Posted in: Aha! Blog > PhD Science > Storylines > Did I ever tell you about the time?: Using storylines in the science classroom

The best piece of classroom management advice I ever got before I started teaching came from my mathematics methods professor, Jane Moore, at National Louis University in Chicago. “If they ever get out of control,” she advised me, “just tell them a story.” That gem of teaching wisdom saved me time and time again. When the energy in the room was too high, too low or too scattered, all I had to do was say, “Hey, have I told you the story about...,” and a calm attentiveness would settle over the room.

Storytelling is as old as human civilization itself. As Jag Bhalla (2013) explains, “Like our language instinct, a story drive—an inborn hunger for story hearing and story making—emerges untutored universally in healthy children.” When we as teachers tap into that instinct for storytelling, we get buy in from students on a wholly different level. In the science classroom in particular, storytelling serves not just as a management technique but also as a strong pedagogical tool to focus attention, engage students, both intellectually and emotionally, and create cohesion out of a subject that can otherwise come across as a jumble of loosely connected facts. When science teachers harness the power of storytelling in the classroom with storyline-based units of study, they can cast a wider net that obtains and holds the attention of more students and paves the way to a more cohesive understanding of scientific concepts, content, and practices.

I first learned about Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) based storyline instruction from Dr. Brian Reiser, Michael Novak, Jenn Lewin and their team at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. The science curriculum I had used previously centered around one-off investigations complete with step-by-step instructions. There was no student input, and, at times, the lesson plans instructed teachers to tell the students what scientific phenomenon to look for during an investigation, completely removing the elements of wonder and discovery. With storyline curricula, my notions of science instruction as, essentially, a series of somewhat connected investigations, were turned on their head and absolutely for the better. A storyline science unit starts with a phenomenon ranging from a butterfly fossil to a decomposing possum. Students get a chance to notice and wonder about the phenomenon and then let their curiosity guide them to develop questions. Those questions serve as the jumping off point for investigations which end up answering some questions and expose others. As students progress through the unit, they come closer and closer to understanding the phenomenon that got the ball rolling in the first place. Dr. Reiser’s team at Next Generation Science Storyline (2020) describes a storyline as, “a coherent sequence of lessons, in which each step is driven by students' questions that arise from their interactions with phenomena. A student's goal should always be to explain a phenomenon or solve a problem.” The phenomenon that begins the unit carries the students through their study and serves as a narrative touchstone for them to return to time and again as they pursue answers to their questions.

The first storyline science unit that I taught was a 4th grade unit created by Dr. Reiser’s team that centered around waves and touched upon earth systems. The unit was complete with an anchor phenomenon, tightly designed lesson plans, and materials. In addition, I was fortunate enough to be trained by Michael Novak, a senior member of Dr. Reiser’s team. On day one, I presented students with an image of a beach covered in unopened bags of Doritos. If you want to get the attention of a room full of 4th graders, this is one sure fire way to do it. We had a lengthy discussion about what they noticed and what they wondered. Stories filled the room – “Maybe there was a party, and nobody cleaned up. Maybe it was a publicity stunt for Doritos. Maybe someone left them there for some reason that we don’t know. I had their full attention.” We used the larger question of how in the world all those Doritos ended up on the beach to fuel our work together. We learned about Nor’easters and ruled out the possibility that a storm blew all those bags to shore. We wondered about waves and created model wave pools. We wondered about ocean currents and analyzed maps, as well as real time data about freight ships and how close they come to the shore. With every question asked and every investigation conducted, we shared a common goal; We needed to get to the bottom of this story about those Doritos bags.

By embedding the scientific learning within a storyline, I experienced a much higher level of engagement from my students than I had experienced with other science curricula. With a well-designed storyline unit, students feel that they are the ones in the driver’s seat, following the story where it goes and giving suggestions for investigations or further research. While the unit I taught was tightly planned out with resources, materials and print outs for students to record their thinking and learning, all of that planning happened behind the curtain. Many lessons would end with my asking my students, “So, what should we do next? Where should we go from here? What can we research or what investigation can we design?” I always knew where we were going in the next lesson and it seemed that the curriculum creators were deep in the mind of the average 9-year-old. The materials would set students up to wonder about something and the next lesson, we would take a closer look. I could start class by saying, “Yesterday, you all said that we should learn more about storms to see if a storm blew all of those chips to the shore. Well, I found this article, so let’s give it a read.” Sure, I had printed copies before I even started the unit knowing the question about storms would come up; but to my curious 4th graders, I was following their lead and doing whatever they told me to do in order to get us closer to solving the mystery.

When I was first exposed to storyline science units, I was taught about the part where we follow the students’ interests, but I hadn't yet been exposed to what goes into creating a tightly designed curriculum that accurately predicted where students' minds would go. In order to avoid teachers running to the hardware store every night to indulge the whims of their students with hope that their instruction aligns to standards, storyline units must be carefully and cohesively designed in order to prove effective. At the time of my training, in 2018, many of the units designed by Dr. Reiser and his team had been awarded the NGSS Design Badge for high quality NGSS design by Achieve, indicating that they were fully aligned to the NGSS. Creating a high-quality storyline science unit is no small undertaking but, luckily, the units created by Dr. Reiser’s team are available for free online for educators interested in learning more about storyline science.

Perhaps most importantly to me as an educator is that when we use narratives and storylines as a pedagogical tool in the science classroom, we cast a wider net, which gets more young people interested in and engaged with science. To be clear, this is not about teaching English language arts in the science classroom. Rather than teaching narrative structure, the goal is to leverage the power of stories to get more kids interested in science and scientific thinking. I recently heard an interview with Ken Jennings, the Jeopardy Greatest of All Time player. When asked about his memory and if he thought he had a particularly strong memory, he countered that there is nothing special about his memory. As he explains, “a person who thinks they have an unremarkable memory, a kid that can’t learn their times tables, they still know every word of every song on their favorite album. They know every player on the roster of their favorite team. The memory is working just fine when engaged [emphasis added]” (Levitt, 2020). For students who love science to begin with, the subject doesn’t require much selling, but for other students who see science as a jumble of facts that they can’t make sense of or hold onto, contextualizing the disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts, and science and engineering practices of the NGSS in a story can get them engaged. Students then carry with them an enduring understanding of scientific concepts and practicing that they can apply in new contexts.

My experience, and the experiences of other teachers in my district piloting storyline science units, demonstrated how using storylines in the science classroom increases student engagement and, as a result, student learning. When science class turns into a time to notice, wonder and gather the evidence that will lead to the next step in the story, teachers tap into students’ innate love of storytelling. I remember a moment during our Doritos unit when I projected a map that showed the mid-Atlantic coast where the bags had washed up on shore. The objective of the lesson was to have students use the scale on the map to interpret the distance between a cargo ship off the coast of North Carolina and the beach in Virginia where the Doritos were found. Before I could say a word, one of my most reluctant students was up at the board. She asked a peer for a ruler and, using the scale, determined that, yes, it was reasonable to consider that bags of Doritos had washed ashore after falling off a cargo ship. That was a truly magical moment and one that solidified, for me, the value of a tightly designed, cohesive science storyline and its ability to engage students and push learners to the next level.


Works Cited

Bhalla, J. (2013, May 8). It Is in Our Nature to Need Stories. Scientific American.

Levitt, S.D. (Host). (2020, October 2). Don’t neglect the thing that makes you weird. [Audio podcast]. Dubner Productions.

Next Generation Science Storylines. (2020, Nov 10). What are storylines?

Topics: Storylines