Teaching English with Merge Cubes

By Paige Wilson

As a preservice English teacher at Grove City College, I am always looking out for ways to incorporate technology into the English classroom in a meaningful and authentic way.

Why?

  1. Because the world we live in now is filled with technology. Everywhere you look, there are screens—many of them in the hands of children and adolescents. Students are using technology daily, as educators, we cannot afford to ignore the technology that permeates the lives of our students. They need to learn how to use these tools in a way that is beneficial and edifying.
  2. When used well, technology can be a tool for motivation and engagement. Students will be able to see the connection between what they are learning in school, and what they are doing outside of school.
  3. Additionally, media literacy and computer skills have become a key component of almost all jobs. To prepare students for the future, educators should strongly consider building these key skills.
  4. Finally, technology ties into the core purpose of education: teaching students how to thrive. That includes guiding them to discover their unique voices, and by encouraging them to build on their strengths and use those strengths to overcome their areas of need. The ability to use technology effectively is one of the greatest strengths of this generation of students. So, it makes sense to use this “superpower” of theirs in a way that affirms their voice and channels it into active reading and purposeful writing.

That being said, I would like to introduce you to my favorite Ed tech tool: the Merge Cube.

I first learned about Merge Cubes in my Technologies of Instruction class. Later, I attended a session on Augmented Reality (AR) run by Dr. Fecich, the author of Edumagic: A Guide of Preservice Teachers.

During the session, she described several apps that could be used with the Merge Cube and then allowed us to experiment with it. I was lucky to be the randomly chosen winner of a Merge Cube that day, and have been scheming up ways to use it in my future classroom ever since.

So, what are Merge Cubes? Basically, Merge Cubes are 3-dimensional foam cubes that act like holograms when viewed using a smartphone.

They look like this… And this… And even like this….
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Actually, they can look like just about anything. A pulsing heart. A solar system. A telescope or a skull. You can hold them all in the palm of your hand.

Using different apps makes the Merge Cube change appearance. Students can move the cube in all directions to view the scene from different angles. Students can use the touch screen on their devices to click on different areas of the hologram and zoom in to find out more information.

If that was all it did, it would simply be a toy or bragworthy paperweight. However, its capabilities go far beyond that. For one thing, the apps allow pictures and videos to be taken while showing the hologram. Furthermore, students and teachers can create spaces for the Merge Cube using Cospaces Edu, a website that allows students to build digital 3D objects.

Merge Cube applications in the English Classroom

  • Imagine your students have just read a novel; for instance, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone or the Hobbit. Students can recreate a room in Hogwarts or Bilbo’s hobbit hole. To see an example on Cospaces Edu, check out “Sample Hagrid’s Cabin” by Brian Costello (costellb), author of The Teacher’s Journey.  (If you have a Merge Cube, open the Cospaces Edu app on your phone—otherwise, click the link to get an idea of what the cabin would look like.)
  • I cannot remember a single group writing project from high school that I enjoyed—especially for creative writing. One issue was that my fellow students and I did not agree on how the story should proceed. What is a student to do? Now, if we had been writing a choose-your-own-adventure story, the experience might’ve been different. After deciding on a beginning, any time the group disagreed on how to continue, they could break off into a different narrative thread. Later, those alternative narratives would be the parts of the story where the “adventurer” would need to make pivotal choices.  The best part is, after each group creates their Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Story, they can share them with their classmates. Their peers can read or listen to the stories, so students will have an authentic audience for their work.  To see an example of an app made for the Merge Cube by the company Mighty Coconut, check out 57° North, a Choose-Your-Own Adventure that allows you to turn the Merge Cube in different directions to make decisions.
    • Do you have any students interested in art or graphic design? Students can make slides, images, or artwork appear on the sides of the Merge Cube. It’s a great creative outlet for all learners to show what they know in a different way.
    • Do you have any students who enjoy acting or storytelling?  They can be a narrator, adding their voice to the story. Your students could even add music to the creation. How cool is that?
    • And for all those students who love video games and movies: They can add video or animations to their story creation. This takes differentiated instruction and assessment to a whole new level.
  • I mentioned before that it is possible to take pictures or videos on a smartphone while using the app. Apply this concept to reader’s theatre. Picture it, students reading aloud from Hamlet while holding a chattering skull. Or imagine they are reading aloud The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe, and a student suddenly pulls a pulsing heart from the floorboards—I mean, desk—and reads aloud the final chilling words of story.  That’s how it would appear on a video, while the reading student is holding only a cube. This could be a whole-class activity or a group activity, but either way, students can be creative in using the Merge Cube as a prop to their video.
  • Now this next idea will blow your mind! Combine application 1 and 3, and student can explain the 3-dimensional setting that they created on the Merge Cube while holding it in their hands. Another student or teacher could record their explanation and navigate through the 3D space on their phone. In the video, it will look like the student is holding a castle, or a cabin, or whatever setting they chose. Boom!
  • I must give credit to Dr. Fecich for this one. When students are reading aloud in class, the teacher can use the Merge Th!ngs app (in case you were wondering, the name of the app actually has an exclamation mark in it—that’s not a typo) and the free stand that comes with the Merge Cube so that students can read around the “fire.”  It’s a more subtle use of the Merge Cube, but it can make a regular reading day feel much more special to the students.

My professor, Dr. Fecich, was lucky enough to find Merge Cubes on sale for $1 each at Walmart. Although that sale has ended, they are available on Amazon for about $15.

For a more affordable option, Merge VR offers free printable sheets that can be constructed into Merge Cubes. Admittedly, the paper version is not as versatile as the actual foam cube. Nonetheless, the paper cubes work surprisingly well. One of the advantages of the printed version is that the size of the Merge can be increased significantly and still be used.

Also, for many activities, not every student needs to use a Merge Cube at the same time. A classroom could have fewer Merge Cubes and form groups or work with them at different times. Even with only one Merge Cube, a teacher can use their own device to project the image onto a whiteboard.

In addition to the five ways I recommend using Merge Cubes in the English classroom, there are countless other ways that educators have been using them. I highly recommend checking out these resources:

Ms. Wilson