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Teaching and Learning Through Storylines

Posted on 2020-03-26

Teaching and Learning Through Storylines

Teaching With Storylines

When I taught in my own middle school science classroom, I typically started a new science unit by naming the science topic for my class: “We are starting a new unit on ‘cells’ (or ‘chemical reactions’ or ‘erosion’)." Before we had even started, I had unknowingly alienated many of my students, who were discouraged by this disconnected academic language that they either felt they knew nothing about or they were not interested in.

Today’s NGSS science classroom looks very different. Instead of starting with a science topic, storylines start with an anchoring phenomenon that introduces a question or problem. Each step in a storyline unit is then driven by students’ questions that arise from the phenomenon. For example, in the OpenSciEd middle school units, students engage with anchoring phenomena such as watching a video in which a truck is playing loud music and the windows of a building across the parking lot are visibly shaking, or conducting an investigation about whether a new plastic cup keeps a drink colder. These phenomena result in numerous student questions that the class explores during the unit as they build rich understandings of three-dimensional science.

Students are highly engaged in the storylines because they can see how each investigation brings them closer to being able to explain the phenomenon or solve the problem. Repeatedly in the unit, the class returns to the phenomena and their own questions to consider: What have we done so far? What questions do we still have? What evidence do we need next? This type of navigation supports students in understanding not only what they are doing, but also why they are doing it.

Storylines can empower students by giving them a voice in their science learning. For teachers, it can be challenging to “let go” of traditional ways of teaching. But strong storyline instructional materials provide students with key learning experiences that help guide the class in their journey together. In this issue, guest authors share their experiences with teaching with storylines in which students’ own questions and ideas drive instruction to create a classroom community in which we figure out an authentic question or problem together.

Classroom Resources

  • Next Generation Science Storylines includes elementary, middle, and high school instructional materials. The website also includes some tools for creating and working with storylines. 
  • OpenSciEd Middle School Science Instructional Materials all use a storyline approach in their development. Currently 5 open source units are available, and a total of 18 will be released by Winter 2022.
  • OpenSciEd Professional Development Materials focus on anchoring phenomena and engaging students in figuring out the storyline so the idea development makes sense from the students’ perspective.
  • The Multiple Literacies in Project-based Learning (ML-PBL) aligns the NGSS with CCSS for ELA and mathematics with project-based learning. Students build and present artifacts to explain natural phenomenon or solve a problem and address the unit driving question.
  • Illinois Science Teacher Association storylines include a range of phenomenon-driven storyline curriculum for high school biology.

Kate McNeill
Next Gen Navigator Guest Editor

Katherine (Kate) McNeill is a professor of science education at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. A former middle school science teacher, she received her doctorate in science education from the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on how to support students with diverse backgrounds by engaging in science practices as they make sense of phenomena. McNeill has worked on projects involving designing and researching curriculum, assessments, professional development, and other resources to support students, teachers, and instructional leaders in scientific sensemaking. Currently, she is leading the development of both teacher and facilitator professional learning materials for OpenSciEd, which provides high-quality open-source NGSS-aligned instructional materials. Connect with McNeill through her website,, or on twitter @KateMcNeill6.


Teaching and Learning Through PBL-Informed Storylines

Storylines are essentially the learning trajectory of project-based learning (PBL), according to third-grade teacher Mary Modaff and Emily Miller, research associate and professional learning facilitator in schools across Wisconsin. Modaff and Miller share their experience working with PBL storylines, anticipating how to build from students’ interests and extending learning on a trajectory with students’ questions as its impetus. Read more.

Storylines Allow Students to Own Their Learning

Veteran science educators Scott Goldthorp and Lauren Pasanek discuss how using storylines with an intentional focus on equitable science instruction allows all students to build their identities as science learners. Read more.

Implementing Storylines: A Meaningful, Effective Way to Practice the NGSS

Jason Crean, Illinois science educator and leader of the NGSS Biology Storylining Working Group, discusses how students engaged in sensemaking through storylines focus on figuring out how the world works, not on learning facts, which increases students’ engagement and gives them the contextualized learning they need. Read more.

Note: The Next Gen Navigator is 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.

NGSS Professional Learning old Teaching Strategies Three-Dimensional Learning

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