I looked up in the sky a few days ago and saw a patchwork of contrails. What causes planes to leave contrails? Why are they more visible on some days? Can you learn something about a plane from the contrail it leaves? (Resource: Fantastic videos about contrails on YouTube!)
How many different types of planes are there? What new planes are currently being designed? Design a better plane. (Authentic Learning – start with a discussion of contrails and see where you end up…)
While students should be encouraged to find what they need for projects, focusing on creativity, using recyclables etc, sometimes something is needed that has to be purchased. There are so many authentic lessons that can be included in this process. Giving students a budget to work with is not only a great way to use and reinforce math, it also makes students aware of what they are spending, what they really need, and creative ways to get what they need.
When building dioramas, several fourth graders were adamant that they needed modeling clay. We approached this by telling them that the teachers were willing to put up $10 to buy clay. $10 for the entire class. The students searched on line and realized that even finding the best price, that was not a lot of clay for 30 students. After some discussion and problem solving, the kids decided to make their own clay. They still needed to buy materials to make clay, but the $10 provided by teachers was more than enough to get the materials they needed.
The authentic experience even moved into the science of color mixing as they bought food coloring to dye the clay the colors they needed. And it also moved into the authentic discussion of, and research about, what was the best laundry detergent to try to get red food coloring out of my white skirt. Sigh…
As I mentioned in another blog, typically we take students on an end-of-unit field trip to see what we just finished learning about. However, places like museums are really a fantastic jumping off point for the start of a project. (Field trips in general are fantastic starting points for projects.) The students certainly need some framework before they visit a museum. But beyond an introductory lesson, the museum itself can be the inspiration for an authentic project.
You never know what that inspiration might be. Years ago, I took a group of students to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Air and Space is my all-time favorite museum! I could not wait to share all of the amazing exhibits with my students. So, what were they most taken with? The super powerful air hand-dryer in the restroom and the futuristic trash compacting-machine in the snack bar. That is what got their attention. That is what blew them away. The automatic machines in the restroom and snack bar.
Initially, I tried to redirect them back to the museum, but then realized I had an authentic experience in the making. So, I let them continue to sit by the trash can and watch people throw their trash in. And I let them make many trips to the restroom to wash and dry their hands. And they went back to school and started to work on proposals and designs for more cool futuristic machines. Reading, writing, math…
So, museums are fantastic authentic resources for projects, you just never know what the inspiration/project might be!
When I first started writing this blog, I had links to several kids’ sites that had a lot of great information. However, the more I wrote, the more uncomfortable I became with just providing these links. In authentic teaching and learning, you want the student to own their research. Providing links to educational sites, even wonderful sites, takes that ownership away from the student. Ownership is a HUGE part of authentic learning. And students finding their own information on line is part of that ownership. Even the youngest students can be guided through the steps to find good information on line.
So, after much deliberation, I took the blogs with the links off of my site. It just seemed like it made it too easy, it took the ownership, and excitement, of finding a good source of information away from the kids. Honestly, some of the best sites I knew about were sites my students had found themselves, and introduced me to. Like some really, really phenomenal sites!
Kids do, of course, need guidance and often need help to find the information they need for a project. They need to be taught how to evaluate the source of their information. Also, be careful to look at what they have found. Many sites, even with the best of intentions, dumb down their material. Finding a site about space that has games where you are simply blowing up aliens to score points does not teach a child about space. (It doesn’t teach math either, contrary to what some of these sites claim.)
I have found that government agencies usually have great kids’ sites as part of their website. For example, go to a government site for weather, and you are bound to find a great website for educators and kids. Many universities also have great education sites on many topics.
If you and/or your students are really stuck finding some good sites for information for a project, please email me through this blog. As I have stated often, I am passionate about authentic learning, and am happy to help out.
Student Designed and Constructed Artifact Display
One of the most important goals of teaching authentically is to have the student own the project or experience. So, the very last thing that you would want to do is to buy expensive kits or materials. As a matter of fact, you really don’t want to purchase anything. The whole point is to have the student explore something and come up with their own approach and materials for the project.
While working on the Martian Colony Project we supplied nothing beyond standard classroom supplies. The kids found most of the materials they needed for the project. Most were recyclables and discarded items from around the house. We had an unlimited supply of cardboard boxes (most with the Amazon Logo on the side – no shortage of those). Lots of aluminum foil (for an outer-space look). Cardboard rolls, empty cans, newspapers, magazines, buttons…you name it and the kids found it. They were constantly researching (reading), planning (writing), and designing (math); figuring out creative ways to build what they wanted for the colony.
The creativity was amazing, the research was outstanding, the academic growth was huge. The concepts were internalized and owned by the students. The experience was authentic.
There are two basic types of resources: information students need, and materials students need. As educators, we frequently view ourselves as the supplier of these resources. A good teacher is prepared, correct? But spending our time locating the resources students need, and gathering materials for them is really taking away from their authentic experience. Even the youngest students can come up with ideas on how to find information and materials needed. And if the whole point of authentic learning is to get children ready for a future that we can’t even imagine, then they need to be able to find the resources they need, and put those resources to use.
That doesn’t mean a good teacher isn’t prepared. A good teacher is like the manager in a store. You make sure your store is fully stocked. You know what is in the store and where everything is at. You know what you want to sell. You train your staff how to function in your store. You set the tone for the staff (working together, helping each other). You provide direction. You have very specific goals. And then you let the staff do their jobs in the store.
When I started to write the above analogy, I was using a salesperson and a customer in the store. However, I realized that students are really more like staff, if you are functioning authentically. A good store manager wants to make it easy for the buyer to purchase something. That is not the goal of authentic teaching. The goal is that each staff member learns, grows, has great ideas to improve the store, owns their job…and someday takes over the store – so the manager can retire and move to Fiji!