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,



Academic Discourse in the NGSS Classroom

NGSS is arriving in classrooms all over the country, and my science teacher friends are left with a lot of questions as they head into next year: What does effective NGSS implementation look like?  Are my students ready for the rigor?  How do I support my English Language Learners to meet these demands?

I took some time to research Science and Language for English Language Learners in Relation to Next Generation Science Standards with Implications for Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics (let me fall down the internet rabbit hole so that you don’t have to!), because like anything that impacts my students, I wanted to know what was coming. I walked away surprisingly hopeful that NGSS will be good for English Language Learners.  

Here’s why:

  • All science is language-intense. Every content area has its own discourse structures, domain-specific vocabulary, and text structure.  Because of this, all science teachers are language teachers.  All students need to be explicitly taught to use these features in the science classroom.  Giving consideration to this while preparing means that teachers can be intentional about showing students how use to the “language of science.”  And learning how to speak the “language of science” means EL students are also learning how to speak English.  Let’s think about what this means for teaching vocabulary:
  • Examples of domain-specific vocabulary (or Tier III vocabulary) include words such as microscope, mitosis, and cell.  These words require concept development, such as visual representations, diagramming to understand relationships between words, and lots of examples.  Tip for planning: Ask yourself, “what is the domain specific vocabulary that students need to know and understand in order to demonstrate understanding of this Learning Objective?” and plan out how you can be developing students’ conceptual understanding of these words.  
  • Once you have identified these words, think about the general academic vocabulary students will encounter in your lesson, such as interpret, observe, and characterize.  These words also need to be explicitly taught, but can be taught as you move through the lesson.  By looking at the morphology, synonyms, and antonyms of these words, students will be better able to negotiate the use of these words not only for the purposes of science, but in other academic settings.  Tip for planning: run your text through Achieve the Core to get a sense of the academic words that your students will encounter in your lesson, specific to grade level.
  •  The Scientific and Engineering Practices promote student interaction.  One of the most important aspects of how humans acquire language is that there needs to be a purpose for communication. Science teachers give this communication purpose when they design learning activities for students that ask them to do tasks such as Engage in Argument from Evidence and Obtain, Evaluate, and Communicate Information.  Talking and writing about science promotes language learning across the board because students are interacting with content in meaningful ways.  For example, when students are asked to Engage in an Argument about the use of Stem Cells in Research, they will likely be asked to complete research, speak with classmates, and share their findings with evidence to support their argument.  Along the way, they will be using vocabulary and discourse structures specific to this task, but for a purpose.  The purpose of communication is to make meaning, and so without the reason for communicating in the first place, students will not internalize their newly acquired vocabulary. Tip for Planning: Support student interaction with sentence frames using the discourse structures of science.  Click HERE for a free resource.


  • A focus on creating models allows students to show what they know while they are still acquiring vocabulary.  One of the keys to differentiating for English Language Learners is to make sure that we give them an opportunity to demonstrate understanding of content separate from language.  Just because a student hasn’t fully acquired all of the vocabulary to explain mitosis verbally doesn’t mean that they don’t understand the concept.  Asking students to create models allows them to demonstrate their understanding without a lot of words.  For example, if you ask students to create a model of how the nervous system interacts with another body system, students can build language by drawing the model and the arrows, and using sentence frames and a vocabulary bank to present it to the teacher and the class.  Intentional grouping would also be of great benefit to an EL student durning an assessment like this; speaking with a proficient student would support them in formulating their explanation. It is still a cognitively demanding task that scaffolds their use of language.  Tip for Planning: Ask yourself how to support students in demonstrating understanding of complex concepts in ways that are appropriate for their proficiency level.  


Obviously, this does not mean that a newcomer student that arrives in a secondary science classroom will be a proficient English speaker by Winter Break.  The suggestions provided are not a comprehensive strategy to differentiate for all levels of English proficiency.  But hopefully some of these points put NGSS into a different perspective and illuminate some of the possibilities for supporting all students in your own classroom. English Language Learners will greatly benefit from rigor that is coupled with strategic use and support of scientific language in the classroom.  This is the kind of environment where they will most thrive and their language skills will see tremendous growth.  


What questions do you have about serving EL students in your science classroom?

Take me to resources that help my students Think, Speak, and Write like a scientist!

An Instructional Coach’s Thoughts on Graduation

It goes without saying: Graduation is one of the times when all teacher hearts are happy.  Even the teacher down the hall that spent the entire year griping about students shirts being untucked or kids never doing their homework seems to find a reason to smile during graduation.  When you look up at the stage, even the administrator with her head in her laptop the whole year is looking students in the eye and smiling ear to ear as she hands out diplomas.  When you look to your left, you see that the struggling first-year teacher has a tear rolling down her cheek as she finds solace watching her most challenging student cross the stage.  You turn around and hear the bull horns blowing, the hands clapping, and you feel the pride swell from all of the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandmas and grandpas of the graduates.  

Well, that’s what I experienced a few weeks ago.  Some of you might be saying, “What about the students?  Why aren’t you telling me about all of their accomplishments, all of their inspirational stories?”  Yes, of course the students are the stars, but since I’ve become an Instructional Coach, I’ve started to really notice all the behind the scenes.  I’m no longer feeling the burn in my calves from days of teaching and I’m no longer knee-deep in grading essays.  I’m just outside of it.  Now, I see the blood, sweat, and tears of my school community from a different angle.  

So, what has this new point of view taught me?  It’s taught me something I already knew, but that is easy to forget: every teacher heart can be filled.  Even when a teacher has a bad day and feels like giving up, that same teacher will have moments of joy and pride that no other profession can understand.  It’s taught me that in order to survive in education, we all must hold on to little bits of that giddy graduation feeling throughout the year.  And in order to transform education, we must remind each other of that graduation feeling when times get hard.  We must not forget to look at the reason why we’ve chosen the most difficult career.  We must remember what makes our teacher hearts happy.  

What is your Happy Teacher Heart moment that will keep you going?