Virtual Reality Works in Literature


I love to teach my students about great books and authors – I never grow tired of it because there are endless examples of both!  However, sometimes I notice my students grow weary of the ‘reading and writing’ process and need a little stimulation to create some new energy around this discipline.  I think new technologies such as virtual reality has been a great addition to literature class!

“When Science and Fiction Take Students Into Space”

My current project-based learning (PBL) unit is a collaboration with Earth Science as students learn about space to prepare them for a three-day field trip to Space Camp in Huntsville, AL.  Not only do they study the solar system, but they get to select a planet for colonization. After much research, they not only select a colony location but also determine HOW to build the colony with challenging atmospheres, temperatures, etc. They worked on teams to build models of their colonies, which were put on display at the school.

As a complement to these science learning outcomes, my literature class investigated science fiction focusing on space.  While I get to show them classic stories from Isaac Asimov and H.G. Wells, this unit was enhanced with experiential learning using the above-mentioned colony models and virtual reality! (See pictures above)

The students loved exploring Mars, the Moon, and other celestial bodies! They were excited to be walking at the location of their colonies, and I used this stimulation to prepare them to write their own science fiction stories!  They now could describe a setting using their own experiences instead of just words in their heads!

I really love to teach students to explore their imagination through books and media, but 3D displays and virtual reality were very powerful motivators in the classroom.  What more could a teacher ask for?


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?

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?


Making Connections With Students


As we begin the new year, my goal is to know and understand each and every student in sixth grade.  This always feels like an overwhelming task in August, as I have 76 unique and beautiful young people in which I want to make connections.  It was so much easier in Preschool when I had a self-contained classroom of 15 little ones!

Here are 3 steps I use in the first month to accomplish my goal:

  1.  Get to know their names:  I strive to know each student’s first name during the first week of school.  I do this by studying their pictures each night before class so I say their name in class or the hallway when I see them.
  2. Have them make name tents with symbols:  During the first day of class, the students make name tents with their names and a unique symbol that gives me my first glance into what makes them unique.  A drawing of a sport, a pet or even a smiley face gives me an opening for a dialogue that gives our relationship meaning.
  3. Give an assignment that reveals their personality:  Each year is different (so far) as I am still experimenting with the concept.  This year I assigned a ‘BioPoem’ that gave insights on things they love, they give and they struggle with in life.  I read these deeply and process them with care as it provides so much information about what is going on inside!

In addition to these three steps, taking pictures also helps me make connections.  During the first weeks, I like to put these pictures on Twitter so I can share the wonderful experiences in Grade 6 Literature class.  But then, I like to take pictures so I can share the connections with my students.  Since I see my Advisory every day, I begin with this one.

Menkus Advisory August 2016

There is nothing like a ‘selfie’ to capture this special moment!