How Writing an NGSS Lesson Can be a Trip to the Bahamas

Goodbye, cell parts. See ya later, Bernoulli. Farewell, pig dissection.

Hello, NGSS.  Would you believe me if I told you that the experience of figuring out how to implement Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in your classroom is like planning for a trip? Stick with me here. Just when I got into my rhythm with the old Biology and Physics favorites, our school became an early adopter of the Next Generation Science Standards. I joined a small team of teachers asked to write performance tasks (PT’s) that aligned with the new standards. At first the performance expectations looked so intimidating to me. So many  colors! Such tiny font! The page is interactive?! But as I took a deep dive into the standards I was assigned, I developed a rhythm and NGSS wasn’t so scary anymore, instead it was really exciting (teacher nerd confession). While NGSS is uncharted territory for many of us, there are some tools we can use to make the journey more manageable.  

Ready to make your first NGSS aligned lesson?  Here’s some tools I’ve used on my own journey.

Did Rick Steves Make a Travel Guide for NGSS Yet?

Almost all trips begin with a known destination. The first time we go somewhere new, many of us scour travel guides, make an itinerary and read reviews to find out everything we can before we go so that we are free to experience and enjoy our destination. The map you will use on your NGSS journey is the performance expectations page, and you’ll keep returning to it again and again to make sure you are sticking with your plan. You’ll need your map easily accessible, so before you write your lesson, google the standard. I like to keep the standards page open in a tab the whole time I am working. In particular, I pay attention to the Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI) in the orange box and the evidence statements (at the bottom of the page) for each standard.  Here’s a time saving tip:  You can just google the standard as is (example HS-LS1-4). The first search result will be the interactive version of the standard with common core English and Math standards at the bottom, and the second result will be the PDF version with the evidence statements at the bottom.

On both documents, in red, you’ll find something called Assessment Boundaries. These are like Yelp reviews, helping you to steer clear of assessing the wrong content and concepts.

Here’s a great example from (HS-LS1-4):

Use a model to illustrate the role of cellular division (mitosis) and differentiation in producing and
maintaining complex organisms. [Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include specific gene control mechanisms or rote memorization of the steps of mitosis.]

Does my bag fit in the overhead compartment?

Our destination for this trip has been chosen: we will vacation to the white sandy beaches of  HS-LS1-4.

For every lesson you create, you’ll need a suitcase full of tools, materials, concepts to teach, and prior knowledge. Since we did our research prior to the trip, we know that the students should not be assessed based on memorization of the stages of mitosis, but of course in order for students to understand cellular division they’ll have to know there are specific stages. This is an example of a concept for your suitcase.

A packing list helps me prepare for my trips (what teacher doesn’t love a good list?!). The Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI’s) provide a packing guide including all of the absolute necessities. The DCI’s will take up most of your suitcase. As you start to plan your lesson, look at the DCI’s and make notes and plan what you might teach (see below).


Think about what questions your students might have about the phenomena included. Can you excite the students with an inquiry lab?  Would this be a great writing prompt?  As you explore the DCI’s, think of ways to support students in formulating and asking questions based on the phenomena. This will include identifying key vocabulary words that your ELL students might need extra support with. It may also mean re-teaching concepts that students may have missed in previous years.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

The performance expectation, or what students will need to know after all of your instruction is complete is our final destination. To get there, you’ll use a variety of modes of “transportation”, or learning experiences for students. As a Los Angeles native, one of my favorite parts about traveling is using public transportation in other cities that have it all figured out (get it together LA!). Not only is it fun to take public transportation to get to know the city you’re visiting, but it’s also fun to keep your friends and family updated with fun status updates from abroad. Here’s an example of my travel plan (with Facebook status updates instead of learning targets) for HS-LS1-4:

Uber to the airport:  Lecture/activity about mitosis

Status Update:  “On our way!  Busy learning the basics of cellular division!”  

Airplane:  Prepare seedlings

Status Update:  “Working on a big lab prep today, I even got to wear gloves and goggles!”

Local Bus:  Lecture/Investigative activity and class discussion about stem cells and body systems

Status Update:  “Learning a lot and engaging with the locals in some great discussion!”

A common way to approach NGSS lesson planning is using the “5 E Model.”  The model begins with engagement and ends with evaluation. In this example, to engage my students I would have them read an article like this one from a website called thoughtco (side note:  What a find!  There is a lot of science goodness on here!) to get a big overview about cells. I would expect that students would have some prior knowledge and could engage with the concept by asking questions based on what they know and want to know more about. Next, they would explore. To facilitate exploration, I would have students watch this video as well as look at onion root slides I’ve set up under a microscope. At this point, I still will not have done any direct instruction, allowing space for students to form their own questions about what they are seeing. After students have engaged with content about cells more or less on their own, I will begin the explanation, or direct instruction, part of the lesson. My direct instruction will include a deeper dive into cellular division and will also hit topics like cancer, stem cells and meiosis. Direct instruction will be given over a number of class periods and would definitely include some group discussions and perhaps even a debate about stem cell research. I like to have students practice their speaking skills during the elaboration part of the 5 E lesson. I might have them in group discussions or with this lesson, asking them to think of a fun way to remember the stages of mitosis (and remember, not rote memorization of stages, but a describing of what happens during mitosis). Finally, we get to evaluation or assessment. But before we get there…     

Are we there yet?

Every teacher understands the power of effective formative assessment. Throughout our exciting journey, we should be checking to ensure we haven’t lost any of our students along the way (losing a kid on a field trip = teacher nightmare!). I really like the book Formative Assessment in a Brain Compatible Classroom by Marcia Tate. No matter how you choose to make sure your students know the material, be sure you have them all because for the performance expectation they’ll need all of the knowledge and practice you’ve given them in this unit so far. I would use exit tickets and think-pair share as formative assessments for this lesson. I was inspired to make the most of Think Pair Share through one of my very favorite teacher podcasts and blog, Cult of Pedagogy. Definitely take some time to give this a listen!  So worth it!   

In addition to formative assessments, you’ll need to be on the lookout for any misconceptions the students may have about the phenomena you are studying. It’s important to remember that students are engaging with science in the world around them every day and they may have some wrong ideas that need to be replaced. This  video from the Smithsonian Science Education Center explains how to deal with misconceptions with an animation. It’s a bit silly but the ideas are so important. In addition, if you click on “explore the research” you’ll find so many great resources for specific content related misconceptions and research about learning.   


After a few weeks of travel, you’ve arrived at your destination, HS-LS1-4. Before you can kick off your shoes and revel in the glory of a lesson well taught, you’ve got to assess the students. With NGSS, assessment is more than a multiple choice test with a few short answers. Assessments are often given as Performance Tasks. This is a topic I will write a different mega post on but for now, you can take a look at this assessment for an idea of how I would assess this particular performance expectation.

Each trip you take with NGSS will be unique and special and also difficult in its own way. You’ll arrive at your destination differently each time, but hopefully you’ll find you’re enjoying the journey.

Noodle Science Pin

Ready to Rock NGSS?

Here’s a great CER resource to get you started.

And here’s a science and engineering practices lesson that will get students thinking (and having fun!)

We’d love to hear from you!  Let us know if you have any questions in the comments.

May your teacher heart be full and happy,



3 thoughts on “How Writing an NGSS Lesson Can be a Trip to the Bahamas”

  1. Sarah,
    I actually really enjoyed this analogy. It makes total sense to me, someone struggling to remember what each part represents. I’m curious if you ever wrote that mega post on assessments?


    1. Hi Kristina! Wow, I’m so glad you enjoyed this! That makes me so happy! I’m definitely thinking about assessments more but I never got around to the post. Definitely check back though!


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