Back in the day when I taught at a public school, I didn’t even think twice about my scope and sequence. This was all provided for me and standardized across my district. This was great as a first-year teacher – one less thing for me to have to worry about! But as time went on, I realized I really didn’t like the sequence in which I was told to teach the content and wished I had an opportunity to change it.
Then my husband’s job moved us to a different part of the state and I found myself in a private school. I went from being one of 5 teachers who taught my subject matter, which was dictated entirely by my school district, to be the only teacher who taught my subjects, given complete autonomy over my curriculum. My only guidelines were that my unit plans be guided by the *Next Generation Science Standards. (If you are unfamiliar with these, I’ve written a blog post about them here.)
I was overwhelmed and overjoyed at the idea of being able to completely redesign my curriculum. Over the past few years, I’ve tried a few different strategies for my biology classes, and I’ve landed on this being my absolute favorite scope and sequence of all.
Having initially taught in a school where the students took a standardized state exam in biology, the foundational curriculum I wrote for my biology course was designed to allow students to be successful in taking a standardized end-of-course exam. In order to achieve success (I had a 96% pass rate on the state standardized End-of-Course exam for non-honors students and a 100% pass rate for honors students. This was at a South Carolina Public School with over 50% of the students being below the poverty line. My average score on the EOC – all 200+ students combined that I taught during my time there – was 90%.) I found that my students really needed 3 things: (1) structure (2) experiences and (3) connections.
What do I mean by this? To start, all of my experience teaching biology has been to underclassmen, mainly freshmen. I’ve found that so many freshmen coming into high school are overwhelmed and underprepared, lacking major foundational skills to help them be successful in high school (not to slight middle school teachers at ALL – I think you all are the bravest most amazing people of ALL TIME and truly have the toughest job of us all!!) Because of this inadequacy, I found that I needed to teach my students how to be organized, how to take notes, and how to study. This is where my theme of structure comes into play and why I have found such great success using a packet strategy to keep my students organized. This is also why every unit I write is divided into concepts, and each concept comes with a set of notes and supplemental activities/labs. Some may see this as “too traditional”, but my experience has taught me that this structure, especially at the beginning of the year, gives them constancy and a rhythm that allows us to focus on the skills mentioned above alongside learning the content.
As for experiences, I discovered that what I learned about in my undergrad and graduate studies was true – students need to experience things in order for them to understand the content better. If students can tie the content we desire for them to learn to a specific memory or experience they have, it is easier for them to form the long-term connections in their brains that enable them to really understand and know biology.
This also leads to the importance of connections. Not only do I want my students to connect all of the content to specific experiences in our classroom (whether that be a lab, demonstration, simulation, project, or discussion), I also want them to make connections between the units. Every topic in a traditional biology course is linked to others, and all build upon each other. This is why each of my tests as a cumulative section, with questions connecting back to prior units. It was also a major factor in how I ultimately decided to sequence my units as you can see below – in a way that I found best-allowed students to make connections and build upon topics previously learned with new topics.
A few notes on my chosen organizational sequence:
Many people see this and are surprised, especially because I end the year with ecology rather than starting with it as many teachers do. But here is what I’ve realized – I think it is most important to start the year with the hardest content and save the least challenging material for the end. Why start hard? Because students are the freshest and working the hardest at the beginning of the school year. As time goes on, they get more and more jaded. By 3rd quarter my high school students are just praying for spring break to get there (and honestly, so am I!)
I also like to start with the basics – the scientific method, macromolecules, and cells – since they are the foundation that everything else the entire year will build upon. From there I like to go smaller as we study biochemical reactions and DNA. This content tends to be the most challenging for students. I end the year with the most “big picture” units – evolution and ecology. These units are both heavily activity-based, which keeps students engaged and active through the very last day that they are in my classroom. It gets them spending less time taking notes, and more time on their feet, using their hands. I also like to end the year with the two units that I think tie everything together and really give students the big picture vision of everything they’ve learned previously throughout the year.
Want to see a more detailed pacing guide for each unit that includes a list of the instructional resources used for every concept? Click here to access for free!
Details specific to my curriculum
I wrote this curriculum for teachers who teach in settings like I have – essentially with no science budget and very little equipment. Because of this, nearly all of my labs and activities rely on materials that can be reused or are consumables easily (and cheaply) purchased at your grocery store or on Amazon. Due to designing a curriculum that can be used with a low budget, a lot of the traditional labs done in a biology class (such as with microscopes or gel electrophoresis equipment) are not necessarily included. Additionally, I provide ways for students to gather information from multiple sources using technology in case you don’t have a solid textbook available to use (I have yet to be provided a textbook that was less than 15 years old that I actually found students would read.) Because of this, my curriculum can be used alongside any textbook.
You will see that throughout my scope and sequence I continuously try to pair the content with real-world, big picture applications. With cells, I teach about cancer. With biochemical reactions (like photosynthesis and cellular respiration) I also teach trophic pyramids and food webs. With genetics and heredity, I teach about genetic disorders and genetic engineering. I think it is so important to constantly teach students what the point of all of the details we make them learn really is, and what this content really has to do with them and their everyday lives.
Lastly, I include differentiated resources for CP (College Prep, or “on grade level”) and Honors (advanced) students. My hope is that I have put in all the hours for you by creating engaging, creative, student-led, and assessment-aligned resources so that you don’t have to. This frees up time for you to do what you do best – TEACH! Of course, every group of students is different, so with all of the groundwork done for you, you are now free to differentiate and accommodate to best meet the needs of your specific students.
A note on NGSS:
When I moved to an NGSS school later after my first few years teaching, I redesigned the curriculum to incorporate the 3-dimensional nature that NGSS requires, but still with the expectation that I was teaching freshmen who had a lot of room to grow in their ability to conquer the skills and the nature of NGSS. Because of this, my curriculum is definitely scaffolded in a way that the earlier units are much less NGSS and the latter much more NGSS, with the hopes that throughout the year I can get students to a place that they are more comfortable and prepared for the autonomy and learning style that NGSS requires. The add-on extension mini-units are the most advanced in their NGSS design and are perfect for use at the end of the year. Finally, each unit comes with an “NGSS Alignment guide” that provides context for how the standards are incorporated. It also provides ideas for utilizing phenomena in how you teach each unit. This allows you to develop storylines specific to your students and their interests. My hope is that this curriculum provides you all of the foundational resources you need for figuring out “what” to teach so that you can then focus your energy on “how” you want to teach if you are in fact following NGSS.
Interested in checking out my biology curriculum? You can find it here on TpT. I always recommend that teachers purchase one unit first to make sure that you like my style. Then if you go on to invest in the curriculum for the full year, please reach out to me and I can get you a refund for the initial unit purchased to test out, as long as it has been purchased within the same calendar year.
Questions behind my rationale or anything related to the biology curriculum? I’d love to hear from you! Shoot me an email as that is the best way to get in touch with me.
How do you determine your scope and sequence? Is it determined by the district or school you are in or did you pick it out yourself? If you could teach in your ideal order, how would you do it? I’d love to hear your thoughts!!
*Note: NGSS is a registered trademark of Achieve. Neither Achieve nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards were involved in the production of this blogpost, and do not endorse it.