Build Background Knowledge: What Is Plastic Pollution? | EL Education Curriculum

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ELA 2019 G7:M4:U1

Build Background Knowledge: What Is Plastic Pollution?

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In the first half of Unit 1, students are introduced to the topic of plastic pollution and how it affects humans, animals, and the environment. First, students infer the topic of plastic pollution through a scavenger hunt throughout the school (or classroom), in which they document plastic use, waste, and pollution in their environment. Students then begin studying the documentary A Plastic Ocean, noting the transcript's portrayal of a subject as compared to the film's portrayal. Students also analyze the film's main ideas and supporting details, as well as how the ideas in the video introduce the issue of plastic pollution. Students identify and analyze the speakers' arguments by evaluating their claims as well as the soundness of their reasoning and the relevance and sufficiency of their evidence. 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. Students then complete the mid-unit assessment, in which they watch a clip of A Plastic Ocean and answer selected and constructed response questions to demonstrate their ability to identify main ideas and supporting details, compare the portrayal of a subject in the film and transcript, and 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 author's purpose and central ideas. Students then learn to analyze the text for how the author distinguishes her position from that of others. Throughout the second half of the unit, students work together as a class and in small groups to read and analyze the anchor text, completing note-catchers and participating in discussions to practice analyzing the central ideas and the author's purpose and positions on plastic pollution. During the end of unit assessment, students read and analyze the end of Trash Vortex, to analyze central ideas as well as the author's purpose and how she distinguishes her position from others.

Please note: For the 6-8 Language Arts Curriculum, there are Teaching Notes for each unit that contain helpful information for supporting English language learners. These overview notes complement the more specific English language learner supports and differentiated materials within each lesson. You will find the Teaching Notes in the Unit download below.

CCS Standards

The Four Ts

  • Topic: Plastic Pollution 
  • Task: 
    • Selected and constructed response questions to compare portrayals of subjects in the film and transcript and to evaluate speakers' argument in A Plastic Ocean
    • Selected and constructed response questions to analyze central ideas as well as the author's point of view and purpose in Trash Vortex.
  • Targets: RI.7.1, RI.7.2, RI.7.6, RI.7.7, RI.7.10, SL.7.2, SL.7.3, L.7.4a
  • Texts: A Plastic Ocean (DVD) directed by Craig Leeson, Trash Vortex by Danielle Smith-Llera


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.

Habits of Character/Social-Emotional Learning Focus

Central to the EL Education curriculum is a focus on "habits of character" and social-emotional learning. Students work to become effective learners, developing mindsets and skills for success in college, career, and life (e.g., initiative, responsibility, perseverance, collaboration); work to become ethical people, treating others well and standing up for what is right (e.g., empathy, integrity, respect, compassion); and work to contribute to a better world, putting their learning to use to improve communities (e.g., citizenship, service).

In this unit, students focus on working to become effective learners as they persevere to analyze arguments in a documentary and in the author's purpose and point of view in complex texts. Students also take responsibility and initiative as they collaborate during in-class discussions and in group analysis work. Students focus on working to become ethical people by showing empathy and compassion for the people and animals threatened by pollution. As they explore the anchor text Trash Vortex and the documentary A Plastic Ocean, students witness the habits of character that are exhibited by the filmmakers, experts, scientists, and author as they contribute to making the world a better place in numerous ways. The various people filmed in A Plastic Ocean model contributing to a better world as they inform the public about the problem of plastic pollution, inspire environmental action, share their knowledge, and work to pass laws or create inventions to reduce plastic pollution in order to improve their shared spaces and environment. The scientists and volunteers in A Plastic Ocean demonstrate other habits of character, such as taking initiative in studying the plastic in the ocean, collaborating with each other to try and improve the oceans, and persevering through cleanup efforts.


Each unit is made up of a sequence of between 10-18 lessons. The Unit-at-a-Glance charts, available on the grade-level landing pages, break down each unit's lessons, showing CCS standards, agenda breakdown, daily learning targets, and ongoing assessments. The charts also indicate which lessons include mid- and end of unit assessments and the performance task.

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

Preparation and Materials

Prepare the Performance Task anchor chart (see Module Overview page), Guiding Questions anchor chart (see Lesson 1), and Author's Purpose anchor chart (see Lesson 8).

Prepare vocabulary logs and independent reading journals.

Ensure that families are aware of the sensitive content of A Plastic Ocean and Trash Vortex such as the extreme harm of plastic pollution to humans, animals, and the environment, including images of plastic surrounding and even killing animals in order to prepare their students who may be affected by this content in advance.

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