Visible Thinking – Brainstorming with Spidea Web


As students read the novel, Flush, by Carl Hiaasen, they became curious about the primary external conflict – water pollution.  Specifically, water pollution in the ocean.  They learned that this is different from the water pollution in Atlanta, Georgia, a city that is land-locked and pretty far away from the ocean.  But, they discovered that the Chattahoochee River carries their trash all the way to the Gulf of Mexico – so they are part of the problem!

This has been an eye-opening experience, because we used to think that ‘marine debris’ was caused by people on the coast.  But, now we know that plastic trash is an ever-growing problem and continues to cause problems because of single-use plastic products.

We Use to Think . . . . . . . .   Now We Think . . . . . . . . . .

Water pollution was an issue SSWater pollution is a real big problem!
Water pollution in ocean made beaches nasty Water pollution in ocean could hurt fish and people!
Water pollution in ocean was caused by people on beach Water pollution in ocean is caused by us (in Atlanta)!  It travels a long way!
Plastic trash was not a big deal Marine debris is primarily plastic!
Plastic trash comes from big companies Plastic trash comes from us – single use objects (like grocery bags, straws, cups)

Because of this investigation, students are now focused on the issue of plastic consumption and how we can address the problem of ‘marine debris’ water pollution in the ocean.  So, this week our Visible Thinking Routine was a ‘Spidea Web’ which helped us brainstorm this complicated issue.


Working in groups, students provided ideas on the issues of the 3R’s of our plastic consumption: Reduce-Reuse-Recycle.  Many good ideas came from this classroom activity, and students had many ideas.  However, I found that providing samples of plastic trash from my own waste basket gave the students ‘hands-on’ experience which helped them become more realistic with their ideas.


They now understand the issue with ‘single use’ plastic products and how they are contributing to the problem.  This is a problem that will continue to grow and impact their upcoming generation.  So, it is time to address this issue!

Our next step will involve the DEEPdt process (Discover-Empathize-Experiment-Produce) Design Thinking.  In their groups, they will gain insights into the plastics industry to understand how this has become such an integral part of our consumer behavior.  Through this process, we may uncover a solution that will provide sustainability of the ocean habitat, and our long-term survival on this planet.


Visible Thinking: I Used to Think . . . Now I Think . . .


Students’ thinking changes as we teach . . . and sometimes we need to identify those shifts in thinking as it identifies a new insight, or a new perspective, on something and this is where innovation happens!

You may discern this adjustment in perspective by using a Visible Thinking Routine (VTR) like “I Used to Think . . . Now I Think . . . .”  I am using this VTR as I work with my students on water pollution in the ocean.  We are investigating this topic because the setting for our novel, Flush, by Carl Hiaasen, is Florida Keys and the external conflict for the protagonist is water pollution.

“So, what is water pollution in the ocean?,” my students ask.  “Is it different from water pollution in Atlanta?,” they wonder. This VTR was used after the students were shown a video by NOAA, called “Trash Talk”.  This video explained marine debris, and what causes this water pollution in the ocean. NOAA does a great job explaining this to Grade 6 students because they talk at their level, use many cool graphics and a lot of motion/sound to keep the students engaged.


This routine helped students reflect on their thinking about water pollution in the ocean and explored how/why that thinking had changed. As the teacher having an objective view of this exercise, this has helped me consolidate new learning and identify new understandings, opinions, and beliefs.


Once we discussed this issue, I had a direction for ongoing discussions about the story. This VTR has provided a springboard for discussions about the external conflict in the story, and it has built empathy for the protagonist.

Now the students realize that the issue of water pollution in the ocean is bigger than they thought, and their concern has been magnified.  Now they understand the motives and responses of the people involved in the story.

And now my students are involved in the story . . .

Visible Thinking: What Makes You Say That?


As I continue my development of the project-based learning (PBL) initiative on the book, Flush, by Carl Hiaasen, I utilized my 2nd visible thinking routine (VTR).  It went well, as it provided many insights on the students’ perception of the environmental threats to the Florida Keys, which is the setting of the book.

This week, I implemented the VTR ‘What Makes You Say That’ in order to understand how students would rank the environmental threats so I could group them for further investigation.  Since we had studied six threats (based on an article by the University of Florida “Threats to the Florida Keys”), I hoped to distinguish student choice for my next step in the PBL.

The picture below shows one of those threats, Water Pollution, and the eight students who selected this as their biggest concern.  They based their choice on what they saw or knew about water pollution and they were able to build explanations for this choice.  This invited students to share their interpretations; it also encouraged them to understand alternatives and multiple perspectives as students talked about the other five environmental issues in the Florida Keys.


I was very pleased with this VTR as it elicited debates in the classroom when students wanted to defend their choice.  While this was not an intended activity, I knew that this was an important skill to develop in our students so I let it run its course.  At times they were trying to shout over the other students, which was a real teachable moment!

While this was a wonderful classroom routine, the results did not provide the grouping of student choice for the PBL.  So many students chose Water Pollution, that I am now investigating this one concern to identify issues for discussion related to this threat.  But that is how a PBL works; I need to be flexible with students’ interests in order to integrate Student Voice into this project.


Visible Thinking in the Classroom


Visible thinking routines  (VTR) are a powerful tool to help learners think more deeply about content, engage more readily in the learning process and become more aware of opportunities for thinking and learning.

During the month of October and November, I have a goal of using this teaching strategy at least once each week.  It is a powerful teaching tool, and it will work well in my upcoming lessons in Grade 6 Literature.

The students are starting a new unit  on the book, Flush, by Carl Hiaasen.  The setting for this book is Florida Keys, and I wanted to understand the students’ knowledge about this area.  While I identified the students who had been there for vacation or visiting relatives, it was important for all of them to think deeply about the setting so we could explore the environmental concerns in future lessons.

The VTR ‘See, Think, Wonder’ is a perfect tool for this.  I did this in a two-step process.  First, the students watched a video about a ‘road trip’ to Florida Keys.  In all honesty, I purposely showed them this tourist-trap view as this is what most of the students knew from their visits.  The students took notes during the video, and then I modeled ‘See, Think, Wonder’ with them.


Next, the students watched a video about the ecosystem of Florida Keys.  Again, the students took notes, but then they became the teachers in the classroom using ‘See, Think, Wonder”.  This conversation opened such a rich dialogue about the precarious nature of the coral reefs and the overfishing of the Upper Keys; and all the students were engaged in their learning!


In addition, this two-step process provided wonderful scaffolding of information and skills for my students.  It has prepared them for the next step of my project-based learning activities on the environmental concerns in this habitat, and I really see the value of VTR!  What type of visible thinking can I do next?