You Should Whiteboard With Your PLT

As you embark on the integration of NGSS into your classroom, you will face new challenges.  The complexity of the NGSS can be overwhelming, which is why I suggest that you start small.  For instance, create one activity that involves all three dimensions or increase your daily use of the science and engineering practices.  Eventually you will gain confidence with the NGSS and perhaps you will try to use an anchoring phenomenon or write a 3-dimensional test question.  Embracing the NGSS is a process and it takes time.  In terms of complexity, designing a 3-dimensional unit presents one of the greatest challenges for science teachers.   It seems overwhelming!  This post provides a starting point as you embark on this journey.  The strategies I suggest come from expert advice on curriculum writing and my own experiences in the classroom.  I hope you encourage members of your professional learning team (PLT) to join you in this design process.

I utilize a method of curriculum design outlined in the book, Understanding by Design, written by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe.  Wiggins and McTighe offer a framework for designing course units based on the theory of “backward design.”  This 3-step method involves delaying the planning of classroom activities until the goals have been clarified and the assessments defined.  In Stage 1, the teacher clarifies the learning outcomes.  In other words, by the end of the chapter, what do we hope our students will understand and be able to do?  In Stage 2, the teacher develops assessments that provide evidence as to whether or not students have achieved the desired learning.  Finally, in Stage 3, the teacher develops the classroom activities and resources that students will need to meet the learning results.

Wiggins and McTighe outlined the process of “backward design” long before the NGSS arrived in science education.  But note the importance of Stage 1 preparation.  Before planning activities, the teacher must fully understand what the child should know and be able to do.  In the past, science standards focused solely on content.  The NGSS involve 3-dimensional standards that include performance expectations.  Therefore, in Stage 1 of unit planning, teachers need to flesh out learning outcomes involving all three strands: Content the students should know (DCI), common science themes within this unit (CCC), and skill objectives (SEP).

AST bookRecently I discovered a practice that makes Stage 1 preparation easier for teachers.  In the spring of 2018, NGSS-guru Mark Windschitl, along with colleagues Jessica Thompson and Melissa Braaten, released their book Ambitious Science Teaching.  The book focuses on seven elements of rigorous and equitable instruction that can be used together to transform the way kids learn.  The entire book is amazing, but this post focuses on one activity from the book.  In Chapter 2, the authors emphasize the importance of planning for instruction.  They advise teachers to consider the “big ideas” in a unit.  Once these important science concepts are identified, the teacher can “construct or modify a series of lessons that help students build knowledge in coherent and cumulative ways” (19-20).  This philosophy reinforced my desire to start with the standards and taught me a practical way to determine which ideas were the most important to teach.

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The authors refer to this routine as the “whiteboard activity” and they advise teachers to do this work with their professional learning team (PLT).  This routine can be done on chalkboards, dry-erase boards, or butcher block paper.  Your team should have plenty of Post-it Notes handy.  The purpose of this activity is to determine the big ideas in the curriculum or standards that are related to the unit being planned.  There are essentially three steps to this activity:

  1. First, teachers begin by identifying the standards they must teach. Each standard for the unit should be written on a Post-it Note.  Place the standard(s) at the top of the whiteboard.
  2. Next, the teachers identify prominent ideas from the curriculum and writes those on Post-it Notes. Place the ideas on the board.
  3. Finally, identify which ideas have the most explanatory power. In other words, try to identify 2 or 3 big ideas that help explain most of the other ideas in the unit.  Place these big ideas on Post-it Notes in the center of the board.  The other curricular ideas (4 to 5) can be moved toward the bottom of the board.

I adapted the whiteboard activity to meet my own needs.  I liked the idea of putting the unit standards at the top of the board.  But rather than multiple standards, I based my unit planning on an NGSS performance expectation.  I placed my performance expectation, my major learning outcome for the unit, at the top of the board because I wanted it to drive my unit design.  (You may use more than 1 standard if you are coupling performance expectations within a unit.)  My first step is shown in the image below.white boarding 2Before your team moves on to the next steps, I want you to stop and unpack the standard.  Unpacking a performance expectation means breaking it down to determine what content and skills are necessary to successfully meet the standard.  Ask yourself:

  • Do you understand what the performance expectation really means?
  • Does your PLT understand all of the content and skills that students must have to successfully accomplish this performance expectation?

This conversation is incredibly important.  Unfortunately, administrators don’t often give teachers time to discuss the standards and yet we’re expected to design curriculum that allows students to achieve them.  Do not move on until your team unpacks the performance expectation.  You can accomplish this task by asking a team member to create two columns on the classroom board and label them “Content students must know” and “Skills students must have.”  Starting with column one, brainstorm all of the knowledge that must be gained to meet the performance expectation.  Move on to column two and brainstorm skills students will need.  All team members must be involved in this process!  Involving the entire PLT in the process guarantees that all teachers understand the standard and provide input into how it translates into learning outcomes.  An example of unpacking standard HS-PS1-3 is shown in the image.

unpacking standard

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Now we can move on to Step 2 and 3 of the whiteboard activity.  After unpacking the standard, teachers begin brainstorming prominent ideas in the unit.  From experience, the hardest part about this practice involves writing important ideas as complete sentences.  Teachers want to write down topics rather than relationships.  A phrase is not good enough!  For example, in the Chemical Reactions Unit, it’s easy to write down topics like “Balanced Equations” and “The Law of Conservation of Matter” on the Post-it Notes.  It’s much more challenging (and more meaningful) to write down a relationship like “When chemical equations are balanced, the total number of atoms of each element must be conserved.”  As you whiteboard with your PLT, even if the team initially writes down topics, challenge the teachers to express what’s important about this topic.  Make them re-write the Post-it Note in a complete sentence.  This practice adds depth to the learning outcomes and helps the team determine the 2-3 big ideas that bind together the smaller ideas in the unit.  In addition, this practice ensures that all team members know exactly what they should be emphasizing as they teach the curriculum.

Final comments:

  • This is a great activity for PLT’s on late start or early release days.  Identifying the big ideas in a unit takes at least 60-90 minutes but this practice helps teachers determine what topics should be taught in a unit and what topics should be tossed (due to lack of time or lack of importance).
  • I use this whiteboard activity in Stage 1 of designing a 3-dimensional unit.  Stage 2 of “backward design” involves designing the assessments that provide evidence of whether students have met the standards.   Stage 3 involves planning the instructional activities that will help students successfully achieve the standards.  More on these next two stages in later posts.
  • I’ve included two examples of completed whiteboards in the images below.  The first is from my own classroom.  The second was shared by a colleague, Sue Bober, and her PLT at Schaumburg High School.
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My final whiteboard for the Bonding and Intermolecular Forces unit.

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An example of a PLT’s final “whiteboard” for the Matter Unit.


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About Tanya Katovich

I am a proud mother to three beautiful girls and two dogs (one naughty, one nice). Currently serving as Vice-President on the NISE Board of Directors. Incredibly proud of winning the CICI Davidson Award in 2015. I love presenting, whether it's at NSTA conferences, workshops for teachers, ChemEd, or private consulting. I am National Board Certified in HS Chemistry,