Authentic Teaching – Controlling An Authentic Project

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about a visit to the PEZ Factory and how a fun authentic project might be about the history of favorite candies. I mentioned that Milton Hershey was almost a passenger on the Titanic, and a student might end up doing a project about those who perished on the Titanic. So, how does a teacher keep control of a project if students end up following different paths of interest. The key is for the teacher to have very clear objectives and goals before the driving question/authentic project is introduced.

For example, if your goal is to teach time lines, then the history of a candy is a perfect project. And if a student decides to research the Titanic, there is a fascinating time line to create for that.

With very clear goals, it is not that difficult to incorporate a student’s interests and authentic discoveries into the project.

And if you read my blog a few weeks ago, my time line shows how long it took my husband to discover he liked PEZ candies and how long it took him to eat a bucket full of them…

Authentic Prompts

I look at the above photo and see mountains. I see clues as to where this photo might have been taken. I ponder how mountains form. I see high mountains, but hear my husband’s voice reminding me that these east coast mountains are nothing compared to the mountains out west. I see a US National Park and think about the history of the National Park system. I see beauty, but I also see possible stories about survival in the wilderness. I see clouds. I see trees in the summer. I wonder how the colors might differ in the fall, or winter.

One photo can inspire so many different thoughts and authentic projects.  What authentic means is make it real and make it count. Making it real means starting with something real, or something that matters. (Photo, story, article, book, movie, personal experience, field trip…)

As a teacher, it can seem daunting to simply let students go in a million different directions. But it can be real to each student within curriculum goals, while allowing the teacher to maintain classroom management. Management from the instructional stand point, behavior becomes almost a non-existent problem when students are engaged.

If this photo is used as a prompt, a driving question can be formulated that takes the students in the direction that the teacher wants/needs to go, while leaving room for students to follow a path of interest to them. You just may be surprised where you end up when you start with a specific goal, but have an open-mind about how you might get there.

*This photo was taken in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. My husband went on a long and difficult hike to capture this photo. I went on a long and not-so-difficult shopping trip in town!

Authentic Teaching

We recently stopped by a museum that depicted the past Native American inhabitants of the area. I particularly liked this display that showed the underlying structure of the shelters that they built. I was going to do some research into what these shelters were called, who the Natives were… Then I realized that is the whole point of teaching authentically. The kids do the research and they take their interests from there.

What happened historically in teaching was that the teacher did all the research. The teacher presented all the facts, and then gave a quiz. The students memorized all the facts, passed the quiz – well some did – and then promptly forgot what they learned.

If a driving question were developed from this photo, it could be something like, “What were the Native Americans building with this framework?” That is actually probably all students need to know to start their research.

From there, students could engage in authentic projects about Native shelters, food, clothes, or they might segue this into a project about modern homes, or mountain ranges (as seen in the background of the photo)… That is authentic teaching and learning.

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