Group Work: A Teacher-Led Curriculum Development Effort | New Visions for Public Schools

Group Work: A Teacher-Led Curriculum Development Effort

In the age of the Common Core, teachers need high-quality instructional materials and a strong community of practice to meet the demands of the new standards. New Visions is meeting that need through dynamic teacher networks organized by content area. The New Visions Living Environment curriculum project centers around a curriculum built on open educational resources, frequent student assessments and collaboration with teachers through cycles of feedback. The program, which just completed its pilot phase, features a Common Core-aligned scope and sequence for a 9th or 10th grade Living Environment course and currently brings together 52 teachers from 25 New York City high schools for a year-long professional development series. Below you will find a Q&A with Deborah McLaughlin, a Living Environment teacher at the Business of Sports School in Manhattan, who serves as member of the Living Environment teacher advisory board helping to shape the program’s strategic direction, improve its resources, and increase its scale.

Q: How or why did you become involved in the project?

I’ve always loved biology and Living Environment, but when I learned of the project I was really excited about collaborating with other teachers. My school is really small and in my first year teaching there, I was the only science teacher, so I always felt I was reinventing the wheel.  I really wanted to be part of a community of Living Environment teachers in order to create a dialogue and share resources.

Q: What is the 5E Plan and how has it helped your students?

The 5E plan is so engaging for my students. Kids are really curious, so it takes advantage of that and piques their interest in certain things. Learning is a consequence of thinking and the 5E Plan helps the kids think.

The 5E table below and this Google Doc really helps clearly explain the process. 

The antithesis of a 5E Plan would just be me in front of the class telling my students, “Here is everything you need to know about glucose regulation. Now go home and memorize it.”

Q: How do the PDs help you prepare a 5E plan?

In a recent PD on thermoregulation, we did an experiential immersion of the 5Es. Going through the lab with other teachers, it was really cool taking off my teacher hat and putting on a student hat and thinking like a student. In the past, I’ve taught thermoregulation in a direct and teacher-centered way.  But instead in the PD, we went through the 5E sequence of engaging in an activity to pique our interest, going through an experience of the lab instead of being told what thermoregulation is. When I brought it back to my classroom, there was just so much more bang for the buck. The students were so much more engaged, as they collected data and made predictions about the experiment, as opposed to me just rattling off facts. That was really cool to do it as a student in the PD and then bring it to my class.

Q: Walk me through how you plan a lesson using the resources provided.

Lesson planning differs depending on what the content is. There are some units that I teach differently because my school has different requirements. In that case, I might be teaching a topic in genetics, but not following the project’s sequence. I will ask myself “what materials does the project have for genetic engineering?” and take those materials and put my own spin on it. Other times, I’ll just follow a 5E plan for a particular topic from the Engage all the way to the Elaborate phase and I’ll follow it to a “T.” What’s really cool is I can tailor the resources for my needs.

Q: How is the project helping you improve as a teacher?

It’s really pushing me to take more instructional risks, especially with the implementation of group learning routines, which is a brand new thing in the second year of the program. There’s a formative assessment piece to each unit using these routines. Before joining this project, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to use them because it really puts the onus and cognitive load on the student which can be a hard thing for a new teacher to do. I definitely take more risks instructionally and the students have really risen to the occasion. The PDs provide so many resources and help in how to execute these routines. We really talk about and actually model these activities and talk about how we can bring these to our classrooms, what roles students should play, and how we can keep students accountable for their work. I feel very supported in terms of implementing the routines in class.

Q: Tell us a little bit more about group learning roles and how your students have responded to them.

Group learning roles facilitate students learning from listening to each other. There’s a group learning activity that I use called “Think, Talk, Open-Exchange” in which students in triads think and talk with each other. They ask clarifying questions and bring their knowledge to the conversation. The rules and the timing are very structured and the learning goal is very explicit. It’s my favorite part of the curriculum because it puts so much of the cognitive load on the students and the teacher becomes the facilitator of learning.

The students’ reactions have been great. My students love to talk. I’m also seeing previously shy students volunteer to go first. That’s a really cool thing to see that growth.

Q: Have you seen a difference in student  performance? How do you think that this curriculum/PD is helping you prepare students for the Regents exam?

The writing has improved. Last year, the Regents scores were good not only for the general education kids but also for my kids with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and English Language Learners. Student literacy has definitely improved. One piece is the lab component and the other is writing scientific explanations and there are lots of examples to help students beef up those skills. I’ve definitely seen improvements.

There was a huge increase in students’ ability to use evidence to substantiate their claims. In the beginning students were making claims, but not providing evidence to support them. By the end of last year, they were doing this a lot better.

Q: Tell us about how the project’s partnership with organizations like the American Museum of Natural History and the resources they provide have helped you.

One of my favorite PDs last year was at the American Museum of Natural History and was around the Ecology unit, which was the unit around the invasive Zebra Mussel. The materials were developed by the Museum and are just awesome. There are really interesting stories about the Zebra Mussel that are on the appropriate reading grade level. We were able to go to the Museum and go the “Hall of Marine Life” and link the Zebra content pieces to exhibits they had at the Museum.  That was really cool.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your role as a teacher-leader in the project.

I really wanted to be a part of the curriculum development process, especially curriculum writing. During our summer work, I worked on Unit 3, the “Marathon Runner Problem,” in tightening up the resources and developing that story. We really fleshed out what the 5E plan looks like and added a number of group learning routines. We also worked to make a 2-3 minute overview video for teachers.

Another science teacher at my school is really excited about the unit and loves that she can go on the website and easily find materials and pick and choose things to enhance what she already has on her own. With a lot of the non-New Visions’ project materials you will find online, the materials are not very student-centered or the content is too high or low for your grade level. The project materials are great because they’re all Regents aligned, engaging, data driven, grade appropriate, and hands-on activities.

A lot of first-year participants ask, “Do we really have to implement everything?” I had a lot of similar questions, too. Many new teachers are hesitant to include group learning routines in their classroom. I’m such a cheerleader for the program. I tell them, “I had that concern too, but I did it and it worked out well.”

The whole direction of the advisory board was shaped by all of the teachers. We did a lot of work. Just reflecting, thinking with units and where we should go from here. The whole process is very collaborative and I feel very part of it and valued as a teacher in the project.

Q: How can non-project participants access the curriculum resources?

The first step is look at the website and the “Getting Started” page, which are easy to navigate.  In each unit, the content pieces for each 5E Plans are there. You might not be teaching it in the same sequence, but you can go to Unit 2 and click on the “Enzyme 5E” and all the relevant resources will be right there. You can have your personal way of teaching, but still look at these materials to support you.

Additionally, when I was a new teacher, one of the biggest challenges I faced was I really was not that familiar with the curriculum and wondered, “What does the Regents test specifically?” What is great about this curriculum is that it’s completely Regents aligned in terms of both skill and content. You can look at the website and quickly understand what content is really emphasized on the test.  As a result, I don’t have to focus on what to teach, but can focus on how to teach.

Q: What advice do you have for other teachers considering joining a project like this one?

Go for it.  You have everything to gain and nothing to lose. You’re joining a community of really passionate science teachers and for me there’s nothing cooler than that. It’s a no-brainer.

For more more information about the New Visions Living Environment curriculum project, visit

The New Visions Living Environment Curriculum pilot project is made possible through the generous support of the Noyce Foundation, Toyota USA Foundation and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

About Deborah McLaughlin:
Deborah McLaughlin is in her sixth year teaching Living Environment at the Business of Sports School in Manhattan where she teaches 9th grade Living Environment and AP Environmental Science. Now in her second year in the curriculum project, Deborah serves on the teacher advisory board, helping improve the curriculum resources. Deborah is also a Math for America Master Science Teacher.