Plastic Pollution | EL Education Curriculum

You are here

ELA 2019 G7:M4

Plastic Pollution

You are here:

"It is past time that we tackle the plastic problem that blights our oceans. Plastic pollution is surfing onto Indonesian beaches, settling onto the ocean floor at the North Pole, and rising through the food chain onto our dinner tables." So explains Erik Solheim, the environment director of the U.N., quoted in Danielle Smith-Llera's book Trash Vortex. Craig Leeson, one of the narrators of the documentary A Plastic Ocean, also conveys the urgency of the situation: "The problem with that is that today only a fraction of the plastic that we produce is recycled. The rest ends up in our environment, and it's coating our land and our oceans like a disease." Students spend the module learning about how plastic pollution became such a widespread problem, particularly in our oceans, and what can be done to reduce pollution. Students use their anchor text, the documentary, and additional articles in Units 1 and 2 to gather background knowledge about the problem, as well as explore possible solutions to reducing plastic pollution at different points in the plastic life cycle. As students transform their understanding into action plans and documentary clips to share with their communities, they help make into reality the final part of Erik Solheim's quote: "We've stood by too long as the problem has gotten worse. It must stop."

In Unit 1, students are introduced to the topic of plastic pollution and how it affects humans, animals, and the environment. Students study the documentary A Plastic Ocean, noting the transcript's portrayal of a subject as compared to the film's portrayal. In each lesson throughout the first half of the unit, students view a film clip as a class several times. Then they work collaboratively to complete note-catchers and engage in discussions to compare the film and transcript portrayals of subjects as well as to evaluate the speakers' arguments. In the second half of Unit 1, students address big ideas about where and how plastic pollutes, as well as what can be done about plastic pollution. Students analyze the anchor text Trash Vortex for the author's purpose and central ideas. Students then learn to analyze the text to discover how the author distinguishes her position from that of others. During the end of unit assessment, students read and analyze the end of Trash Vortex, answering selected and constructed response questions to analyze central ideas as well as the author's purpose and how she distinguishes her position from others.

In Unit 2, students continue exploring the problem of plastic pollution by focusing on what can be done to address the problem. They read three articles and revisit their anchor texts to understand what interventions can be taken at each stage of the plastic life cycle: beginning, middle, and end. Students also learn about new materials being invented to replace plastic at the beginning of the life cycle, what consumers can do to use less plastic in the middle of the life cycle, and efforts by governments and organizations to stop single-use plastic and invent ways of cleaning up plastic pollution at the end of the plastic life cycle. By the middle of the unit, students take a stand about which part of the plastic life cycle would be most effective to target. They have the opportunity to defend their position in a debate with their classmates. Although this debate is not assessed, students' preparation and participation in the debate continues to prepare them for their end of unit assessment and performance task in the following unit. In the second half of the unit, students use the evidence and reasoning they've collected and organized from their reading to practice on-demand argument essay writing about which point in the plastic life cycle is the best place to target to reduce pollution.

In Unit 3, students delve deeper into their chosen areas of intervention in the life cycle of plastic. Students choose a personal action to respond to the issue of plastic pollution. Actions might include using less plastic or recycling more, communicating with officials, or researching an invention. They form triads with classmates who have chosen the same category of action to determine how to coordinate their personal actions to be used in their documentary clip. In addition to this action plan work, students write their documentary film clip script over the course of the first half of the unit. In the second half of Unit 3, students work in their triads to create a storyboard, using visuals and captions to clarify their claims and emphasize the points in their documentary script. They then learn how to pitch their documentary to potential film producers, observing a model pitch and using a Tuning protocol to practice and refine their presentation skills. These include using appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation. Finally, in the end of unit assessment, students work in triads to each pitch a part of their documentary script, focusing on their use of formal English, domain-specific vocabulary, storyboard visuals, and presentation skills. 

Notes from the Designer

Throughout the documentary A Plastic Ocean and the book Trash Vortex, the producers and authors present evidence about the harms that plastic pollution can cause to the environment and wildlife. To help students process this information, teaching notes provide suggestions about specific questions and activities to contextualize the subject matter and empower students to identify the habits of character of the people addressing these problems and relate them to their own lives. Some students may be affected by images and discussion of the suffering and harm that plastic pollution can cause. As a result, we addressed these issues directly. Throughout the module, we provide the appropriate support and opportunities to discuss and react to these issues through engaging literacy tasks. Additionally, notes are included throughout the module to assist in navigating these issues. 

Guiding Questions and Big Ideas

Where and how does plastic pollute?

  • Plastic that is not properly disposed of ends up in the environment, with much of it polluting oceans and even ending up in the food chain via animals who consume it.

What can be done about plastic pollution? 

  • From banning single-use plastic to organizing cleanup efforts of existing pollution, there are many ways to reduce plastic pollution.

What is being done about plastic pollution? 

  • Various groups and individuals are making efforts to reduce plastic pollution, from creating alternative materials to inventing novel ways to clean up plastic from the environment.

What can I do about plastic pollution?

  • Individuals can take various actions to reduce plastic pollution, from using less plastic to contacting elected officials to ask for changes to policy.

Content Connections

This module is designed to address English Language Arts standards and to be taught during the literacy block. But the module intentionally incorporates science and Social Studies content that may align to additional teaching during other parts of the day. These intentional connections are described below.

Next Generation Science Standards

Life Science Performance Expectation

  • MS-LS2-4: Construct an argument supported by empirical evidence that changes to physical or biological components of an ecosystem affect populations.

College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards

  • D2.Civ.13.6-8. Analyze the purposes, implementation, and consequences of public policies in multiple settings.
  • D2.His.14.6-8. Explain multiple causes and effects of events and developments in the past.

Technology and Multimedia

  • Devices to access the internet: To enable students to watch and analyze documentary films and conduct research about plastic pollution.

  • Video cameras or smartphones: To record video for students' documentary clips.

  • Computers or tablets: To create and edit videos for the performance task and conduct research for action plans.

  • Devices to record presentations: To review presentations for formative and summative assessments and record presentations for learning and assessment purposes.

Refer to each Unit Overview for more details, including information about what to prepare in advance.

Optional: Community, Experts, Fieldwork, Service, and Extensions


  • Arrange meetings either with the experts in the fields listed below or others who may have had experience with fighting pollution or designing public policy.


  • Contact local environmental scientists, public policy experts, waste management companies, and other groups or individuals who have expertise in this area.
  • Contact local documentary filmmakers to ask them to mentor students in the art of documentary filmmaking.


  • Visit sites of interest—such as recycling plants, landfills, or natural areas where cleanup efforts are underway—to see how plastic is disposed of and other cleanup efforts.


  • Inform interested students that they can join community organizations that clean up plastic from natural areas or educate others (e.g., younger students) about how to reduce, reuse, and recycle plastics.


  • Encourage students eager to expand their engagement with the topic beyond the classroom to record videos of their interviews with community members and work on “mini documentaries,” or write stories of the people they interview to share with larger audiences.


Each unit file includes supporting materials for teachers and students, including guidance for supporting English language learners throughout this unit.


Each unit in the 6-8 Language Arts Curriculum has two standards-based assessments built in, one mid-unit assessment and one end of unit assessment. The module concludes with a performance task at the end of Unit 3 to synthesize students' understanding of what they accomplished through supported, standards-based writing.

Performance Task

Plastic Pollution Documentary Clip

Throughout the module, students read texts, watch videos, and conduct research into the problem of plastic pollution and the possible solutions. In the performance task, students will share their learning with an audience beyond their classroom by creating a brief documentary clip. Creating this clip is important because plastic pollution presents an urgent and real problem, and the ability to think through solutions, act on them, and share progress with others will be crucial in addressing it. In Unit 3, students will have worked with groups to write a documentary script and create a storyboard to plan their documentary clips. For the performance task, students work in their triads to film and edit their documentary clips with the purpose of sharing their message with their peers and a larger audience.

Texts and Resources to Buy

Texts and resources that need to be procured. Please download the Required Trade Books and Resources Procurement List for procurement guidance.

Text or Resource Quantity ISBNs
A Plastic Ocean (DVD)
by Craig Leeson, director
one per classroom
ISBN: 602573215302
Trash Vortex
by Danielle Smith-Llera
one per student
ISBN: 9780756557492


Each module is approximately 6-8 weeks of instruction, broken into 3 units. The Module-at-a-Glance charts, available on the grade level landing pages, provide a big picture view of the module, breaking down the module into a week-by-week outline. It shows how the module unfolds, the focus of each week of instruction, and where the six assessments and the performance task occur.

Get updates about our new K-5 curriculum as new materials and tools debut.

Sign Up