“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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