On a road trip recently, my husband and I passed a mountain range covered with wind turbines. They were actually quite beautiful and engaging to watch. I stopped to photograph them and started to think about all of the different authentic projects they could inspire. Building a model demonstrating how wind turbines work. Exploring other sources of unlimited energy. Learning about some of the problems with the turbines. Proposing solutions for these problems. Controversies? Other sources of unlimited energy… Sources of limited energy…
I then remembered a beautiful quilt that a friend of mine had made of wind turbines. Yes, it is an unusual quilt, she does unusual work! So, the wind turbines inspired her to create a work of art. Which then led to other quilts showing different sources of energy, and her most unusual quilt to date, toxic waste drums – it is an absolutely gorgeous and unique quilt.
We have always allowed adults to take a topic and run with it. Not only in art, but in science, math, business… Actually, this is encouraged in places that value creative thinking. Shouldn’t educators be encouraging the same thing?
We are educating children for jobs that don’t even exist yet. They will work in environments, doing jobs, that we probably can’t even imagine. Ingenuity and creative thinking will be mandatory for them to prosper. So, shouldn’t we be not only letting children, but encouraging them to look at something and explore it in a way that is meaningful to them. Look at a question or a problem, and then tackle it with as much creativity, and divergent thinking as they possibly can? Take the road less traveled. Diverge, create, branch off, discover, explore…Authentic Learning.
Quilt by Chris Staver
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…
Balancing more than one student in an authentic project can be a little tricky. With authentic learning you want each child to be able to explore and follow leads that interest them. So, what do you do if you introduce a topic and then your students go off in different directions.
Even if you are working with a small group, it can be a challenge to follow each student on their journey. You also don’t want to lose control of the project.
The important thing is to keep in mind what your objective is. If you introduced a project about the ukulele, and one of your goals was for your students to create a time line about the history of the ukulele, you need to decide what you really want your students to learn. If the concept of developing a time line is the objective, then that is what you focus on. So, if one student stays with the ukulele, one goes with a flute, the third get interested in marching bands, and the fourth moves from marching bands to football, they all can create a time line about the history of their interest. Even in a large class, everyone can be working on time lines.
If it is important that all students learn about the ukulele, this can also branch out into the history of the ukulele (history buffs), writing music for the ukulele (musical talents), building a ukulele (construction fans)…
Just keep in mind what you actually want/need to accomplish as a teacher, and then let your students fulfill your goals following their passions.
A friend of mine recently sent me a text from a day trip to Washington, D.C. It was one of our first beautiful spring days and she had gone down to enjoy the spring flowers.
I had just finished two blog posts that needed pictures from Washington. I asked her if she could take a picture of the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian Castle. As an afterthought, I asked for pictures of other Washington icons.
She was not able to get the two pictures I needed. (Oh well, guess I will need to grab the husband and make the four-hour trip from Pennsylvania down to Washington to get the photos…and go out to lunch, do some shopping…) However, looking at the gorgeous pictures she did send me, I immediately had ideas for several future blog posts. The pictures were total authentic inspirations. And, of course, my hope is that my blog inspires authentic teaching and projects.
Then it dawned on me, looking at the pictures, that perhaps we do field trips with children backwards. I did the majority of my teaching career in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. We frequently took field trips to iconic D.C. places at the end of units of study. The thought was that at that point, the kids would have plenty of background knowledge and would benefit the most from the field trips. But authentic projects should start from an inspiration. The kids were the most engaged when something real inspired them, and then they took the project from there.
So maybe instead of waiting until nearly the end of a unit of study to take kids on a trip to see what they were actually learning about, we should take kids on trips to see what inspires them, and then start the authentic learning from there.
I am very excited to announce that One School’s Journey made Chanticleer International Award’s Shortlist for Instruction and Insight Books. I am so very proud of this book and honored to be on this list.
One School’s Journey tells the story of the discovery and use of authentic projects to reach and teach students. While offering procedure, guidance, and examples, this is not a book of lesson plans. Our bias is that for true authentic teaching you cannot follow someone else’s lesson plans. Authentic projects come from the heart and are adapted to meet the needs and interests of students. Our hope is that the reader will find inspiration from what we discovered as we set down the path to authentic teaching and learning.
One School’s Journey by Eleanor K. Smith and Margaret Pastor is available for free on Kindle Unlimited. It is also available in paperback and on Kindle from Amazon.
Adults often do many things for children that they can do for themselves, especially when preparing for a project. We all know how important it is to be prepared for a lesson with students. But being prepared, and adults doing work that students can learn from, are two very different things. Planning and gathering materials for a project are important activities that students can and should be involved with. When plans miraculously happen, and materials just appear, many learning opportunities are lost.
When we presented the State Fair to other groups of students, many math opportunities occurred. There was measurement to plan how to set up the fair in the space we had available. There was discourse and compromise among students to agree on how to place each state in the fair – Alaska wanted to display the states alphabetically, Texas by size, California by population… A schedule was developed – after the students figured out how much time each group would need at the fair based on number of displays to visit and how much average time would be spent at each display. Groups were invited based on this schedule. Then the schedule was adjusted for groups that had a conflict with the available times. Then the schedule was re-adjusted after the first day when the students realized larger groups and older students needed more time at the fair than smaller and younger groups, etc.
There are many math opportunities for parents working with children at home as well. When inviting other children over make sure your child is involved in this discourse. You would be surprised how much math you use every day without even realizing it. (Except of course when I balance my checkbook. Then I totally realize how much math is involved as I try to make sense of the usual mess I have made!)
When we developed The State Fair Project in fourth grade there were countless opportunities to use math. During the year we were constantly looking at statistics for each state. Size, population, socio-economic make-up, average temperature, significant dates… All of these numbers were looked at and discussed. The numbers were used not only to compare and contrast the 50 states but to develop some cause and effect hypotheses.
If the average temperature of a state was warmer than most, how would this effect the size of the population. How about the average age of the population? Why would older people tend to live in a warmer climate? Why would more Olympic skiers grow up in specific states? But, why were there Olympic figure skaters training in Florida?
Every statistic became a jumping off point for further discussion and research. Questions created more questions. The use of math was constant, fluid, and authentic. (And of course, reading and writing skills were strengthened as well.)
*This authentic project can be easily adapted for territories, counties…whatever system the country you are studying uses.