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PLNs + High-Quality Units = NGSS Success

By David Grossman

Posted on 2019-12-19

In June 2013, Kentucky’s Board of Education officially adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which not only set a new course for science education in Kentucky, but also started me on a new professional journey. As the newly-minted science department lead teacher at my middle school, it fell to me to attend regional rollout meetings, bring the information back to my district, and lead them through NGSS implementation. I discovered that transformative task could only be accomplished with the right ingredients: professional learning networks (PLNs) and an example of high-quality NGSS design.  

At that time, I was already developing the first ingredients: two PLNs that would serve me through the implementation and beyond.

The first PLN I developed centered on my school science department: the team I would lead through NGSS implementation. We were all at different places in our science teaching careers, but we had to unite to plan the implementation of the NGSS in our classrooms.

The second PLN I developed was an informal online group of science teacheDavid rs and experts whose knowledge of NGSS exceeded mine. These were the people, in addition to the Science Peer Review Panel, who would spur my growth in understanding and implementing the NGSS. It was this second PLN that led me to a professional learning session on the EQuIP Rubric for Science, a tool to determine how well materials are designed for the NGSS, and to the Next Generation Science Storylines project.

At the EQuIP Rubric training, I was introduced to the idea of centering units around phenomena for students to figure out, and to the idea of building a coherent storyline around the phenomenon.

Following this training, the power of my school PLN really blossomed. The other seventh-grade science teacher, Katie, and I worked to overhaul the seventh-grade curriculum to align it to the NGSS. It was still early in the life of the NGSS, and most of us were grappling with including the Science and Engineering Practices and shifting content among grade levels. Figuring out phenomena was not yet at the forefront of the district’s curriculum process, but Katie and I accomplished more together than we could have alone. My preferred teaching style complemented hers, and we both were determined that our students would succeed with the NGSS. We were making great progress.

While the curriculum we designed may have addressed the progressions in the NGSS, we weren’t yet reaching the full intent of the standards. We realized the additional ingredient we really needed for the NGSS vision to became real: to try out an example of a high-quality unit designed for the NGSS in our classrooms.

We first used version 1.0 of the Next Gen Storyline unit How Can We Sense So Many Different Sounds From a Distance?, which had been designated as a quality work in progress by some of my colleagues on the Science Peer Review Panel. It was this unit that helped us realize what it meant to lead with an engaging phenomenon that would drive student learning. In this unit, students discover how sound travels from a record player to the listener by using a sewing needle and a paper cone to produce sound from vinyl records and ultimately realizing that vibrations produce sounds and that the characteristics of the vibrations determine what kinds of sounds are produced. Version 1.0 of this unit was little more than a skeleton outline that briefly described each lesson, so Katie and I had a great deal of work to do to upgrade it, and we struggled—a lot. After some revision from the developers, though, Version 2.1 of this unit earned the NGSS Design Badge.

Our experience teaching with this unit crystalized in our minds the NGSS vision. We couldn’t return to a traditional teach-lab-test method of science instruction. We began to creatively embed phenomena in our units so that students investigating phenomena would drive the learning. Since I collaborated with Katie, I have changed grades and schools, but I have always tried to keep the NGSS vision front and center: that vision that was shared through PLNs, paired with high-quality units that scored well on the EQuIP Rubric.

In my transformation to an NGSS science teacher, the key ingredients were a PLN of experts to push me, a PLN of colleagues to productively struggle with me, and an example of high-quality NGSS design.

Please comment below! What kind of awesome can you cook up with these three ingredients in your practice?

David Grossman is a National Board–certified science teacher currently teaching high school biology in Kentucky. This is his 19th year in public education. For much of his career, he taught middle school science. He has supported the NGSS rollout at the school, local, and state level. He participates in the Center for Disease Control’s Science Ambassadors program, which is helping him introduce public health issues in his classroom. Grossman is a former member of Achieve’s Science Peer Review Panel, and he still works with Achieve to evaluate lessons and units using the EQuIP Rubric for Science. Connect with him on Twitter at @tkSciGuy.


Note: This article is featured in the December 2019 issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

Instructional Materials NGSS Phenomena Professional Learning old Middle School

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