, for providing, free of charge, such a helpful and reliable resource for his fellow teachers across the country.

For Your Resource Collection:

Laura Chomiak, our Golden Apple STEM Institute Program Coordinator, recommends two additional sites your team might find helpful. They are the Teaching Channel and STEM Teaching Tools.

Laura also recommends signing up for the monthly newsletter NGSS Now, which focuses on a different standard and phenomenon each month with how to incorporate them into your own classroom. Each month they also respond to a teacher’s question about NGSS implementation. You can sign up here.

Specific Guidelines for Getting the Job Done:

Next, I’d like to suggest several useful documents from the National Science Teachers Association to help with organizing the work itself. They describe how to organize a team  in planning an NGSS curriculum and how to design units and lessons aligned with the NGSS.

Key Concepts in NGSS Planning:

There are also some key strategies that have emerged since the release of the NGSS to help organize your thinking about the standards, so that you can efficiently and effectively implement them in ways that are genuinely engaging to students. Here are three of the top concepts, which, along with using a “backward design model” focused on the NGSS Performance Expectations, can help you and your team create exemplary units.

Golden Apple STEM Institute’s “Backward Design” Lesson Plan Template


  • What is bundling? “Bundles” are groups of standards arranged together to create the endpoints for units of instruction. Bundling is just one step in a curriculum development process; many other steps are required to create instructional materials designed for the NGSS.
  • Why bundle? Bundling is a helpful step in implementing standards because it helps students see connections between concepts and can foster more efficient use of instructional time.

For a webinar and other resources, including example bundles, check here.


  • What are phenomena? “Phenomena” are things that happen in the world, things that we seek to understand. A phenomenon becomes the starting point for building the science knowledge that helps us figure it out. There is a strong recommendation, consistent with the NGSS, that teachers should start their units with phenomena, not with science content knowledge or vocabulary. Let curiosity about the phenomenon drive student learning.
  • Qualities of a good phenomenon:
    o A puzzling observable event or process that
    o Generates student interest and questions and
    o Intersects with numerous PEs (Performance Expectations) which
    o Can be explored through science and engineering practices

There are some great example phenomena that can jumpstart your planning and a helpful short (3 min.) video on phenomena based instruction.


  • What are storylines? Storylines are statements that describe the context and rationale for the Performance Expectations (PEs) in each grade band and section. “A storyline is a coherent sequence of lessons, in which each step is driven by students’ questions that arise from their interactions with phenomena. A student’s goal should always be to explain a phenomenon or solve a problem. At each step, students make progress on the classroom’s questions through science and engineering practices, to figure out a piece of a science idea. Each piece they figure out adds to the developing explanation, model, or designed solution. Each step may also generate questions that lead to the next step in the storyline. Together, what students figure out helps explain the unit’s phenomena or solve the problems they have identified. A storyline provides a coherent path toward building disciplinary core idea and crosscutting concepts, piece by piece, anchored in students’ own questions.”  (Next Generation Storylines)

Example storylines are increasingly available online and by grade level, and you can find even find a PowerPoint on the topic of storylines to use with your team. Think of every unit as telling a story … perhaps a mystery to be solved by the clever detective work of your students.

Storylining is a Team Effort. Here Jason Crean Leads a Group of Teachers in Developing an NGSS Aligned Unit on Albinism.

Bundling, phenomena, and storylines all work together in creating engaging, coherent STEM units. When done well, they comprise a seamless whole.

Finally, I want to share some of the timeline/tasks you might find helpful as you organize your planning process, along with  some of the elements that should be in place to help you develop a successful end product.

1. Identify who will be on the planning team – 3-5 teachers per band (primary, early elementary, middle/upper elementary).
2. Create a timeline for the work and be generous.
3. Devote a period of time, for the group and individual team members, to becoming familiar with the task/process and with the NGSS, identifying a target unit for each team to develop. Review some of the resources listed above individually or as a team before beginning to work on your own plans.
4. Study together one or two existing plans to become familiar with what a successful unit looks like, which elements are included by the planners. You can find these on the “top go-to” sites.
5. Begin the actually planning work by identifying 1-2 target performance expectations, then backward design the unit so that students have the learning experiences necessary to successfully accomplish the learning expectations.
6. Finalize the unit plan and teach it.
7. Evaluate and tweak the plan for the following year and to inform the next plan. What worked? What didn’t?

Todd Katz Developing a Student Activity for the Albinism Unit

Necessary Elements
Adequate time: Find time for teachers to work together. Allot enough time to do a good job on the first plan, e.g., begin work in the spring; allow some summer planning time; execute the following school year.
Passion for the work: Assemble a team that genuinely wants to do the work (get the right people on the bus). Pick teaching colleagues who are curious and who are willing to take some initiative, working with the team as well as independently outside of the designated team meetings.
Incentives and recognition: Find a way to reward the team for making the commitment. Publish the results of their work so that other teachers can benefit, and we can all learn from each other. And always have food on hand.
Patience: Be very patient with the people, yourself and your team, and the process. This will take time. It is deeply intellectual work.

It’s clear from all of these concepts and the accompanying resources that we’ve entered a brand new age in science instruction. There is no more covering the content chapter by chapter in a linear fashion as in days of old. Instead teachers are called upon to be creative in designing instructional roadmaps for their students to construct their own understanding of the world around them. And central to that new role is the importance of team work.

Happy planning!

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

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Filed under backward design, bundling, NGSS, NSTA, phenomena based teaching, phenomenon based teaching, professional development, resources, STEM lesson planning, storyline, teacher resources, Uncategorized

Seventeen Resolutions for Teaching STEM in 2017

Earlier in the month I emailed some of the great teacher participants in the Golden Apple STEM Institute partnership schools, asking them to reflect on 2016 and share one New Year’s Resolution they have for STEM in 2017. What follows are a selection of those resolutions. Maybe they will spark some ideas about what you might want to do in your own STEM classroom in 2017.

Several teachers responded with very specific goals, often focusing on particular content areas they want to work on or, given that NGSS is still relatively new, on NGSS implementation itself.

“My new year’s resolution is that I want to continue to create new science units that align with the NGSS standards.” Keniesha Charleston, 2nd grade, Murray Elementary

Kenosha Charleston with Murray Elementary Colleague Arleta Ingram.

Keniesha Charleston (left) with Murray Elementary Colleague Arleta Ingram.

“I would like to do at least one Science and Math integrated lesson with my teaching partner a quarter that combines the skills we are teaching in Math and Science.“ Jill Ryan, 6th grade, Durkin Park Elementary

“One of my aspirations this year is to collaborate with the kindergarten teachers to enhance their unit on the study of butterflies. We will develop a unit where students will research the life cycle of a butterfly and apply that new knowledge to create a habitat that would best sustain the life of the butterfly through each stage of its life cycle.” Amanda Conway, STEM Coordinator, Pershing Elementary

“My resolution for next year is to try to come up with at least one new activity or performance assessment that will incorporate NGSS and STEM in my classroom and to keep the students engaged with inquiry and problem solving.” Mike Albro, 7th – 8th Science, Byrne Elementary

For some teachers, 2017 will offer opportunities for integrating the STEM subjects with the arts, thereby moving toward STEAM-based experiences for their students.

” For my New Year resolution, I would like to include more art projects into my curriculum, turning my STEM classroom into a STEAM classroom. As Einstein said, ’Imagination is more important than knowledge.’ I believe I can develop my students’ imaginations in a greater and more deliberate way by adding art to the projects they do in my class.” Joe Estela, Upper Grades Science, Nightingale Elementary

“My resolution for 2017 is all about my dream for an event/unit with my middle school students in February. It is called STEAMPunk (Science, Theatre, Entertainment, Arts, Music, Powerful, United, Next Generation, Kids). I developed a unit that will connect an experiment design project with a music, visual arts, or theatre piece that is created by the student to show off the new knowledge learned from the science experiment as well as new knowledge about that discipline of art. Please come if you are available on February 1, 2017, during the day of course. I am inviting everyone out to listen, watch, learn and enjoy art our middle schoolers create. This is an overwhelming feat that has taken collaboration and patience between students, art teachers, and myself. Give everything you can to a dream. Communicate it, plan it, reflect on it, and do the work in order to make sure it comes true.” Kelly Harris Preston, 8th grade Science, Brentano Elementary

Since the advent of the Next Generation Science Standards, Engineering is a new element in the science classroom, so it’s not surprising that a number of these great teachers will be focusing on incorporating more engineering activities into their instructional plans.

“For the New Year, I will focus more on engaging my students in the Engineering Design component of NGSS.” Anh Hoang, 2nd grade, Murray Language Academy

Ahn Hoanh of Murray Language Academy at the Intro to Inquiry Summer Program

Ahn Hoang of Murray Language Academy at the Intro to Inquiry Summer Program

“My STEM Resolution for 2017 is to align an engaging engineering lab for each of the Holidays that occur during the school calendar year. Combining festive themes with critical problem solving skills is a WIN-WIN! My classroom engineers ‘win’ because they think they are ‘getting out of class’ with our holiday themed project/activity. And I WIN, because I know they are being exposed to multiple engineering practices. Cara West, 6th grade, Durkin Park Elementary

Several teachers couldn’t limit themselves to just one STEM Resolution. In their lists, they reveal thoughtful, concrete plans, a blueprint for transforming their STEM classrooms in the coming year.

“I want to
• Continue to convince students they can be good in science and math by implementing interesting, rigorous, hands on STEM activities. (STEMscopes is aligned with NGSS).
• Take students to more real world workplaces to experience how STEM is integrated.
• Have students sign up for this weekly newsletter I just found called STEM Jobs.” (VERY COOL, BTW!)
Ain Muhammad, STEM Coordinator, Wentworth STEM Academy

“My New Year’s Resolutions are to

• Contact all Chicago Museums and have them support me as I create Inquiry-Based projects in my classrooms. (I did have a difficult time thinking about an inquiry-based project as I worked on the Food Chain and Food Webs. Having the support of the Museum of Science and Industry, Lincoln Park Zoo, and Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum will help me create an exciting curriculum for my students.)
• Increase parental involvement in and outside the classroom to promote the STEM curriculum. (I need parents to come into the classroom to provide adult supervision as students are actively engaged in their investigations. I also need them to continue fostering the children’s natural curiosity at home in the field of science and technology.)
• Start collecting my science materials for my future projects.
• Make ALL my students enjoy SCIENCE through the use of inquiry-based lessons. (I wish I had been taught Science using STEM and inquiry. It would have made a WORLD OF DIFFERENCE!!!!)” Maria Soto, 2nd grade, Washington Elementary

Teaching STEM is not always the easiest job in the world, particularly given the neglect of science education over the past decades and the compartmentalization of subjects begging to be integrated. But some teachers say with absolute determination, “Bring it on!”

“I will dedicate this new year to finding exciting and relevant ways to teach and engage my students, while always keeping an open mind to refining or restructuring what has already been taught.” Jake Pagan, 6th grade, Morrill Elementary

Morrill Elementary Sixth Grade Teacher, Jake Pagan

Jake Pagan, Morrill Elementary Sixth Grade Teacher

“For the new year, I would like to try to get my grade level team more excited about science by planning hands-on team assignments — maybe, even a grade level competition.” Stacy Gibson, 1st grade, Tonti Elementary

“This New Year I want to embrace the fact that students want to learn about things I am not supposed to teach in 3rd grade. As we immerse students into inquiry, some questions veer from my original objectives but are such high quality questions I want to find ways to support their investigations that may be ‘off topic.’ I know this requires increased flexibility but starting in January, I am up for the challenge!” Brittany Williams, 3rd grade, Brentano

Third Grade Teacher Brittany Williams, Brentano Elementary

Brittany Williams, Brentano Elementary Third Grade Teacher

In other words,

“Think STEM and Persevere!” Chanel Simpson, Drake Elementary

The final four resolutions are more global and reflect the powerful human connection between our lives and our teaching and the grit and optimism that it takes to thrive in today’s classrooms. They move outside an individual classroom, pointing to the wider world beyond and to the future.

“My STEM resolution for 2017 is to have it be the vehicle to make more students believe and know they can change the world with just their mind.” Letitia Dennis, 8th grade, Gillespie Technology Magnet School

“As I reflect on this year, I think I look forward to the growth in rich, engaging, and deep discussions my students will have in connection to STEM. I hope in this school year and in the years to come, I will be able to support and inspire my students to think, question, wonder, and hold meaningful discussions about science in ways that others may not have thought before.” Winnie Ho, STEM Coordinator, Everett Elementary

“My resolution is to emphasize how important it is to teach with a STEM focus. It not only serves as a means for approaching math and science content, but also presents the opportunity to introduce critical global challenges into the consciousness of future generations that will feel the impact at a much greater level than we do.” William Campillo, STEM Coordinator, Hernandez Math and Science Academy

“My New Year’s resolution for 2017 is to focus on what I love most, myself, my family, my friends, and of course, science! As an administrator, I am going to go back to my roots as a science teacher, coach, and coordinator to make an impact in our school. 2017 will be a GREAT YEAR!!!” Michelle Smith, Assistant Principal, Clissold Elementary

With all of this intelligence, creativity, and energy directed at improving STEM instruction just in this small sampling of classrooms, 2017 will indeed be a GREAT YEAR!!! … most especially for the students of these awesome teachers. I want to thank each of them for sharing their STEM resolutions.

And if you happen to be based in a Chicago Metro area school, why not consider exploring a partnership with Golden Apple STEM Institute as one of your resolutions for 2017?

Happy New Year!!

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

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Performance Expectations: The Key to Your NGSS Planning

Earlier this month, President Obama spoke to students at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C. It was a broad and encouraging talk, lauding the school for its 100% graduation rate, praising teachers for their dedication to their students’ learning, encouraging the students to go on to college, and recounting his administration’s accomplishments in education.

But it was also a cautionary tale. The President warned his student audience, “We live in a global economy. And when you graduate, you’re no longer going to be competing just with somebody here in D.C. for a great job. You’re competing with somebody on the other side of the world, in China or in India, because jobs can go wherever they want because of the Internet and because of technology. And the best jobs are going to go to the people who are the best educated — whether in India or China, or anywhere in the world.”

We once led the world in education, the President told them, but unfortunately other countries have caught up to us.

“It used to be that a high school job might be enough because you could go into a factory or even go into an office and just do some repetitive work, and if you were willing to work hard you could make a decent living. But the problem is repetitive work now is done by machines. And that’s just going to be more and more true. So in order for you to succeed in the marketplace, you’ve got to be able to think creatively; you’ve got to be able to work with a team; you’ve got to be able to work with a machine and figure out how to make it tailored for the specific requirements of your business and your job. All those things require some more sophisticated thinking than just sitting there and just doing the same thing over and over again. And that’s why you’ve got to have more than just a high school education.

In a nutshell, the President was encouraging the Banneker students to be creative, to learn how to work with a team, and to solve engineering problems, all things that require sophisticated thinking, all things that the Next Generation Science Standards promote and expect.

But the NGSS can be a daunting document, and many teachers are unpacking it on their own.

Where to begin?

I’d like to suggest that you begin with the Performance Expectations for your grade level band and the particular Disciplinary Core Strand of Life Science, Earth and Space Science, Physical Science, or Engineering, whichever your unit of instruction will focus on. A Performance Expectation, as defined by NGSS, is nothing other than “a set of expectations for what students should be able to do by the end of instruction (years or grade-bands). So, the performance expectations set the learning goals for students, but do not describe how students get there.” There are anywhere from two to five performance expectations for each grade level/disciplinary core idea band. Getting students there is the creative part of your work as an instructional designer, i.e. teacher. And, incidentally, this is exactly the approach that Finnish teachers take in their own planning. It requires essentially using a backward design process (you can find an example at the bottom of the page) originating in the goals, or performance expectations, those things we hope students will know and be able to do.

So let’s access those Disciplinary Core Strands here:


A Good Starting Point for Your NGSS Aligned Units

When you click on the Disciplinary Core Strand and grade level your unit will focus on, you are taken directly to the performance expectations for that grade and strand and find, not only the performance expectations, but suggestions for how to understand it … the different forms a model can take, for example … and vetted suggestions for how you can get your students to successfully achieve those performance expectations through hands-on inquiry-based activities.

Easy to access and free to use guide to Performance Expectations from NGSS.

Easy to access and free to use guide to Performance Expectations from NSTA.

Far too often, the textbooks teachers are working with are outdated and are not NGSS aligned. They contain way too much content for any given year. NGSS emphasizes the principle that “less is more,” so you have to significantly streamline to keep to the spirit of the NGSS. As one teacher I spoke with recently noted, “The textbook is no longer the curriculum.” Further, in most of these texts there is no story line threading the Science and Engineering Practices, the Crosscutting Concepts, and the Disciplinary Core Ideas into a comprehensive and engaging whole. So we have to cut ourselves free from those traditional but outdated maps, reserving them to supplement our own planning, and more independently chart a course for our students through these new waters.

And then, if you find that throughway, you get to see these beautiful results of your work in the rapt faces of your young scientists.

Ms. Soto's 2nd Grade Students Planned and Conducted an Investigation

Ms. Soto’s 2nd Grade Students Planned and Conducted an Investigation

This blog post is dedicated to two passionate and wonderful teachers with whom I’ve recently had the pleasure and privilege to work, Lisa Vaughn, 5th grade teacher at Pershing Elementary in Chicago, and Maria Soto, 2nd grade teacher at George Washington Elementary, also in Chicago. Thank you both for your inspriration.


You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here. We are currently seeking partner schools in the Chicagoland area for our 2017 cohort.

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Filed under George Washington Elementary in Chicago, NGSS, Performance Expectations, Pershing Elementary in Chicago, STEM lesson planning, teacher resources, Uncategorized