Project Based Learning (PBL) Turns a Book into Reality


I am a teacher who LOVES to teach students about literature.  Books open the doors to students’ imaginations so they can explore life’s possibilities. Students learn about authors and their mastery at creating a story.  There are no limits to the number of paths a book can take in the classroom.

But I discovered a LONGER path with books when I added project based learning (PBL) into my lesson planning!  I discovered that I could not only tap into students’ imaginations, but I could turn a book into something real in their lives!  I still got to teach about story structure, plot line, theme, point of view, etc (KEY KNOWLEDGE, UNDERSTANDING AND SUCCESS SKILLS).  But when I added a challenging question and an authentic task to the book’s ideas, it took on a sense of reality that broadened the meaning of the book.


Students read the book, Flush,  by Carl Hiaasen, which focuses on the theme “Standing Up for One’s Values” as the protagonist takes action to protect the Florida Keys from water pollution when a casino boat is dumping its waste into the ocean.  This was a good theme to explore as students questioned their own impact on the environment and what values did THEY think were important regarding this issue?

The driving question:  DO we impact the environment on our planet? If so, do we do this in a positive or negative way?  What can we do to minimize the negative human impact on our environment?


I had no problem keeping this conversation going throughout the unit, as students organically questioned the reality of the book’s environmental situation in Florida Keys and applied it to their own situation in Georgia.

  • Do they think pollution is a problem for our planet?
  • Which type(s) of pollution concerns them the most?  Which one(s) do they have control over?
  • In their opinion, what is the biggest problem (air, water, land?)

As students read Flush, I collaborated with the science teacher on my team to scaffold information about our environment.  Using the following resources and some visual thinking routines, the students were able to understand the important issues regarding their environment:

  1. Video:  Introduction to the Florida Keys Habitat followed by See/Think/Wonder visual thinking routine
  2. Article: Environmental Threats to the Florida Keys used as informational text analysis and ranking of threats
  3. Video:  Human Impacts on Earth Systems followed by What Makes You Say That? visual thinking routine
  4. Video: Trash Talk (NOAA) followed by I Used to Think/Now I Think visual thinking routine


As students learned about the human impact on their environment, and applied it to the setting of their book (Florida Keys), they overwhelmingly identified water pollution as the primary threat to this habitat (they ranked this higher than urban development, global climate change, boating, introduced/invasive species, and overfishing). Students investigated the different types of water pollution (dumping waste, agricultural pesticide runoff, point source and non-point source pollution, etc.)  This investigation indicated that the accumulation of plastic was the biggest concern (such as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch).  The students then focused on plastic pollution, and their investigation brought them to many sources and organizations that are involved in this issue.


After learning about these initiatives and the problems caused by the accumulation of plastic in the ocean, the students participated in the Kids Recycle Day sponsored by CHaRM (Center for Harmful to Recycle Materials).  Not only did this give their campaigns an authentic purpose, but it made them more aware of the plastic products used/thrown out in their OWN households (now it became personal).  Their recycled plastic products were used as artifacts to help them build empathy for the situation and how they were personally involved in it.  As they engaged in this initiative, it was decided that public awareness campaigns (PAC) should be developed to educate others about the plastic problem (#plasticproblem).

Public Awareness Campaigns:  Student groups were formed, and each group identified their focus for educating others about the issue of plastic pollution in the ocean.  For example, some groups connected with existing initiatives such as “One Less Straw” by One More Generation while others chose to focus on specific products such as 6-ring packs that cause damage to turtles.


The DEEPdt “design thinking” process was used in the development of the campaigns because it is people-centered problem solving, a unified framework for innovation and a practical tool for integrating 21st century skills into the classroom

Each step enabled the students to develop their understanding of water pollution and provide feedback through visual thinking routines, group discussions and group presentations:

  • Discover: Find your team, start with questions, preflection
  • Empathize: Needfinding, synthesizing, MoVe, HMW . . .
  • Experiment: Brainstorming, prototype, narrow focus
  • Produce: Prototype, test & feedback, “storytell”, ship it

Critiques and revision did not happen only in the classroom environment.  The development of the public awareness campaigns was also guided by:

  • External Experts (both parents of students):  
    • John Rizzo, product and sales development, eco-fi; a company that makes high-quality polyester made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic PET bottles. 
    • Dana Davidson, UGA graduate of Environmental Science, focused on water pollution
  • Upper School Students:  The Environmental Prefect (Megan Lienau) collaborated with 6th Grade in the Kids Recycle Day to expand awareness of plastic pollution; she was joined by juniors and seniors from the Upper School Green Club in the presentations and feedback process of the public awareness campaigns
  • MV Administration:  Middle School and Upper School administration viewed multiple presentations and provided feedback on the public awareness campaigns



  • Each student was responsible for both creating and presenting their public awareness campaign and received feedback from their team members using a Team Evaluation Form
  • Each student had the opportunity to reflect on the following activities in this PBL using the Reflection on public awareness program that was placed in their shared folder:
    • Activities – scaffolding of classroom activities that helped them prepare for the public awareness program
    • Culmination Event – developing and presenting the public awareness campaign
    • How has the research/work you have been doing throughout the PBL and reading of Flush informed and prepared you for the creation of this public awareness campaign?
    • Now that you are more aware of plastic pollution, what will you do differently about reduce – reuse – recycle plastic?  What values will YOU stand up for?


  • Each team presented their public awareness campaign and received feedback from their peers using a Student Observation Form

Whole Class:

  • At the end of the presentations in each class period, students discussed the entire unit including the book and the PBL initiative.  This was a very productive process as they collaborated on certain ideas yet were comfortable challenging others’ perceptions on the PBL outcome.


As I read the students reflections on the public awareness programs, and reviewed all the student observation forms and my own examinations/reviews from classwork activities, I discovered a sense of pride with my students’ learning throughout this project.  I witnessed my students embrace a complex challenge and develop/present answers to a central question. I saw them reach outside the classroom and encounter new initiatives in a world they did not know existed.  I think this project changed us – I know it changed me in my perception of plastic.  I see that our perceptions about our planet and its environment is different now because we took on the challenge to understand it.  Who knew this book in a literature class could take us SO far down this path?


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