How I Create Cohesive Storylines

July 27, 2019 11 Comments

I have gotten several messages from people over the last few weeks about how I create cohesive storylines.  Honestly, it is a difficult question to answer, because I am not a linear planner.  I wrote this blog post last year about the basics of using phenomena to drive your lessons.  I am still following this methodology, but you have really been asking about the details.

I use sticky notes because I have ideas and I need to write them down before they are gone.  I can move the sticky notes around as I gain clarity through the process.

I am going to attempt to tell you what I do in a linear fashion because it just wouldn't make sense in any other way.  But understand that my storylines shift quite a bit through my planning process. If you look closely at the pictures, you will see stickies move around for seemingly no reason.

Also, note that you should be reflecting on your lessons and storylines as you teach them.  I spend some time reflecting on them after I teach them.  (I use this reflection sheet to help me.) Be ready to make changes the following year as you figure out what works and what doesn't work for your students.

I will also be writing some related blog posts soon.  This would be a great time to follow my blog so that you can get reminders when these come out.  Here is what is ahead:

  • 5 Tips for Creating Bundles (Now Available.  Click here to view! )
  • Turning Storyline Plans into Lessons (Now Available.  Click here to view.)
  • Using Student Questions to Build Your Storyline (August 17th)

Creating Storylines

1. Bundle, Bundle, Bundle

I get asked a lot of questions about bundling.  I will post more about how to bundle in my blog post next week, but here is what you need to know for now.

Bundling is a way to package the standards into related chunks.  I tend to create big bundles and then smaller more manageable bundles with 2-3 performance expectations in each.

When you are bundling standards, your number one goal needs to be how you are going to make the content relatable to your students.  All students will do better in your classroom if you are investigating a topic that is important to them. Think about anchoring phenomena early in your planning process.  To read more about phenomena, click here.

2. Dissect your bundle.

IMG_5511I use this unit planning organizer to build out my bundle, but you could use any word processing document.  I wouldn't suggest using paper because it will get covered in scribbles.

List the Performance Expectations, Science and Engineering Practices, Disciplinary Core Ideas and Crosscutting Concepts. Then, I start writing objectives and list vocabulary using evidence statements.  I made a video and wrote some info to show you how I write objectives and list out vocabulary for my bundle using evidence statements.  To find those, click here.

It is important to write out your objectives before you start building out your bundle because you need to know where you want students to be at the end of your lesson sequence.

I will list my vocabulary during this process because I am already looking at the evidence statements.  However, I do not usually include it in the rest of this planning process.  I wait until I am doing lesson-level planning until I figure out how I will teach vocabulary.

3. Set Up Your Workspace

Get a big space to work.  I tend to use a whiteboard, poster board or chart paper. Consider if this is something you will want to keep as you are deciding on your setup.

Also, you will see that at the end of this process,  I had a major hole in the bottom of my storyline.  I walked away from this for a few days and was able to go back and think of a way to fill it in.  It's nice to have a setup that you can walk away from for a bit.


I also grab different color stickies.  Lots of them.  I usually use the smaller size because I can fit more in the space. I color code this way:

  • Green: Science and Engineering Practices
  • Yellow/Orange: Disciplinary Core Ideas
  • Blue: Crosscutting Concepts
  • Red/Pink: Phenomena
  • Purple: Assessments

I use the plain colored stickies (I think they call them canary?) for most of the other stuff.

It is also valuable to keep a copy of the NSTA Matrix forks handy.  The matrix forks list out the components of the standards by grade level so that you can make sure that you are striving toward getting your students proficient in their grade level band.  Here they are:

4. Outline Your Unit

At the top of the unit, I create stickies about prior knowledge.  You can look back at what students are learning in the previous grade levels (if they have access to science).


You can also write down likely experiences that your students may have had that relate to the topic.  Make sure this is inclusive of all of your populations.  To do this, I try to keep these connections local or universal.  Universal experiences might be something like dropping an object and noticing that it falls to the floor.  These experiences can make excellent phenomena.


I write all of my objectives on stickies and arrange them it what seems like a logical sequence on the right side of my workspace.  Notice that I bunched them up.  These will likely end up being lessons later. Many of these have a Disciplinary Core Idea Connection, so I wrote them on my orange color sticky.

The objectives/disciplinary core ideas should be listed on the right side because you are going to have to lead your students on a journey from what they already know to what you want them to figure out.

5. Use anchoring phenomena and questions to add to your outline.

Hopefully, when you were bundling your performance expectations back in Step 1 you were thinking about phenomena that would make this content relevant to your students.  It should be something that connects all of the content.  This will serve as your anchoring phenomenon.


I will be honest here and say that sometimes I don't know what my anchor is.  I continue to build out my lesson sequence and hope that it becomes clear to me.  This isn't ideal, because it can lead to some major reshuffling.

I try to start my storyline with this anchoring phenomenon followed by the Science and Engineering Practice Asking Questions. It is so important to use student questions in your storyline and ideally, I would use the ones generated during this initial activity.  However, I would go absolutely crazy if I was trying to build my storyline after the lesson sequence started.

For now, I will anticipate student questions based on the phenomena.  It is best to work with a team in this phase of the planning process.  If you don't have a team, present your anchor to someone outside of your teaching life and ask them what questions they have about the phenomena. (I ask my daughter and husband all the time!) It's also totally okay to just come up with these initial questions on your own.

I write these questions on the far left and try to line them up with my objectives on the far right. Notice there are some holes.  That's totally okay for this phase in your lesson planning process.

6. Identify Activities and Investigative Level Phenomena

The rest of your planning will be getting your students from the questions on the left to meeting the objectives on the right.

The next step is listing out all of the activities that you have that can help students move from one side to another without simply telling them the answer.  It's okay if they aren't perfect NGSS activities for now.  There is a good chance that they can be modified.


This is also a good time to revisit your student's prior experiences from Step 4.  These might serve as great investigative level phenomena.

7. Start Organizing Your Unit into a Coherent Sequence

At this point, you might not have a ton to work with, but organizing your storyline will help you start to notice where the gaps are.  The things that are most directly relatable to your students go on the left.  The things that are most closely linked to your objective should go on the right.


I place my investigative level phenomena, observations and other activities that might fall at the beginning of my lesson sequence on the far left.   On the right, I put activities that are more complex and very closely linked to the objectives.

8. Fill in the Gaps with the Practices and Crosscutting Concepts

Here is where you pull out your Matrix Forks from step 3.  Review the Science and Engineering Practices for your grade band and see if there is anything that you can do to help move your students from left to right in your sequence.


Can you provide students with data to analyze?  Can they use modeling to help them explain what is happening?  Can they engage in an argument with their peers to improve their understanding?

You will also start to notice connections to your Crosscutting Concepts.  I take a separate sticky and put those on here as well.

Notice the initial part of my storyline is coming together quite nicely, but at the bottom, I have some major holes.  I find this happens because I am looking at a manageable bundle. There tends to be overlap between the bundles and in this case, I will probably need to tap into my next bundle of standards to really fill this piece out. (This is also where I was able to go back later and fill-in a bunch of this empty space after I left it alone for a few days.)

9.  Start thinking about your assessments.

You now have everything you need to fill out the rest of your unit planning organizer from Step 2.  I added one formal assessment to my board.  I tend to only list formal assessments here because the board is getting quite messy.  However, the Unit Planning organizer has a place for you to list a formative assessment for each objective.


Again, if you look closely at this board, you will see that my notes have moved around quite a bit during this process.  I didn't include the explanation for every move because this post is already quite long.  As a general explanation, the flow was better when I moved an activity.

Next Steps

You have two choices for next steps:

  1. Move on to the next bundle and continue to create a storyline map.
  2. Create lesson-level plans for this section.

For me, it is overwhelming to move on to another bundle without building some day-to-day plans.

What questions do you have about this process? Write them in the comments below and I will see what I can do to help you!


Erin Sadler

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  • Becca Sadler August 2, 2019 at 9:57 pm

    Thank you for including the links to the NSTA with NGSS focused standards! These will be very helpful in lesson organization!

    • Erin Sadler August 3, 2019 at 6:21 am

      You are so welcome. I try to do that with everything that I make.

  • Angela White December 30, 2019 at 12:52 pm

    I cannot find the NSTA matrix forks, and it sounds like the information I would really like to use. I have tried to follow your link and I have tried to google it. Help please and thank you!

  • Angela White December 30, 2019 at 12:58 pm

    Yeeaaahhhh!!!!! Thank you! I have been trying to access these every time I get a chance to dig into your blog. Those work!!

    • Erin Sadler December 30, 2019 at 1:00 pm

      I think that they switched the location because I was having trouble finding them too. I LOVE them and use them all the time.

  • Angela White January 8, 2020 at 12:02 pm

    I hate to ask, but do you also have a different link for the DCI Matrix? Thank you!!

  • Angela White January 9, 2020 at 6:47 am

    Got it! Thank you!

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