Teaching Authentically – 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!

Authentic Teaching – Including Educational Objectives

Parents frequently have the opportunity to just explore with their children.  Just spending time looking, listening, talking…  And this is when children really learn.  When the exchange is spontaneous, real, authentic

Authentic learning is just that.  It is spontaneous and real.  The only difference is that the educator also has objectives and goals that need to be woven in. 

Here is the difference.  The father gets up in the morning and decides to take his young son on a hike.  While on the hike they discover a lake.  The father and son enjoy the view, and the father also talks to his son about what they are seeing.  Lots of authentic learning is taking place.

Now, picture the father as an educator (and aren’t all parents educators).  He gets up in the morning, looks at his plan book, and sees he wants to introduce the concept of “lake” to his young learner.  So, he plans a hike that ends at a lake.  Here is the big difference. The father went on a hike and happened to end up at a lake. The educator plans a hike that ends up at a lake.

Once they get there, the educator lets his young learner take everything in, and also introduces the concept of “lake.”  And if there is not a lake nearby to explore, he plans a field trip.  Or he finds a video on line that explores a lake. (Authentic can be virtual as well…)

Oh…and in the first scenario, the mom left at home enjoyed some quality nap time!

Teaching Authentically Across Subject Areas

One Room School House

I once again decided that I needed to refine my blog and sort the authentic project ideas out by academic subject area.  Having been posting on this blog for over two years, it is becoming hard for even me to find what I wrote on certain topics.

So, I started to sort the posts out by reading, writing, math, science, social studies… And after about ten posts I realized I was posting every post under every academic subject area.  That is actually the point of authentic learning and using authentic projects to teach.  Teaching in isolation is isolating – that was profound!  Learning reverts to rote and meaningless – information to be accumulated to finish a worksheet, write a report, or memorized to pass a test.

When learning authentically, the subjects should be integrated.  Yes, a math teacher is responsible for teaching math, but by making it real and making it count, you are also teaching reading, writing, science…  And your lessons are meaningful to the student, and will be internalized. 

In a way, the teachers in one-room schoolhouses of the past had a huge advantage as they naturally had to teach this way.  Across all the academic subjects, across grade levels, with limited access to text books, and no worksheets.  Yes, they did a lot of drilling that we don’t have to do today because children don’t need to memorize, they need to learn how to access information. Access that wasn’t available in a one-room schoolhouse.  There was no internet, there were no calculators. But there also were no monstrous curriculums that needed to be covered with far too much information and far too little time. They had the same students for years on end, they got to know their students, and they had no choice but to make it real and make it count. It was a matter of survival, not a matter of a child passing some exam at the end of the year that had little to do with what mattered to them and their lives.

Yes, I am looking at one-room schoolhouses with rose-colored glasses. And yes, some teachers got paid in apples and horses – probably not the preference of most teachers today. (I won’t even comment on the out-house at the side of the one-room schoolhouse pictured above – thank you modern conveniences!) But there are some interesting authentic lessons to learn by looking back to the past.

Teaching Authentically – Engaging Your Learners

If your goal as an educator is to engage your learners, then authentic teaching is what you want to do. It works.  Why?  Because your learners get to explore what interests them, within the constructs of your objectives and goals.  I’ve used the analogy before, they are in the driver’s seat, but you are navigating.  Or maybe you are in the driver’s seat, but they are navigating.  I think it goes back and forth actually. But the bottom line is that they are exploring topics of interest to them, while you are meeting your own objectives and goals.

The photo above is from the Martian Colony Project that I was very involved with.  These fifth-graders came in from recess to work on the colony board.  The board was a great vehicle to teach many math skills – perimeter, area, scale, map grids…  But the students were also reading (research about Mars and everything else they wanted to incorporate into the colony), writing (writing about their colony plans), working with science, social studies…

And they were able to easily explore their own interests within the colony.  The colony had sports teams, a spa, snack bars, health clinics…you name it and the colony had it. 

So, substitute a project designing a new office building, a sports complex, a university, an airport…the authentic list is endless. 

Teaching Authentically – Horses to Football

Working on a recent blog about project ideas for horses, I was thinking that really this blog could be about any animal.  Which got me thinking that any of my blogs could be about something similar…or not similar.  That is what authentic teaching and learning is all about.

The point of authentic learning is to present an idea, and see where your learners take you.  You are still in the driver’s seat, but you are allowing your learners to navigate how you get there.  As long as you get there, that is the point.

So, if your goal is to learn about animal habitats, and you suggest an authentic project about horses, and your learner(s) are more interested in dogs, or cats, or snakes (yuck), then that is fine.  And if your learners are only interested in football…and they want to read about football and write about football…the history of football, create a timeline about the sport, design a football stadium.  Start pulling in all of your goals into football. 

So, we started with horses and now we are on football.  Back to animal habitats…how many stadiums are home to wild animals? What kinds of animals?  How did they get there? Has a wild animal ever interrupted a game?  What happened?  That is authentic teaching and learning.

Teaching Authentically – Cooking

There is really no easier way to authentically teach math at the elementary level than through cooking.  Think about all of the math you use when baking and cooking.  Measurement, fractions, time…

The mantra of authentic learning is, “make it real, make it count.”  Well it doesn’t get any more real than cooking!

Have fun, enjoy, and watch the learning take place!  (And my total admiration to those that teach those higher-level math classes where cooking doesn’t cut it!)

Authentic Learning – Never too Young to Explore Books

Authentic learning can’t start too young.  Exposing children to books and reading should start the day they are born.  As they grow, let them explore and enjoy books that interest them, on their level. 

Having a rich reading environment for children is hugely important.  Not only having lots of high interest reading material available, but having care-givers that model reading as well.

And remember, reading is reading. It doesn’t need to be Shakespeare for a child to grow as a reader. I am a voracious reader, mostly sci-fi. I don’t believe I would be the reader I am without sci-fi. No offense to the Great Bard, but not my cup of English tea. I’ve been reading sci-fi since I was old enough to hold a book. And now I write it!

And yep – that is my book, Tex the Explorer: Journey to Mars.  And yep – it is upside down! (Authentic Exploration)

Authentic Project Ideas Across Age/Grade Levels

I often see educators asking for project ideas for specific age/grade levels.  I hesitate sometimes to post a link to my blog when folks are asking for middle/high school ideas, as my entire career was spent at the elementary level.  But I think when I stop and look at my project ideas, most can be used for any age level.

I just saw this great idea for growing plants at home during the Coronavirus quarantine.  There were so many things the student growing these was trying to learn about.  She was interested in how plants reacted in direct sun versus shade.  How different plants needed more/less water.  What seeds grew best?  What seeds needed to be transplanted to a bigger container?  What happened when you kept the seedlings warmer versus cooler? So many authentic questions and so many authentic concepts to cover.

She researched/read about plants, kept notes and logs, measurements – so many authentic academic skills…

I love the egg carton idea.  So easy to get and use. I liked the idea so much, I used it on Zoom with my kindergarten-age granddaughter who was also interested in learning about plants.

Oh, the age of the student who gave me this idea, senior in college…just sayin!

Authentic Teaching

My daughter was taught reading in fifth grade using a very analytical program developed for above grade-level readers.  It was very researched-based.  Lots of solid educational theory behind it.  She was a voracious reader.  By the end of fifth grade she hated reading.  She hated books.  She refused to read.  (With a fantastic reading teacher in sixth grade, my daughter discovered her love of reading again, thank goodness.)

Why?  This program picked books apart.  The kids had to analyze them to death.  Every chapter was torn apart and looked at.

Think of it this way.  View a gorgeous Monet painting.  Stand several yards back and take it all in.  Breath-taking.  I fell in love with art through the work of Monet. Now, press your nose up to the canvas.  Pick it apart. Analyze the color.  Analyze the strokes.  Not so great anymore, is it?

I see the same thing happening with project based learning, what I call authentic learning.  Semantics – project based learning, authentic learning, learning through play…everything has the same goal – to make learning real, make it worthwhile, make it count.  Not only are folks hung up on the semantics, they are hung up on planning every detail out ahead of time, getting plans from others, following commercial programs – not authentic at all.

Don’t do to authentic projects what that reading program did.  Don’t pre-plan and pick apart the experience until you destroy the spontaneity and joy of learning for you and your students.  Go with the flow, as the captain of your ship keep it on course, but allow for your passengers to experience the choices from the buffet along the way!

Authentic Experiences – Mixing Batter

When you mix ingredients together for cookies or a cake, why does the batter lighten in color while you mix it?  Does this always happen when you mix ingredients together?  Why or why not? Is it important that this happens when you mix ingredients for cookies/cakes?  Will it bake better because this happens?  What happens if you don’t mix the batter enough?

What happens when you substitute ingredients?  Are there some ingredients that can be substituted and it won’t matter?  Which ingredients are very important and must be used for the recipe to work? What if you add more flour?  Less?  More sugar?  Less?  More baking soda? Less?  What is the difference between baking soda and baking powder?  Can you add too many chocolate chips? (Is there such a thing as too many chocolate chips?)

And don’t forget to talk about all of the measurements being used.

Lots of authentic questions.  Lots of authentic eating opportunities!