Scaffolding the Crosscutting Concepts: Graphic Organizers in Action in the Middle School Classroom

The crosscutting concepts have great potential to help students connect their learning across grade levels and science disciplines, but they can easily become the forgotten “third dimension.” Last May, we wrote about developing a set of graphic organizers that help make the crosscutting concepts explicit for students and scaffold their thinking as students apply the crosscutting concepts to scientific phenomena. At the recent NSTA National Conference in Atlanta, we were excited to share the experiences of middle school teachers who piloted the graphic organizers with their students. You can find our presentation materials on the Conferences section of NSTA’s website (search any of our last names), or click here. In the following paragraphs, each teacher shares a brief reflection on her experience.

Sixth-Grade Earth Science—Ducks Overboard (Systems and System Models) by Jessica Caldwell.

6th grade imageI have been teaching science for seven years in rural northeast Georgia, which probably has more chickens than people. For my lesson about ocean currents, I incorporated the rubber ducks overboard phenomenon. In 1992, thousands of ducks went overboard in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and have been washing ashore worldwide. Students explored this by reading made-up text messages from around the world to get the longitude and latitude, then plotting where the ducks were found.

Next, we read about ocean currents and made an overlay of the currents on a transparency. This made it easy for students to see if the currents had affected where the ducks travelled. To include some crosscutting-concepts as the lesson concluded, we incorporated a graphic organizer about systems and system models. The system explored was the ocean system. With this organizer, students were able to make connections between the transfer of energy and how it made currents possible.

Using the graphic organizer really helped make this accessible for my students, not just a tool for the teacher. We continue to use these graphic organizers to pinpoint crosscutting concepts and synthesize our learning. I have also seen a change in my students writing of CER responses because they have solidified their ideas in the graphic organizer.


Seventh-Grade Life Science—The Great Oyster Mystery (Stability and Change) by Katrina Holt

7th grade imageThe Great Oyster Mystery phenomenon required students to explore how an ecosystem’s balance can be affected by abiotic and biotic factors. Students investigated the phenomenon of oyster decline in Texas estuaries due to a change in salinity. They examined various graphs (oyster population, salinity of water, and precipitation) to determine what affected the stability of the estuary ecosystem. The crosscutting concept that relates most to this topic is stability and change.

The graphic organizers allow the students to “see” the crosscutting concept and how it applies to the phenomenon. Not only does using the graphic organizer assist the teacher in explicitly teaching the crosscutting concepts, it also helps the students understand the phenomenon better. Since the students were required to write a CER explaining how abiotic factors and biotic factors affect the ecosystem’s balance, the graphic organizer also worked as a pre-writing activity that allowed them to organize the important evidence they found.

Eighth-Grade Physical Science—Food Coloring Frenzy (Cause and Effect) by Meganne Skinner

8th grade imageIn the eighth-grade content, we used the cause-and-effect graphic organizer to show how temperature affects particle movement. Students were able to see that something was happening “under the surface” of the water, ice water, and boiling water that helped determine how quickly food coloring was dispersed throughout each beaker of water. From this activity and the use of the graphic organizer, I was able to grasp student thinking and reasoning about the idea of “cause and effect” and how that related to particle motion. We did this together as a class the first time, and by the time we returned to the graphic organizer later in the year, they understood how to think more deeply about the content and the crosscutting concepts!

Have you tried any of the graphic organizers in your classroom?

We heard from a couple of our session participants that they had used the graphic organizers in their classrooms or in professional learning. If you have tried our graphic organizers, we would love to hear your feedback. If you have used other strategies to support your students in understanding and using the crosscutting concepts, we would love to hear about those, too.  Please comment on this blog post with your ideas and insights.


  • Amy Peacock is K–8 Science Curriculum Coordinator for the Clarke County School District in Athens, Georgia.
  • Jeremy Peacock is the Director of 6–12 Science at Northeast Georgia Regional Education Service Agency in Winterville, Georgia.
  • Jessica Caldwell teaches sixth-grade Earth science at Oglethorpe County Middle School in Crawford, Georgia.
  • Katrina Holt teaches seventh-grade life science at Commerce Middle School in Commerce, Georgia
  • Meganne Skinner teaches eighth-grade physical science at Hilsman Middle School in Athens, Georgia.

This article was featured in the April 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 read more from the April issue. Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

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2 Responses to Scaffolding the Crosscutting Concepts: Graphic Organizers in Action in the Middle School Classroom

  1. Kristin Brindle says:

    I would love to know if anyone has created crosscutting concept graphic organizers for use at the elementary level. I believe the earlier we incorporate these concepts and children become familiar with organizing their thinking around them , the more natural this investigative process will become.

  2. Amelia Walsh says:

    Both lessons sound so engaging. I imagine students were immediately sucked in to trying to understand how ducks ended up all over the world. I also love the amount of math included in it as they plot points where the ducks were found. The second lesson example also sounds like something students would be interested in while addressing a real world issue in a meaningful way.
    The graphic organizers sound very effective and I would be interested in a version at an Elementary level. I have already tried to start implementing these crosscutting concepts along with the CER model of responding and would love any resources I can get to strengthen that in my classroom.

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