My freshman class uses the Levine and Miller Biology Textbook from 2004, and there’s no sign that any money will be available anytime soon for a new textbook even though our state will likely be adopting the NGSS. That leaves me, like many other teachers, looking at a somewhat outdated textbook and finding a way to update a curriculum to align it with the new standards.
While many of us might become stressed by this task, I look at it as an opportunity to clean the attic. For a long time I’ve had the sense that the curriculum is too focused on trivialities, such as taxonomy of protozoa, and does not contain enough writing, thinking, and *doing* science. The adoption of new standards is a good time to do some curriculum housekeeping, a time to remove outdated topics and lessons, and reestablish overall course goals. As a department, we have been given professional development time to collaborate with other teachers to redesign the curriculum, but in these discussions it is clear that coming to a consensus on what is important to teach is going to be a challenge.
We’ve also been given access to a curriculum alignment tool, in our case, we are using Course Mason, which allows us to input units of study, define which standards the unit addresses,and upload assessments. The expectation is that this will be an ongoing process and not something we can accomplish in a few days. We are currently at the stage of unpacking the standards and looking at a single unit we cover in class to determine how it aligns to the new standards.
Phase 1: Unpacking the Standards
You would think this would be the easiest step, but I there’s so much information attached to each standard, that it quickly becomes overwhelming. To make it easier to digest, I retyped the Disciplinary Core Ideas for the NGSS site into a manageable, quick reference list. This document allows me to quickly check the list of standards without all the extra information or having to wade through the NGSS website. I currently have this list taped above my computer so that any time I start a new unit, I can quickly check it. I am not at this time trying to change the entire curriculum, and in fact, I’m going about my year much as I did last year. The difference is that I’m starting to tag and sort lessons I already use. My tools are the list and a stack of post-it notes.
The photo below shows my lovely work space in my classroom, the shades are usually closed due to a glare cast on the whiteboard, but why let the space go to waste. The back of the shade is an excellent place to store notes.
Phase 2: Prioritizing Course Standards
As we looked at each standard, we determined which standards would be classified as “Essential”, which would be “Important” and which would be “Supporting.” The idea is that in a single course, such as biology, there would be about 4 essential standards. These are defined as ”absolute essentials needed for students to be successful in the following grade or course. These MUST be incorporated, assessed and explicitly taught, and assessed many times in multiple contexts throughout many units during the year (course).”
We interpreted this to mean that the standards that are essential are those that come up over and over throughout the course. Our choices were based on an analysis of the current curriculum and how often these ideas were repeated throughout the year. The essential standards we chose (after much debate) were:
1. HS.LS1.1 Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the structure of DNA determines the structure of proteins which carry out the essential functions of life through systems of specialized cells.
2. HS.LS2.6 Evaluate the claims, evidence, and reasoning that the complex interactions in ecosystems maintain relatively consistent numbers and types of organisms in stable conditions, but changing conditions may result in a new ecosystem.
3. HS.LS2.7 Design, evaluate, and refine a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity.
4. HS.LS3.3 Apply concepts of statistics and probability to explain the variation and distribution of expressed traits in a population.
We then identified standards we felt were important, defined as “standards are extremely important because, although students can be successful in the following grade or course without complete mastery, they will likely struggle. These should be incorporated, assessed and explicitly taught and assessed in exactly one unit.”
Supporting standards were also identified. ” These standards are great enrichment if students have already mastered the other standards or if they acquire it within the context of a priority standard. These can be incorporated under priority standards, but it is not necessary to spend much time directly teaching or assessing them unless all students have mastered priority standards. These standards will never be assessed.
The entire process took several days, and we were slowed by heated discussions on whether a particular topic was important or supporting. There was a rough consensus in the end, with some points tabled for another day. We could have probably debated this points for weeks, but decided to just move on.
My experience in these collaborative groups exposes how many “sacred cows” we have as science teachers. Those of us who have taught the class for decades can be quite reticent to change anything. For instance, every year, we do the chapter on protists, which includes the anatomy of amoeba, paramecium, and euglena, and culminates in a lab where they observe these microorganisms. The chapter takes almost two weeks, but doesn’t seem to fit anywhere into the standards. We have to question whether to include this unit in next year’s curriculum, or remove it to free up time to cover a topic that isn’t addressed in detail, such as photosynthesis.
Phase 3: Identify and Name Units
During this phase, we opened up the big binders that go with biology and looked at how we would name our units. We often divide the curriculum into chapters, and that’s one way to identify a unit. For our current biology class, we named the units for the year long course as:
1) Science of Biology
2) Cell Biology
3) Evolution and Taxonomy
4) Invertebrate Anatomy
5) Vertebrate Anatomy
6) Mendelian Genetics
7) DNA and Biotechnology
The units on anatomy are slated for revision. One thing our entire group did agree on, is that too much time is spent on chapters that cover animal phyla. We have chapters on mollusks, annelids, worms, cnidarians, fish, reptiles, birds, mammals…etc. Each chapter can take over a week to cover with a lot of emphasis on taxonomy and characteristics. We felt that we could combine these chapters into one main unit on Comparative Anatomy. Nothing will be changed this year, and perhaps not even the following year, but at least we are starting to consider some changes to a curriculum we have used for almost a decade.
Phase 4 will include the assigning of standards to units. For this task, we are dividing into pairs to go through each of the units and determine which standards apply. This is a task that is currently in progress.
Overall, I think we have made some headway, and the standards seem less like a monster when you break them into small pieces. The NGSS site really did not do a great job with making the standards less intimidating. There is a lot of information there and help to work out how each standard can be taught. The thing that is really needed is time, time for teachers to work through each standard, time for teachers to collaborate, time to rewrite lessons.