Unpacking NGSS #1: History of Earth

Note: Sept 29: This post is turning out to be more of a work in progress than I had anticipated. Score another point for the idea that blogging provides great opportunity for reflection. So far, my lens of looking at these topics has been affected by past experiences and I began to work on the next phase – processes – I wondered where convection lies as a driver for plate tectonics. It lies in the HS standards! My task is to rework things a bit but I am concerned over how many objectives are creeping into this unit.


Coming up on my docket is a geology-based unit and I would venture to think that I’m in a similar situation to most – trying to make sense of the NGSS standards and create units that are engaging for students. At the same time, I’m either missing the boat on my searches or there really isn’t much in e-land beyond what NextGen has published. With this post, I hope to begin a mini-series of unpacking standards into a way that I can use while potentially opening up an avenue for discourse on implementation (please comment, critique, question!)

What lens will I work through? As I moved over to a standards-based system, I’ve really enjoyed reading Jason Buell’s (Always Formative) well-thought out approach. In addition, my school reports on a 1 to 5 scale. Overall view:

1 = No evidence of learning
2 = Can do most of the Level 3 items with help.
3 = Base understanding. Key information.
4 = Connecting ideas. Using Level 3 items to making connections in order to link ideas and explain concepts.
5 = Going beyond what was directly taught in class

Students: I teach 7th grade students.

Focus Standards – History of Earth

  • MS-ESS1-4. Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence from rock strata for how the geologic time scale is used to organize Earth’s 4.6-billion-year-old history.
  • MS-ESS2-2. Construct an explanation based on evidence for how geoscience processes have changed Earth’s surface at varying time and spatial scales.
  • MS-ESS2-3. Analyze and interpret data on the distribution of fossils and rocks, continental shapes, and seafloor structures to provide evidence of the past plate motions.
  • MS-ESS3-1. Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence for how the uneven distributions of Earth’s mineral, energy, and groundwater resources are the result of past and current geoscience processes. (Update 9/29: This standard was added in as it appears to work well with the other three. The focus of these lies within constructing explanations based on evidence for why Earth has the features and resources in the locations it does…)

Associated Cross-Cutting Concepts

  • Time, space, and energy phenomena can be observed at various scales using models to study systems that are too large or too small. (MS-ESS1-4), (MS-ESS2-2)
  • Patterns in rates of change and other numerical relationships can provide information about natural systems. (MS-ESS2-3)
  • Cause and effect relationships may be used to predict phenomena in natural or designed systems. (MS-ESS3-1)
  • All human activity draws on natural resources and has both short and long-term consequences, positive as well as negative, for the health of people and the natural environment. (MS-ESS3-1)

Associated Science & Engineering Practices

  • Construct a scientific explanation based on valid and reliable evidence obtained from sources (including the students’ own experiments) and the assumption that theories and laws that describe the natural world operate today as they did in the past and will continue to do so in the future. (MS-ESS1-4), (MS-ESS2-2), (MS-ESS3-1)
  • Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for phenomena. (MS-ESS2-3)
  • Science findings are frequently revised and/or reinterpreted based on new evidence. (MS-ESS2-3)

Overall Topic Scale

Level 3: I can describe different types of evidence used by geologists to determine the age of the Earth and its changes throughout time.

Level 4: Using evidence, I can construct explanations on how the Earth’s surface has changed over time and how these changes affect the distribution of Earth’s resources.

Level 5: Given my explanations on the changes of Earth’s surfaces, I can analyze new scenarios to describe probable geologic actions and also predict possible changes to existing landforms.

Concepts along the way (Student “I can” statements”)

Level 3
a I can describe the difference between relative and absolute age.
b I can describe how relative age is judged in rock formations.
c I can describe how fossils provide clues to the Earth’s past.
d I can describe constructive and destructive processes that take place on the Earth’s surface.
e I can identify & diagram the three major divergent plate boundaries (divergent, convergent, transform).
f I can describe evidence used to support the theory of plate tectonics.
h I can describe key resources affected by Earth’s geoscience processes.
Level 4
a I can interpret the geologic time scale from rock strata
b I can compare and contrast diagrams of rock layers to explain differences in their formation.
c I can interpret geologic interactions that have shaped Earth’s history and will determine its future.
 d  Using evidence, I can construct a scientific explanation regarding the distribution of Earth’s mineral, energy and groundwater resources.
Level 5
a Using the law of superposition, I can explain real-life phenomena not explained in class.
b Using evidence of current geologic activity, I can propose and support future changes to landforms.

In the levels of understanding listed above, the practices and cross-cutting concepts are embedded and will come out as student engage with the material. A central theme of the course is making sense of evidence. I want my students to use maps to collect evidence, design and perform experiments to test their potential ideas and to make arguments based upon their evidence.

Thoughts & Request for Feedback?

Again, the purpose of this (and the following related posts) is to help me iron out thinking while also putting thoughts out to the online community for feedback. What are others doing? Where are the holes in my structure? What am I missing? Thanks!


Parent Letter – Heading into October Break

I hope you are all doing well and looking forward to the upcoming break with your students. It has been quite the busy week at school. Performances took place at night. An assembly was held to raise awareness regarding chemical dependency. Confucius’ birthday was celebrated and we are hoping to end the Friday with the Terry Fox run. At the same time, student-athletes have been practicing and playing games versus other schools in this area. I would say that many of us are definitely ready for a rest.

In science, I continued to be impressed with the participation and enthusiasm of students. On Tuesday and Wednesday, we worked to bring together evidence from a few days of experiments. We found:

  • Observations from the celery lab indicated that water travels upwards through “pipes” or “tubes” (also known as xylem) from the roots of a plant to the leaves.
  • The penny drop experiment showed us that water molecules hold on tight. We thought of them as “sticky” and wondered if this helps water move from the base to the top of a plant.
  • Bags placed around leaves gave us evidence that water leaves the plant (in the form of gas?) and goes into the atmosphere.

The next step was to try to make meaning of this evidence. Using large, group-size whiteboards, we diagrammed and listed evidence and questions. Towards the end, we did an activity using our bodies to bring the pieces of evidence together. Students linked arms and lined up. What happened next? Please talk to your student about this activity for the rest of the details. Ask them what evidence was collected. Focus on the specific details before wondering what the evidence means. This conversation will help them think like a scientist!

Finally, Thursday and Friday found us again collecting evidence. Our guiding questions was “What happens when leaves come in contact with a carbon source and a light?” Please ask your students what they did in this observational experiment. Then, allow them to wonder how they can take an observation, pose a question and investigate on something related to the observation.

It’s been a great week and I hope your students have lots of stories to share. As always, please let me know if you have any questions, comments or concerns. Feedback is always greatly appreciated. Again, have a wonderful holiday!

Focus on Evidence (investigating water transport in plants)

We want to explain, solve problems, provide solutions. I see it in my two crazy toddlers. With their different ways of thinking, few problems are outside of their reach to solve. Together, they have learned to untie knots, unstrap buckles, remove latches, climb to amazing heights and more just so they can trash their room instead of going to sleep. By the time a student walks into my Grade 7 class, they have been conditioned to “answer the problem” and “provide a solution”.

What about the evidence? Those beautiful details collected from observation seemed to be noted in passing, processed somewhere in their minds, and rapidly discarded. I am trying to ask my students to slow down, pay attention to their observations and collect data. Moving back and forth between the desire for students to design investigations to the need for serious skill building in working like a scientist, we’ve been doing a series of observational-type labs.


My goal is for students to collect data related to movement of material through a plant. (We’re tackling MS-LS1-6. -Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence for the role of photosynthesis in the cycling of matter and flow of energy into and out of organisms – so please let me know if you have any additional ideas.) Water transport in plants amazes me and I am hoping for my students to collect evidence to begin putting forth a simplistic description of the process moving water up a xylem tube. The focus is on evidence and I know they are sick of me asking what evidence will you collect? What is your evidence? Describe your evidence. Wow! This is difficult.

As a group, my students consistently skip over describing evidence and begin talking about how it can be used to answer a question. I pull them back. Describe your evidence. What type of data are you collecting? They respond, “The red at the top of the celery means that…” Again, slow down describe what you are seeing. Pull apart the celery. Collect evidence.

Science Teacher Doyle often writes on the need for students to work on the processes of our world around them and to make strong connections to our own outside world. Evidence must be collected and students need to construct their meaning from their own observations, not heaps of text. At what point is their enough evidence to then make a leap into the abstract? We pulled apart celery as its xylem tubes filled with red food coloring and were amazed at how much quicker the stalks inside the bunch pulled up the liquid than the older stalks on the outside.


We slowly dropped different liquids on the top of a coin. Students saw a fat bubble form when dropping water and watched vinegar and soapy water slide away. We placed bags around branches on trees in the school yard and saw on a sunny day how quickly water vapor filled them up. Evidence was collected. We worked hard to only describe the evidence and then to put together pieces of the puzzle.

Students drew. Their evidence led them to a common “wall” – water goes up the plant and but now what? Where does the process start? Is there a push or a pull? The sun was brought in. “It must take part in this dance,” the students exclaimed. I think we reached the limit or I was simply not patient enough or did not have the right guiding questions. 







(A few more student examples are located at the bottom of the post)

In the end, we made a line from the door to the classroom and linked arms. I asked which experience collected evidence that as a bunch of water molecules we should have linked arms? “Ooh, the drops on a penny!” Why, explain your evidence. The line was broken into segments all the way down to a someone in the root zone. We laughed at the idea of being water molecules stuck in a xylem tube but then wondered about the starting of the process. Is there a push or a pull? “A push from the roots,” volunteered one. We had the last student in the root pull with all of his might. Nothing happened to the rest of the line. Hmmm….any other possibilities? “The other end could pull.” Make way for silly, middle school exaggeration as a tiny pull led to students falling all over themselves. Point made.

What evidence do we have that water comes out of a leaf? They again made the connection to our observations and slowly teased out evaporation. A leap was made by many students and they appeared to nod and smile of understanding. But, we’re not there. Next steps?

This process took time. Collecting evidence takes time, but the hard work lies in pulling that evidence together. I think my students are starting to appreciate data in a new light and I hear them beginning to refer to specific data.  I find myself struggling to find the balance between doing experimentation (they get excited about this) and making meaning of what we’ve done (bring on the crickets). Large whiteboards and group processing helps a lot but I’m looking for more ideas. Please share!

IMG_0320 IMG_0322 IMG_0323

Exit Ticket: pre-Lab

I’m trying to get feedback from students on something we did every class. Short. Quick. Specific. Every time we go to the doctor, our vitals are taken, right? I guess I better get the pulse each time they come to see me. We’re still on a general cycle that rotates between investigate and discuss/prep for the next activity. At the end of the class, students read a procedure for the upcoming observational lab. Here’s the exit ticket:

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What does/would yours look like?

Writing: What’s the Purpose? What’s the Structure?

Writing can be hard. For many students, the act of writing is a challenge and not top on their list of what they want to be doing in science. Experiment. Build. Innovate. Those words often come to mind before “write”. Yet, students need to learn to write and if not now, when? If not writing about science in science, where? 

Writing in science is an area of growth for me and I appreciate any and all feedback, suggestions and ideas. I realize that the clearer I am on my purpose and understanding of what I want students to do, the more chance of success students will have. As we continue to work on writing up evidence to support the claim that Yeast is a Living Organism, I went back and forth over what students should be provided with as a structure or scaffold. As my teaching goal was not organization, I decided to provide students with the organization of this writing piece.

electron microscope budding yeast 

(Image courtesy of National Geographic)

The image above shows budding yeast cells. My class is beginning to think about the structure of living organisms and how cells function. I want their minds to be focused on writing about evidence. I wonder how well they can connect evidence to discussed characteristics of life. Cut them a break. If we’re not specifically working on how to structure the writing piece, then give it them! Several students in each class are already there. They naturally think in an organized way or have spent time writing in a formal manner. For many others, the opening challenge of how to structure their writing is a huge obstacle. I hope that by providing them with a smooth path of how to show their understanding, they can spend more time explaining evidence. Other thoughts?


Writing like a Scientist

The wheels on the Yeast is a living organism bus are almost wearing off. My 7th graders have performed an experiment, observed a demonstration, designed an investigation and worked with microscopes to collect evidence to support the claim about yeast. Beginning with characteristics of life, we’ve followed the pattern of experimentation for a class balanced with processing of information for a class. It’s been an engaging time and I’ve been impressed with the improvement in many students – and the year has just begun!

So far, feedback has revolved around classroom conversations. (Yep, I will work on collecting more responses from individual students as the year progresses.) To wrap up this series, I want my students to write up their evidence to support the claim. My thinking is to not focus on the structure of a traditional scientific lab report but to spend time on the processing of information and how students write up their ideas.

This year, I am super fortunate to work with a resourceful ESOL teacher who is helping me be more deliberate in the teaching of science writing. So helpful that he came in and worked with students in a mini-lesson. How do we write as a scientist?

Using the following excerpt from their text book, the students were asked to begin noticing features of scientific writing. Slowly, the page became more and more annotated as students provided examples of verb tense, linking phrases, active vs passive voice. The term “modal verb” was a new one for them but the idea of structure to explain things not fully certain was understood.

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They brought up the need for expanding vocabulary and using specific words. After the short mini-lesson, students began compiling all of their evidence and thoughts from the various activities into one place. They’re working on drafts to support the claim that Yeast is a living organism.

The need to be deliberate and explicit in my teaching becomes more and more apparent as the years go by. If the goal is for students to write a strong report, then they need to be provided with the support and scaffolding to improve their writing. We’ll come back to these skills throughout the year as I hope my students begin writing more like a scientist. I’m curious – what are other folks doing to help build writing skills in science?