Authentic Teaching – Make it Real, Make it Count

Make it real and make it count.  That is the mantra of authentic teaching and learning.  But does “real” really mean “real”? 

The photo above is from a Virtual Science Fair on Mars.  While creating the Martian Colony, we decided to hold a Virtual Science Fair – on Mars!  We learned about the scientific process and the kids all came up with a question and hypothesis, and a proposal for conducting an experiment on Mars.  They then built a model showing what their experiment might look like on Mars. 

Our focus was teaching the concept of hypothesis.  So many times, we see Science Fair entries that are really reports, not experiments.  So, with this group of fifth-graders we took the process apart and focused on each piece throughout the year.  The kids were graded on whether or not they wrote a hypothesis.  In the end, most of them went way beyond that.

The Science Fair may have been “Virtual” in that we really were not on Mars, but it was real science, and it did count!

*Our favorite entry was the student who wanted to know what would happen if you took a can of soda out on the Martian surface.  Her hypothesis was that it would explode because of the extreme cold temperature on Mars.  She decided to test this out in her freezer at home.  And the can did explode.  We hid from that mother when she visited the Virtual Science Fair!

Authentic Teaching – Cooking

I don’t think I can write too often about cooking.  I can’t think of an authentic activity that can inspire so many driving questions and possible authentic projects. I have written before about using cooking to teach math.  But you can also teach reading through cooking.  And social studies.  And science…

Children need to use math to cook.  But they also should be looking up and reading recipes. And how about finding special dishes that represent different cultures.  Why do people eat different foods in different countries?  What grows best in different locations?  How does this affect what people cook with and eat?  Lots of different and delicious authentic ways to go with cooking! Enjoy!

Authentic Teaching – The Starting Point

NASA Photo of Ingenuity Flying Over the Surface of Mars!!

Early this morning, NASA flew a helicopter on Mars! I think that NASA has had so many successes recently that it is easy to forget how difficult this is, and what a huge historic accomplishment this represents. For the first time, humans have flown an aircraft on another planet!

To be honest, to me this is such a huge event that I can’t even begin to think about an authentic project, or an authentic driving question for a project. I think just talking to students, and gaining an understanding of their questions about this event, should lead to an authentic starting point. And honestly, isn’t that how all authentic projects should start?

Congratulations to NASA on the first flight of Ingenuity!

Authentic Scrapbooking

I am in the process of “scrapbooking” the 67 counties of the State of Pennsylvania.  I started this project when COVID-19 hit our shores.  It seemed a safe way to get out and explore, learning more about our state in day trips, or spending the night in hotels and beds and breakfasts that were following safety guidelines. It kept us in Pennsylvania and close to home.  It also was a way for us to, in a small way, help local businesses that were struggling to survive the pandemic.

 We are fortunate that we live in the center of a rectangular state – literally in Centre County – and can pretty much get anywhere in the state in a few hours.

This has been an amazing experience in authentic learning.  I am understanding so much more about the geography of our state.  We have lived here for five years, but really had a limited understanding of what was around us.  This has also forced us to dig deep in some counties to find something interesting to do, but if you dig, you will find that authentic experience!

You also need to listen to those you meet.  Really listen – like listening to your students regarding what interests them.

In one bed and breakfast, the owner had a collection of wonderful gourds on display.  She told us about a gourd factory in a neighboring county and that became our destination for that county. 

On a recent trip, only one hour north of where we live, the waitress in a restaurant showed us pictures of elk in her front yard.  She told us which road to drive home on, and we thought what the heck, although we were skeptical and figured she was just lucky to capture that photo. We were stunned and blown away by the number of wild elk we encountered on the drive she suggested, and yes the elk were in people’s yards!

Scrapbooking has been a great way for me to present this project.  There are other ways I could have done this, but I love scrapbooking, so this worked for me.  I actually didn’t formally have to do anything as a product, as I am a tad old for school assignments, but this was a lot more fun than checking off a list, and I think being authentic has become so internalized I can’t turn it off anymore!  Authentic experiences are engaging and you learn! I have learned so much about Pennsylvania and we have only visited 23 of the 67 counties in our state.

I honestly knew nothing about elk, and can’t say that I cared, but have now spent hours researching and learning about his amazing and majestic animal. We are actually planning another trip up north soon to see more elk, postponing a planned shopping trip in another county that is now reopening. Me postponing a shopping trip, truly amazing! The world has finally stopped spinning!

Authentic Teaching and Learning

This artwork was done by a 5th grade student who was working on the Martian Colony Project I was involved with.  I wish I could remember his name, I would give him credit for the artwork.

Someone from the outside looking in might question the time spent on this illustration.  Isn’t this a waste of valuable learning time.  This was done in the classroom, not in art class.  Shouldn’t the student have been reading, writing, or doing math.

When working on authentic projects it is important to remember that what you see as the final project is only a snapshot of the learning that took place.  While I don’t remember the student’s name, I do remember that conversation we had while he worked.  He was looking at a picture of a rover on Mars and asking all sorts of questions.  His classroom teacher and I directed him to sources to find his answers.  He also posed improvements to the rover.  This illustration accompanied a brochure that the class put together to accompany the tours they were giving of their Martian Colony.

So if you walk into a classroom where students are constructing, drawing, painting…stop and listen to what they are saying and what they are really doing.  The learning is authentic, ongoing, and owned by the students.

Authentic Teaching – Following Student Interest

This picture appears to be of flowers, but if you look closely you can see snow out the window. 

When we present students with driving questions and prompts, it is surprising how many times students notice the snow in the background and want to frame their project around that.

I taught in Central Florida for several years, and had the opportunity to take field trips to EPCOT at Disney World several times.  (It was not exactly a tough day at work.)  What fascinated me was how often the kids were enthralled by something other than the actual ride or show.  More than once I had to grab a kid by the collar who was leaning over way too far to see what was making the ride move or stay in its lane.

When we finished the ride, the discussion wasn’t about the obvious, it was about the behind the scenes mechanics.  How cool was that!

This trip was the culmination of a yearly unit on countries. Each student researched a country, wrote a report, and constructed a diorama.  Decades later, I realize that it would have been even better to go to EPCOT first and then have the kids design and build their models.  I can’t imagine how far they would have taken the project with the information they gained on the trip.  And if their final projects were more about design, motion, and construction, rather than the country they picked to learn about, then the projects would have been less “themed” learning and more “project-based/authentic

So, while we may be presenting a driving question about flowers, to really be authentic, be willing to go off on a project about snow.

Authentic Teaching – Poets and Poetry

Illustration by Eyen Johnson

I just attended an on-line poetry reading where the iconic Robert Frost Poem The Road Not Taken was shared.  I love Robert Frost and I love this poem.  Listening to this poem made me think about what a great idea it is to teach elementary and middle school students using the poetry of Robert Frost.  Ummm…NOT!
Let’s be honest – there are very few children who are mature enough to appreciate Robert Frost.  Maybe by high school, but I can assure you I didn’t appreciate him when I was in high school.  I had no use for his poetry.  I hated memorizing his poems.  And I honestly had no idea why this was anything but a waste of my time.  I pretty much hated poetry.

So fast forward to my teaching career and good old Robert is part of the 5th grade curriculum.  Now I am not one to fight city hall…so what to do?

Well, enter authentic teaching, learning, and projects.  We introduced the kids to Robert Frost and all the other poets that were in the curriculum. But then, instead of memorizing a poem, or writing in the style of Robert Frost we turned the kids loose to write their own poetry.

In one class the kids were working on a Martian Colony, so they wrote Martian Poetry.  Their poetry covered every topic possible – sports on Mars, monsters on Mars, weather, friendship, loneliness…  Some of the kids modeled their poetry after a Robert Frost poem, others looked to different poets. (The most popular choice by far – Shel Silverstein). 

The class ended up publishing a book of Martian Poetry that went home to every family. 

So, the kids really learned about poetry, they learned about different poets, and they had fun writing poetry.  The curriculum was covered. The project was authentic. The learning was authentic

Happy Holidays

Many people will be celebrating Christmas this week.  Many other families are, or will be, celebrating different winter holidays.

The holidays are certainly not what I hoped for this year.  My dreams of my entire family gathering for Thanksgiving, as we always have, did not happen.  The holidays this month have been piecemeal and very different from other years.  But different does not mean bad.  This has been an opportunity to grow and learn about what is truly important.

There are many ways children can be involved in the celebrations this week, even with the restrictions, monetary concerns…  Time for homemade gifts, letters, cards, homemade gift cards (for cleaning, cooking, babysitting).  Starting new family traditions.  And of course, these activities can all involve reading, writing, math, social studies, science…

Whatever holidays you celebrate this month, I hope they are safe and happy.  And the teacher in me also hopes you find ways to authentically continue to allow your learners to blossom and grow.

Authentic Learning Turning Into an Authentic Project

I finally learned how to bake cookies.  Seriously!  I have never been able to bake cookies – my result was always a melted, burnt mess.  But thanks to a lot of instruction and patience from my daughter-in-law, I have finally mastered baking cookies.

So, for the first time, I am going to make holiday cookies this year.  I am going to use the recipes I have already mastered and change them slightly for the holidays.  For example, using red and green M&Ms only for my M&M cookies.  I am also thinking about how to tweak my chocolate chip cookies for the holidays.  Any ideas?

I have written about baking and cooking many times on my blog.  This is one of the best authentic ways to teach so many math and reading skills.

With the current pandemic, I was also thinking about authentic social awareness skills.  There are many single people in my neighborhood who have been isolating alone now for months.  I am thinking about leaving a plate of holiday cookies on several doorsteps.  I thought about doing this anonymously, but with food I think it is better that the receiver knows where the treats came from.

Doing this with children could easily turn into an authentic project.  Baking is just the starting point. Conversation while baking could turn into a project of making and leaving home made ornaments on doorsteps to brighten people’s holiday.  Or maybe making a small homemade gift. 

Perhaps this could turn into an authentic project learning about all the holidays people celebrate this time of year, and what gifts are usually given, if any, for these holidays. I would love to receive a gift from another religion/culture with a written explanation of what this gift represents. 

So, I started writing about my new-found ability to bake cookies, and am now thinking about leaving some unique gifts from other religions/cultures on my neighbors’ doorsteps, with an explanation about what the gifts represent. I need to do some research and planning. I will need to do some writing. And I am going to need to be creative. This is an authentic project!

Authentic Teaching – New is Old Again

This old Sampler was hanging on the wall of a home I was recently in.  It got me thinking about how we used to teach – make it real and make it count. 

I am certainly not advocating that we return to the days of girls being educated in sewing and cooking only – with only peripheral attention to other academics at best. But if you put history in context, these were skills that girls needed to survive.  So, what do girls – and boys – need today to survive?  What counts?  What it authentic?

With a major holiday tomorrow in the United States, and many holidays approaching world wide, what are some things that children could authentically do to learn and grow?  Children need to be able to read, write, calculate, and understand our place in the world.  They need to be computer literate.  They need to be able to evaluate information being presented to them.  They need to think for themselves.

For Thanksgiving tomorrow, they won’t be stitching samplers, well I am guessing most won’t, but they can be reading recipes and helping with the cooking for Thanksgiving. Perhaps they will be adding favorite ingredients to recipes, or creating homemade centerpieces. And with many families not able to gather due to the pandemic, perhaps they can think of creative ways to include those they are separated from.

Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate this holiday tomorrow. And Happy Holiday Season to everyone!

Stay Safe!