Spice Up Your Novel Study, Part One: Virtual Field Trips

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Happy Thanksgiving break, everyone! It’s been a hot second since I have blogged (a new subject area plus larger class sizes has me struggling, y’all!) but I am finally making my triumphant return. Today, I’m starting a new series of posts that covers one of my favorite subjects: class novels!

Class novels (otherwise known as a chapter book read aloud) serve many purposes in my classroom. They are a mentor text that I use to teach skill-based mini-lessons. They are a way to expose my students to new genres, topics, and formats that they otherwise may not experience. They are a common literary experience that we share and refer back to all year long. And most importantly, they are a chance for us to pause our daily instruction and enjoy a really awesome book!

I think class novels are amazing, but I am careful not to turn them into an obligation. I want my students to develop a true love of reading, so I am cautious about assigning too much work that is related to our novel. I don’t want it to feel like another thing they HAVE to do; instead, I want it to be something they look forward to each day (and they do!). Plus, filling out character maps and answering comprehension questions after each chapter isn’t reflective of how real readers read. When was the last time you, a grown adult, paused between chapters to answer questions? Exactly. If we don’t do those sorts of things as adult readers, we shouldn’t be asking them of our students.

I’ve also found that most worksheets and novel packets are a time suck. I’m already pressed for time each day, so if I can eliminate one more task from our to-do list, I’m a happy camper. And finally, most novel companions are usually not very rigorous and ask students surface-level questions. When it comes to assessing student learning, they are never my first choice.

Instead of worksheets and packets, I use a few strategies throughout the year to help my students develop a love of reading; to assess my students’ understanding of skills; to incorporate current events, social justice, and the real world; and above all, keep reading fun! Today I will be talking all about Virtual Field trips and how I use them to build students’ background knowledge and get them excited about they books we read.

What is a Virtual Field Trip?

Virtual Field Trip--South SudanVirtual field trips are an amazing way for your students to immerse themselves in the setting of the novel, before they even begin reading! Kids are naturally curious, and allowing them to explore pictures or videos is an easy and effective way to get them excited about a topic. Virtual field trips are also a great way to have kids practice drawing conclusions, making predictions, making connections, and asking questions, which are all important skills for readers to have!

A virtual field trip is exactly what it sounds like: using technology to take a field trip to wherever your book is taking place. I’ve found that VFTs work best when your novel is historical fiction or taking place in a setting/time period that is different from what your students are used to. My students have used VFTs to explore New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina; South Sudan during the Second Sudanese Civil War; and Europe during the Holocaust.

Why Use a Virtual Field Trip? 

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Students love technology, so by incorporating it into your reading class, you are automatically going to boost engagement. Pictures and videos, which take center stage during a VFT, are forms of media that are accessible to all students, including emerging bilinguals and those who receive special education services. As a result, all students are able to participate in this type of activity.

VFTs also help establish important background knowledge that students need before beginning a text that takes place during a different time period or in a different setting. This is especially important if the book takes place during a historical time period, since many students are lacking in important historical context as a result of social studies class time being greatly reduced or cut altogether.

Finally, showing students videos, pictures, or maps will get them excited about what they are going to be reading, especially if the media you choose are interesting and showcase how the book will be different from what they’re used to in their daily life. VFTs will make your job as the teacher easier, because students will automatically be more excited about the class novel!

How do I Make a VFT?

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Designing a VFT can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. In general, a VFT is a collection of pictures, videos, maps, artifacts, or other documents that students can explore at their own pace. Here’s how I’ve used VFTs in my own classroom:

  • When we read Zane and the Hurricane, students explored video footage of Hurricane Katrina destruction and used Google Earth to explore the city of New Orleans.
  • When we read A Long Walk to Water, students used Google Earth to explore South Sudan, and looked at pictures of South Sudan that were relevant to the events in the book.
  • When we read Making Bombs for Hitler, students watched video interviews with Holocaust Survivors, took a virtual tour of the Anne Frank house, and explored a collection of Holocaust artifacts that were collected by the Google Arts and Culture Project.

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I make these VFTs available for my students by creating a Google slideshow or Google doc that contains all of the links, pictures, videos, etc. that I want them to explore. I then post this link in Google Classroom, but you could easily swap out Google Classroom for whatever platform you use for student communication. I am lucky to have one-to-one technology (thanks, DonorsChoose!), but you could still do a VFT without one-to-one tech. Students could complete the VFT with a partner, sharing a piece of technology; they could explore the VFT as part of a workstation or center; or you could do the VFT whole group, projecting the videos, pictures, and maps, and giving kids time to process what they are seeing by sharing their reactions with a partner.

Click here to see our VFT to South Sudan.

Click here to see our VFT to New Orleans.

Click here to download my Holocaust VFT (it’s free).

What do Students Do During a VFT?

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During a VFT, students are essentially doing the same things they would be doing during an in-person field trip to a museum: exploring what interests them! After introducing the VFT and its purpose, let students explore the resources you have provided at their own pace. If I want my students to explore all of the resources, I find it helpful to have time parameters for each area of the VFT. I provide verbal reminders, like “You have five minutes left to explore the videos, then you should be moving onto Google Earth.” Other times, I let the students choose how they want to spend their time, and allow them to decide if they want to explore all of the resources, or devote their entire time to just one.

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As students are completing the VFT, I always provide some sort of reflection sheet to hold them accountable for what they are observing, wondering, etc. What my reflection sheet looks like depends largely on what I want students to get out of the experience. During our VFT to South Sudan, I provided students with an organizer to help them reflect on the differences between their daily life, and what life looked like for children in South Sudan. During our Holocaust VFT, students completed a question chart to prepare for a larger Holocaust inquiry project they would be completing next. I also provided students with a reflection sheet to help them process the images they saw, and record what they were still curious about.

Regardless of what your reflection sheet looks like, it is important to have a way for students to reflect on what they explored during the VFT. A reflection sheet helps the students synthesize the new information they have just learned, and it helps you understand what students found most interesting or what misconceptions may still exist. This can help tailor your instruction going forward into the novel study.

Click here to see my South Sudan reflection sheet. 

Click here to download my Holocaust VFT reflection sheets (for free).

What Happens After a VFT?

You start reading the book! But really, it is that simple. If you’re going to have students complete a project alongside the class novel, a VFT can provide students with more ideas than they probably would have been able to come up with on their own. Otherwise, you start reading the book, and prepare for your students to blow you away with connections they are able to make throughout the entirety of the text. Every time we do a VFT, I am reminded of their value, because students will reference the videos, images, and maps they saw long after our VFT has ended. This deepens the discussions we are able to have about the book, and makes the reading experience more authentic for my students.

That’s a wrap on VFTs! If you have questions, please drop them in the comments below, or feel free to reach out to me on Instagram (@booksandbeyonce). And be sure to come back soon for the next installment of my Spice Up Your Novel Study series!

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