Foreign Language and Authentic Teaching

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Last night I read two posts on Facebook from foreign language teachers who were looking for ways to use projects in their classrooms.  Initially, I felt that I really hadn’t thought about foreign language and authentic projects before. After thinking about this for awhile,  it dawned on me  that in actuality I had.  Working on my Martian Colony Project, the largest and most comprehensive authentic project I was involved with, many of the children were ESOL.  The Martian Colony was a fantastic way for them to learn English.  Authentic projects are rich with language experiences.  So if we were using authentic projects to teach English to speakers of other languages, then we were using authentic projects to teach a foreign language.

I thought back on my own foreign language classes, and the one lesson I remembered from high school (it’s been a few years) was an authentic project where we wrote letters to pen pals in Mexico.  I definitely learned and retained more from that project than from anything else we did that year.  It was real, it mattered, there was ownership, pride, and expectation of a return letter.  (The letter might even be from a boy – I was a teenager, boys were what I thought about most of the time, ok – all of the time!)  The letters went back and forth several times (my pen pal was a boy!) and for every letter I increased my Spanish vocabulary significantly – not only from writing my letters but from reading his.

Take any authentic project that is of interest to the teacher and students, bring it into a foreign language class, and I can guarantee the engagement and learning will greatly increase.  Writing to pen pals in another language is a great authentic project.  Going through a quick list in my head of projects I have been involved with, I can’t think of one that wouldn’t work for foreign language, and as the school I taught at had a large ESOL population, all of the projects I worked on were used to teach another language.

Good Luck!  Buena suerte!  Bonne chance!  Buona fortuna!  Viel Gluck!

*One School’s Journey, written with my former and forever principal, will be published and available on Amazon by the end of this month.  This book tells the story of the journey our school took as it set down the path using authentic projects to teach.  Stay tuned for more information.

Measurement, Money, and Chemistry

Written by my new and amazing Guest Blogger – Carissa Yfantis.  Carissa has a Master’s in Education and is a Master Parent.  I am honored that she will be contributing to this blog.

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When making slime became popular, my daughter asked to make some at home. She told me that she needed white glue, Borax, laundry detergent, and food coloring to make two different slime recipes. My initial thought was absolutely not! I could already see the sandy Borax all over my floor, stained chair cushions, sticky glue handprints on my furniture, and detergent spilled everywhere. Knowing my penchant for cleanliness, my daughter quickly added that she could make it in our basement and she promised to be very careful. I put aside visions of myself sweeping up Borax and agreed to let her make it. As a former educator, I knew this would be a great authentic learning experience. Of course, I didn’t share that with my daughter!

When we arrived at the store to purchase the ingredients, I stood back and let her shop using one of her birthday gift cards. Spending the least amount of money possible was suddenly very important to her since she was paying! When she checked the recipe using Borax, she saw that it it needed 1⁄2 cup of white glue. However, the glue bottles were labeled in ounces. I told her we needed to convert the units. She already knew there were 8 ounces in one cup, so she halved it to find that 1⁄2 cup was 4 ounces. She “did math” without realizing it! The recipe also needed 1 teaspoon of Borax. Upon finding it in a 4 pound box, she happily stated that it was enough to make slime forever! At this point I had to hold onto the cart because I suddenly felt faint. The words forever and slime should never be in the same sentence.

To make slime using laundry detergent (which is also labeled in ounces), the recipe called for 1⁄4 cup. At first she picked up a very large bottle. When I reminded her to check the recipe, she figured out that she only needed 2 ounces of detergent. This enabled her to buy the smallest (and cheapest!) one. More authentic learning. This recipe also needed 1⁄2 cup of glue, so 8 ounces was needed in order to make both recipes. I advised her to check the price of the 4 ounce bottle and the 7.6 ounce bottle. She figured out that the larger bottle was less money than two 4 ounce bottles, so she chose the 7.6 ounce bottle instead. She said it was close enough to 8 ounces. So frugal with her own money. And more hidden math!

Upon returning from the store, I asked my daughter how the ingredients actually became slime. She had no idea. Neither did I – it’s been a long time since my high school chemistry class. I seized this teachable moment and quickly (very quickly – I didn’t want to lose my audience) looked up how slime forms. Basically the glue is a polymer and the Borax and detergent are activators. When they mix, a reaction occurs that causes the molecules in the glue to become tangled and create a slimy substance. Quick authentic chemistry lesson!

To make the Borax slime, she carefully measured each ingredient (“doing math” again), followed the directions, and was quite excited when slime formed! It actually was pretty cool! Then she followed the recipe for the laundry detergent slime. She liked the consistency of the detergent slime better because it was softer and more stretchy. I liked it better because we were able to relegate the sandy Borax to a dark corner of the basement.

Over the next few months, my basement became a slime factory and my daughter and her friends became expert slime makers. They learned how to alter the consistency of the slime by experimenting with different amounts of each ingredient and recorded the recipes they liked. They also made the equally important discovery that some combinations did not make good slime. They modified recipes to make larger or smaller batches and created various hues with the food coloring. Making slime provided authentic learning experiences with basic measurement, a tiny bit of finance, and a bit of elementary chemistry. My daughter had hours of fun and never realized she was learning! And I never told her!

Teaching Poetry

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I had a great conversation the other day with a girlfriend about authentic learning.  I was explaining how it makes all the difference in the world when the project is something the student is interested in – if the students are not interested, then it really isn’t authentic.  Having fifth-grade boys read Robert Frost’s poems, and then write poetry in that style has never been a very meaningful or successful endeavor.  (I am a Robert Frost fan, but for some strange reason most fifth-grade boys are not.)  Exposing students to many different poets and styles of poetry, then having them pick a style they like, and you are moving into the authentic experience.  They can then write poems in that style about an interest they have, and you can watch the engagement happen.

I mentioned that, of course, most of my boys were passionate about football.  Most of them wrote poems about football.  She asked if I knew a lot about football.  I confessed my knowledge was limited, mostly things I picked up from my Miami Dolphin fan brothers and son.  (Cue the violins here for the long-suffering Dolphin fans.)  I am a “Dolfan”, but certainly don’t have a ton of football knowledge. I wore my turquoise and orange, and professed my true love, which the boys fell over laughing about.  (I taught in Redskin territory so it’s not like they had a lot to laugh at me about!)  Honestly, my background knowledge about football didn’t matter.  I knew how to teach poetry, I knew how to guide children through an authentic learning experience, and the boys certainly knew enough about football to take it from there.

*If you give this a try – after the poems are written, continue with a poetry reading, complete with refreshments (party planning/math budgeting), or create a poetry newsletter to be shared with people at a retirement home, or sell that newsletter and raise money for charity….the authentic options are endless.

Tex the Explorer: Journey to Mars in the Classroom

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Available on Amazon

A friend asked for ideas on how to use Tex the Explorer: Journey to Mars in her classroom, and I thought this was a great question!

I came up with two ideas.

First of all, I hope it is a great book to use to support the study of the planets in the primary grades.  All of the information in the book about Mars is factual. (I have space scientists in my family and had all my facts triple checked!)  I have heard from folks who bought the book, that it is a great conversation starter for kids about space.

Another use for the book would be that it was written by a teacher and illustrated by her former student.  Neither of us are professionals, and neither of us has done anything like this before.  I hope it would be an authentic inspiration for students to write their own books about what they are passionate about.  You don’t have to  get your book published and sell it on Amazon for it to be a real book.  With technology today, it is fairly simple to produce a book to share with friends.  Holding a “book fair” to showcase student work would be a great way to present final products.

I would also be honored to communicate with students who are working on writing their own books.  I am happy to email, Skype, or visit in person – if you happen to live in Central Pennsylvania, the DC suburbs, or any place I could use as an excuse for a good trip – Venice would definitely be doable!  If you are in the DC area, I could also see if my illustrator is available.  He is pretty busy with college, but I might be able to get him to join me on a visit.  Again, it’s those interactions with real people that have accomplished real things that make the experience authentic.

*If you use Tex the Explorer: Journey to Mars in your classroom, please let me know how!

Teaching About Time Zones

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Over a decade ago, when webcams were just being introduced, I was told about a fantastic webcam in the polar bear exhibit in the Alaskan zoo.  I looked at it after school and it was amazingly cool (pun intended).  It also supported an authentic project I was doing with a group of kids about the fifty states.

So the next morning I very excitedly invited several students to my office to view the polar bears.  We logged on to the webcam and…..nothing!  Black screen.  I was so bummed.  The teacher who told me about the webcam happened to stop by, and we told her the webcam was broken.  She looked at me like I was a total idiot (she was one of those very expressive people), and said, “Duh, it’s 5:00AM in Alaska and it’s winter.”  This led to a very authentic conversation about time zones, and sunrise/sunset at different latitudes.

*There are many live webcams in zoos all over the world.  Check them out for some great authentic viewing!

Authentic = Real Learning

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Even though I am passionate about authentic learning, and my blog is  focused on how important the authentic experience is, even I sometimes forget just how important!

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a glassblowing workshop.  I have attended many craft workshops that in all actuality were demonstrations.  The members of the audience sat and watched while the instructor completed the project.

In this particular workshop, it was not a demonstration, but a real hands-on experience.  The glassblower was right there with you, but you were the one molding, turning, and creating the design on the glass.  We picked the colors we wanted to use, learning about how colors change when heated.  We learned how to add designs to the surface of the glass, actually using a nail on the end of a pole to scratch the design into the glass and move the glass around on the surface.  And we learned the techniques to blow the glass into the shapes we wanted. (OK – the instructor was VERY hands on here, this takes a great deal of experience to get the shape you want. But he was really good at letting us “believe” we were actually doing this by ourselves!)

I honestly don’t remember ever being this excited or engaged during any other glass (or craft) workshop that I have attended.  My engagement and ownership of the learning was real.  I left with a deep understanding of how colors and designs are added to blown glass, and how different shapes are created – an understanding that I had not gained during previous “demonstration” workshops.

Working with two-thousand-degree glass is not an easy thing to do, and safety is a huge concern.  This is probably why glass workshops I had previously attended were really just demonstrations.  I  left those “workshops” feeling entertained, but a little disappointed.  (I almost didn’t sign up for this one because – been there, done that, but didn’t learn a lot.)

It certainly took more time, effort, and attention to safety to make this a real workshop, but the effort was well worth it.  The other students attending this workshop all commented on how amazing it was and how they gained so much knowledge about glassblowing. (The ages of the “students” ranged from ten to sixty-five, and everyone was totally engaged.)

As I sat at home waiting for my beautiful creation to arrive in the mail (they had to be slowly cooled down over several days so that the glass didn’t shatter), I was reminded once again of the difference the true authentic learning experience makes.

IMG_20180825_170234And here it is!  Please feel free to comment that it is the most amazing glass masterpiece that you have ever seen.