Reading Labels and Teaching Responsibility

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From my wonderful Guest Blogger Carissa Yfantis-

One of the first words my daughter learned to read was “nut” and not because we had read ​Guess How Much I Love You?​ several hundred times (Nutbrown Hare was always a favorite). She is allergic to some tree nuts and it was vital that she could read that word on a food label. Food labels typically state if there are “tree nuts” in the product or if it was manufactured in a facility where they are processed. We knew that as a preschooler, there was little chance she would need to independently decide if she could eat something, but being able to read “nuts” was a first step in teaching her to manage her allergies. (She already knew not to eat anything unless one of us or a teacher said it was safe for her.)

Our daughter had an authentic learning experience reading food labels when she was four years old. It was the first time she found the words “tree nut” on a package of chocolate chip cookies at the grocery store. We had practiced reading the word “nut”, looking at food labels, and finding the allergy statement at the end of the ingredients list, but this was the first time an authentic learning experience had presented itself. When she asked if she could have the cookies, I told her to read the ingredients. She had eaten chocolate chip cookies before, but not the brand she had picked up. She turned the package over, found the ingredients list and, as we had taught her, pointed to each word. I watched her face as she “read” the ingredients and saw the disappointment when she reached the familiar words “tree nuts” in the allergen statement. I gave her high-fives fit for Super Bowl winners and praised her for reading the label so carefully. I reminded her that if she had not read the label and had eaten the cookies, she could have had an allergic reaction. I was beyond proud of her and she was very excited to tell my husband that she “saved herself” at the store. She eventually chose a box of allergy-friendly cookies, so fear not, she did not suffer from lack of sugar consumption that day. That experience taught her how vital it was to read the ingredients even when the picture on it appeared to be something she could eat.

Reading food labels has had an unexpected benefit. Although I always tried to eat healthfully and limit junk food, I don’t recall ever reading an ingredients list until our daughter was diagnosed. It was (and continues to be) a truly eye-opening experience. When you are forced to read ​every​ ingredient on ​everything​, you see exactly what is in all those packaged products. It is usually not appetizing in the least. You see the chemicals, the various forms of sugar, the dyes, the preservatives, and the processed ingredients. Reading food labels has been an ongoing authentic experience for me because it has led to a greater awareness of what is in various products. It has caused me to make cleaner, more nutritious food choices. I encourage everyone to start reading food labels. Children, teens, and adults can all learn so much in the minute or two it takes to read the label. You may even decide to make a homemade version of something you were about to buy when you see all the unnecessary ingredients in the packaged version. Cooking at home lends itself to myriad authentic learning experiences.

Having food allergies has provided our daughter many authentic experiences. She now knows that ingredients may have more than one name (for example: casein for milk, sucrose/glucose/fructose for sugar, filbert for hazelnut) and she learned the importance of not cross-contaminating ingredients when cooking or baking. I hope that as she gets older, reading the ingredients will cause her to become more discerning with her food choices. For now, as long as there as there are no tree nuts in something she chooses, there can be radioactive waste in it!  Although I would obviously erase all of these experiences to erase her allergies, they provide a small compensation and a little silver lining for anyone who lives with an allergy.

Authentic Geography

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I have been sending my wonderful guest blogger updates about what countries her post has been read in.  After I had mentioned that someone in Australia read her post, she had a conversation with her daughter about Australia.  What a great authentic experience for her daughter.  Australia becomes real when you think about someone there, reading something your mother wrote.

Following a blog about someone’s travels is another authentic way to teach geography to kids. There are tons of fantastic travel blogs out there about wonderful adventures.

Whenever I read a book to students at school, or my own children at home, we always found all places mentioned on a map.  And don’t forget to pull out maps whenever you travel!  (No, I am not talking about the husband, who happens to be a geographer, refusing to look at a map, because “real men” don’t need maps.  “Real men” prefer to be lost all the time.)

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!