“It Gets Easier”: A Teacher’s Notes from the NGSS Trenches

It gets easier.

Even after two summers of writing NGSS-aligned curriculum units with the Michigan Science Teaching and Assessment Reform (MiSTAR) project, I found my first pilot experience teaching a MiSTAR NGSS-aligned unit last year to be exhausting. The unit was three-dimensional, 21st century challenge-based, student-driven, and full of phenomena and productive talk. It had street cred: written by teachers partnered with engineers and research scientists. It was real-life, current, local, and engaging. My kids were thriving, and I was excited. It was science teaching like you’ve always known it’s meant to be. And it was exhausting. Like first-year-teacher exhausting. How could I keep up this pace?

But after running through a couple of pilots back to back last year, I launched two different MiSTAR units simultaneously this past October: one in my sixth grade classes, and one in my eighth grade honors class. Two, at one time! And here it is, December. We’re wrapping up. And I haven’t just survived, but I’ve found that I can really see myself doing this long term, on a big scale. In fact, I can’t see myself ever going back. Indeed, it gets easier.

Teaching MiSTAR NGSS-aligned units the first time is very difficult. The content might be new – and now it includes engineering concepts. The modified 5E structure of the lessons might be new as well. Certainly using phenomena and storylines is new. And then there are driving question bubble maps, and unit summary tables, and a Gotta Have Checklist and embedded assessments and 3D summative assessments . . . and you feel like your head might explode … everything is 100 percent new, 100 percent of the time. It is exhausting. And then it gets easier.

In the last few weeks, it’s occurred to me that I’m not so exhausted. That it’s really working. My kids are learning. I’m seeing their growth in the embedded assessments, which are written in different contexts and seemed far too difficult, even unfair, at first. Even my at-risk kids, who underperform in other classes, are learning and growing. My kids can do this.

And my kids are engaged. They say things like, “Is it already time to go? This class went by fast!” And for me, time is flying too. But I’m not nearly as frazzled. I don’t forget major parts of the lesson any more, because I’ve internalized the pattern. I’ve learned to play up the phenomena to generate the lesson questions. Most of the time, I remember not to immediately affirm, but instead asking those probing questions as we uncover and share evidence. I’m learning to remind kids of the relationships between what we’re learning, and the 21st century problem we’re trying to solve—not just occasionally, but throughout the lessons.

I’m not a master yet, but I’m improving. After two or three times through, I have a good handle on systems models, and criteria and constraints, and claim, evidence, reasoning is making more sense. I’m finally understanding the value of driving question bubble maps and selling kids on the idea that they’re determining their own learning. About half of what I need to do every day is now automatic and intuitive. My kids are learning. And they like it.

It gets easier.

Hang in there, and NGSS will remind you of why you wanted to be a teacher in the first place. I promise.

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3 Responses to “It Gets Easier”: A Teacher’s Notes from the NGSS Trenches

  1. chris herald says:

    Dear Chris,
    This sounds like an amazing journey. Thank you for all your hard work to change your lessons to become NGSS aligned. It is not easy, but obviously you are a devoted teacher. The district, MI, and your students are lucky to have you.
    Keep on swimming!
    C. Herald in KS NSTA STEM Teacher Ambassador

  2. Alissa Szewczak says:

    What an undertaking! Congratulations to you not only on making it through, but doing so with resolve and optimism. My current district in western PA has an incredibly outdated science curriculum. The books are from the 70s and we don’t even have enough for all of the students. The supplementals aren’t relevant in today’s world and the content doesn’t align with our state standards. In a nutshell, our science curriculum needs a major overhaul. As a result, I find myself modifying just about everything to meet the needs of my students and making sure I’m on track with the standards. It’s been especially difficult being moved around to different grade levels often because I’m in a constant state of feeling like a first year teacher who hasn’t mastered anything yet, so how are my students supposed to feel that way? Your post is giving me hope for what’s to come!
    I do love the NGSS and the 5E Model. It gives the learners the responsibility of their learning and allows the teachers to step away from the lecture podium. We can be more of a facilitator. How wonderful that you are even seeing growth in your at risk students. This allows an even playing field for ALL students! How refreshing! There’s a whole world out there filled with jobs for scientists, engineers, problem solvers and critical thinkers. NGSS gives teachers a sort of road map to not only help us guide our students there, but get them there with confidence, competitiveness and perseverance to take on the real world.
    Job well done! I hope this is just the beginning for you and am interested in hearing more specifically about your students’ growth.

  3. Christy A Frank says:

    I am a new teacher who is hoping to be able to navigate NGSS well enough to provide a quality educational experience for my future students. It seems daunting but there is a lot on this site that I think will be helpful.

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