When I first began teaching middle school science, I felt this overwhelming urge to be the perfect teacher. I thought that I needed to create the best lesson the students had ever experienced every single day. My failed attempt to be Bill Nye quickly proved ineffective and left me feeling like I was falling short.
My assessments showed that I wasn’t getting the content across effectively, students liked the labs but couldn’t relay the purpose of them, and they simply were not engaged in other lessons. I was a teacher trying to imitate others instead of creating my own structures, and the students were not benefiting at all. I was burning out and developing resentment toward the profession.
Rethinking scope, standards, and sequence
About five years ago, I made the switch to teaching high school biology. When I met my content-specific teaching partner, we realized that we were in a similar boat. Both of us wanted to create and teach amazing lessons but felt like we were failing at creating effective systems in our own classrooms. Our district provided curriculum in the form of a workbook and online resources; however, the students were not engaged with this method of delivery.
We decided to use the district’s resources and to begin creating our own lessons. We realized that we were trying to tackle large content chunks and would lose sight of the standard’s purpose. We needed to look closely at the standards and the scope and sequence so that each lesson was meaningful and aligned. We took larger overarching ideas and broke them into smaller, easier-to-work with, concepts, teaching one or two concepts per week.
By taking the content and working through it in smaller chunks, we were able to stay focused on our goals. Slowly, we created a system that worked. We created a theme for each day and stuck to it as closely as possible. Rigor of content increased, and the stress levels decreased.
Our Weekly Sequence
Monday: The first day of the week focused on introducing the content with some type of text. Our science team had been focusing on bringing literacy into science. Articles from Newsela were extremely helpful because I could change the Lexile levels as well as download translated articles.
Monday’s lesson was focused on reading the article with purpose, defining vocabulary, and having a small class discussion about the text. This set the foundation for the rest of the week because the students used this text to support or refute content later on.
Example: Students receive a text on homologous structures. They read out loud, trading off paragraphs with their partner, and highlight important information. Then, the partners answer the guided questions using textual evidence. Class wraps up with discussion based on the questions.
Tuesday: Tuesday was focused on exploring the concepts from the text. This could look like a class discussion, research, exploratory lab, or gallery walk.
Example: Students do a gallery walk of homologous structures placed around the classroom. They write their observations down on a graphic organizer provided at the beginning of class. Then, they work with their partner to make connections to the text and observations from the gallery walk.
Wednesday and Thursday: These two days were focused on application of the new concepts. The goal was for the students to take their content from Monday and Tuesday and apply it to something. This could be a lab, debate, essay, or poster.
I purposely kept these days flexible so I could adapt the activity to the content. If my informal assessments showed that I needed to differentiate instruction, these two days allowed the flexibility to do so. For example, the students who were grasping the content could work on a partner or individual project. Then, I was able to take the group that was struggling and reteach it in a different way.
Example: Students choose two animals to compare their homologous structures. They research the animals and create a presentation about the structures, how they may have common ancestors, and what those ancestors looked like.
Friday: The final day of the week was focused on makeup work and a quiz. The quiz had 10 questions, covering only what they learned from the week, and was an open assignment (students could access their work from the week to use on their quiz).
Allowing students to use their work on the quiz was a huge shift for me. However, after a trial period, I realized that students were working so hard to complete their work before Friday that I had much more buy-in during the week. In addition, I had less late work turned in because students knew they needed to complete their work before the quiz if they wanted to use it. The rest of the period was used to do any remaining makeup work. I was able to do quick grade checks and mini-conferences for students who needed it.
Example: Ten-question quiz with vocabulary questions, questions from the text, and questions based on the research from the week.
Implementing This sequence in Your Classroom
Now, as a veteran teacher and a credential coach (I work with credential students to guide them through their program as they learn to become teachers), I stress to my student teachers that it’s not about perfection in the lesson. Instead, new teachers should focus on their own growth and the growth of their students. Teaching is about creating a safe atmosphere where learning can occur.
Having a clear layout that is consistent from week to week is beneficial no matter what subject area you teach in. If you are trying this kind of shift in the middle of the year, communicate the change with your students. They can be very effective critics! Students, especially in middle and high school, truly thrive on clear expectations. While they may complain about structures in the classroom, students need clear and consistent structures in order to be successful. By creating this structure, I have been able to get through more content effectively than ever before, and my students reap the benefits!