Topics: Storylines

Did I ever tell you about the time?: Using storylines in the science classroom

Genie Albina

by Genie Albina

November 12, 2021
Did I ever tell you about the time?: Using storylines in the science classroom

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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 has 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 hunger 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, to intellectually and emotionally engage students, and to 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 captures and holds the attention of more students and paves the way to a more cohesive understanding of scientific concepts, content, and practices.

Storylines in Science

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 on one-off investigations with step-by-step instructions. It didn’t invite student input, and at times, the lesson plans had teachers 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 upside down and changed absolutely for the better. A storyline science unit starts with a phenomenon—anything 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 eventually answer 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.


Storyline in Action

The first storyline science unit that I taught was a Grade 4 unit created by Dr. Reiser’s team that was about waves and also touched on Earth systems. The unit included 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 Grade 4 students, this is one surefire 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.

Why Storylines?

Because Dr. Reiser’s curriculum embedded the scientific learning in a storyline, it kept my students much more engaged than other science curricula had. 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 and provided resources, materials, and printouts for students to record their thinking and learning, all that planning was invisible to the students. I ended many lessons 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 nine-year-old. The materials would set students up to wonder about something, and in 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 Grade 4 students, it appeared that I was following their lead and doing whatever they told me to do to get us closer to solving the mystery.

When I was first exposed to storyline science units, I learned about following the students’ interests, but I had no idea what goes into creating a tightly designed curriculum that accurately predicts where students’ minds will go. So that teachers don’t have to run to the hardware store every night to indulge the whims of their students in hopes of aligning instruction with standards, storyline units must be carefully and cohesively designed. At the time of my training, in 2018, Achieve had awarded many of the units that Dr. Reiser and his team designed the NGSS Design Badge for high-quality NGSS design, indicating that they were fully aligned with the NGSS. Creating a high-quality storyline science unit is no small undertaking, but luckily, the units Dr. Reiser’s team created are available for free online for educators interested in learning more about storyline science.

Perhaps most important to me as an educator is that when we use narratives and storylines as a pedagogical tool in the science classroom, we get more young people interested in and engaged with science and scientific thinking. To be clear, this is not about teaching English language arts in the science classroom. I recently heard an interview with Ken Jennings, the Jeopardy player who earned the title “Greatest of All Time.” When asked whether he thought he had a particularly strong memory, he said there is nothing special about it. 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” (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 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 practices 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 ashore. 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.

Storylines in PhD Science®

Cargo ships also help drive a Kindergarten module in PhD Science. In Level K Module 2, students learn about pushes and pulls through the lens of the Anchor Phenomenon: Tugboats Moving Cargo Ships. Students conduct investigations throughout the module to answer the Essential Question: How do tugboats move cargo ships through a harbor?

Students figure out layer after layer of this anchor phenomenon, as well as supporting phenomena along the way. As students learn about what causes objects to start moving, they explore what tugboats do in harbors. The curriculum uses anchor visuals, such as anchor models, to assist students in concept development. Students begin by modeling tugboats in New York Harbor. They do so by using a map model that includes wooden blocks, which represent tugboats and cargo ships, to explore different ways that a tugboat can move a cargo ship through the harbor to reach the port.

After students figure out the different ways that objects move, they turn their attention to figuring out how a tugboat can change a ship’s direction. Students plan and conduct investigations about how tugboats use pushes or pulls to turn a cargo ship and to slow it down and stop it.

Every module of PhD Science has either a Science Challenge or an Engineering Challenge. This module has an Engineering Challenge: How can we help a tugboat stop close to a dock? Students apply the engineering design process to create a model cushion that helps a tugboat stop close to a dock.

With PhD Science, students no longer have to learn about science concepts in the abstract. Instead, they can explore rich, authentic phenomena, and develop enduring knowledge along the way.


Works Cited
Bhalla, J. 2013. “It Is in Our Nature to Need Stories.” Scientific American. May 8, 2013.

Levitt, Steven D., host. 2020. “Ken Jennings: Don’t Neglect the Thing That Makes You Weird,” October 2, 2020, episode 4, People I (Mostly) Admire, podcast, produced by Matt Hickey. Freakonomics®.

Next Generation Science Storylines. 2020. “What Are Storylines?” November 10, 2020.

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Topics: Storylines