Authentic Teaching – 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. 

Authentic Teaching – 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.

Authentic Teaching – 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!

Authentically Teaching All Subjects

I had an idea to refine my blog by adding more topics to my menu, breaking down my ideas into reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. As I started to look at my entries, I realized that if I did this I would be moving away from exactly what I am trying to promote – teaching authentically.

If you are teaching authentically, then you are not teaching in isolation. If you are authentically teaching math, it should involve research/reading. If you are authentically teaching reading, it should involve social studies, science, and math. Writing should be authentically incorporated into every subject, it should not be an exercise unto itself.

So I am going to leave all of my ideas for authentic projects under one topic. It really shouldn’t make it more difficult to find an idea, as the whole point of my blog is to give you lots of ideas to think about and see if one resonates for you and your students. Need to teach area – design a dream house, measure for carpet, plan a new park, figure out how many chocolate chip cookies can fit on a cookie sheet… (And send me the recipe please – still looking for a great chocolate chip cookie recipe!)

Authentic Teaching – Listening to Students

As I have stated many times, I am passionate about Authentic Learning.  It is the reason I started my blog after I retired.  I was ready to stop teaching, but not ready to leave education and something I believe in with all my heart and soul.

I also love photography, and realized that my photos were giving me lots of project ideas.  If you stop, look around, and smell the roses, you will be amazed and what you see. 

But for a project to be authentic you need to listen, really listen, to your students.  What are they thinking about, what do they want to know, what are they interested in.  Then you create your driving question, and start to frame your authentic project with experiences that require that your content covers your curriculum objectives.

Authentic teaching requires planning, but that planning needs to revolve and change based on what your students are interested in. Plan a lesson, watch your student engagement, listen to their interests and questions, and change course if necessary.

Teaching authentically involves giving yourself that time to reflect and smell those roses. It is so important to good teaching and much more pleasant way to go through life!

Authentic Teaching – Baking

Baking is a fantastic authentic way to teach kids math.  (True confession – I still need to visualize some sort of cooking experience when I am trying to figure out fractions.)

While baking with kids, you need to talk with them about what they are doing.  Insert math language and content into the conversation. Guide them, but let them problem solve.

You can step in to stop a catastrophe – it would definitely be catastrophic to add too much salt to a cookie recipe, while adding too many chocolate chips would be a bonus!

Have fun, and please send me any good recipes for chocolate chip cookies.  We lost our favorite family recipe (absolutely catastrophic).