Authentic Learning – The Read Aloud

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From my Exceptional Parent/Teacher Guest Blogger Carissa Yfantis-

“The wind began to blow. The tree house started to spin.” In case you don’t recognize those famous lines, they are from ​The Magic Tree House​ series of fiction adventure books for young readers. They are the opening lines that lead the main characters to an adventure in each book. When my daughter was 4 1⁄2 years-old, my friend gave her a complete set of the first 28 books for Christmas. She had begun reading them to her own daughter when she was four, and they both adored them. My friend assured me that if we read them aloud to my daughter, we would all love them, too. At first, I wasn’t sure if the stories and themes would be too mature or too frightening. I previewed a few of the books, trusted my friend, and embarked on a six-month read-aloud adventure.

Back then we read aloud to our daughter at least twice a day, before afternoon rest time (formerly known as nap time – naps were a distant memory at this point, even though ​I​​still needed her to take one) and at bedtime. This gave us plenty of opportunities to read these chapter books aloud. As promised, we all loved the books immediately. Each one is based on a specific event or time period from history. Even though she was quite young, we were able to teach her little bits of history (edited as necessary to be age-appropriate) as we read the different books. Our daughter was totally engaged with the stories, and the illustrations scattered throughout each book gave a visual representation of important points in the text.

I was happy to enjoy the stories and squeeze in some history, but the best part of reading these books was the few times when my daughter was inspired to create things from the stories. At some point during our second reading of ​Tonight on the Titanic, she decided to draw a picture of the ship with SOS above it. ​On her own.​ (I need to mention that we did not tell her anyone died, just that the ship sank.) I was overjoyed. The history had truly become authentic for her. In ​Haunted Castle on Hallows Eve​, the two main characters turn into ravens. We discussed what ravens were and found photos of real ones on the internet. There were also illustrations of ravens in the book. One day, she made raven’s wings out of black construction paper and a beak out of yellow paper. She asked me to tape them to her arms and face. Again, this was o​n her own.​ Knock me over with a feather. She had an authentic learning experience because this piece of the story was interesting to her.

When you read aloud with your children, whether you read to them or they read to you, there will be many opportunities to converse about the subject matter. With the world at our fingertips, you can quickly find photos, definitions, and facts about topics that interest them. Authentic learning takes place when your child actively explores a topic in a way that is meaningful to her.

By the way, lest you think we have some sort of child prodigy, her spontaneous bursts of creativity have dwindled considerably since ​The Magic Tree House​ days. Okay, they’re basically gone, but it was amazing while it was lasted!

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Parents: The Authentic Teaching Moment – Hurricane Names

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It’s easy to miss those Authentic Teaching Moments.  If you stop and listen, kids are giving us opportunities every day to engage their natural curiosity. 

From my wonderful Guest Blogger Carissa Yfantis-

News about Hurricane Florence dominated the television recently and my daughter became very interested in watching the track of the storm. As she watched the news, I shared with her my own hurricane story. When I was in 7th grade, back in 1985, Hurricane Gloria hit New York and we actually got the day off from school. The New York City Public School system NEVER closed (seriously, ​ne-ver​), so this was truly a momentous occasion. Always the studious student (okay, nerd), I used the day off to complete my current events report about the AIDS epidemic. She couldn’t believe that AIDS was a current event when I was her age and took the opportunity to remind me that I am “so old”.

Moving on from my age, I told her that hurricanes used to be named with only female names. This was interesting to her, so she decided to investigate how hurricanes are named. She found out that in 1953, the National Weather Service started giving the storms female names. Some people were upset by this, so in 1979, they began using male names also. The National Hurricane Center website informed her that there are six lists of hurricane names prepared up to the year 2023. They are recycled every six years. Some names are retired, like Katrina and Harvey because it would be inappropriate to use those names again. She learned that the World Meteorological Organization manages the system that names hurricanes. The names are chosen by the World Meteorological Organization’s Hurricane Committee and they are meant to be recognizable to people in the areas where hurricanes typically hit. Who knew any of this? A little spark of interest led to an Authentic learning experience.

She scoured the six lists, and we have two family members who could have hurricanes with their names in 2019 and 2020. Both female…hmm…

Parents: 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.

Teachers and Parents: The Authentic Experience

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It’s the Authentic Experience in reading, writing, and math (really in all academic disciplines) that truly make a difference in what a child will not only learn, but internalize and use.  Exposure in isolation does not have the same impact as the Authentic Experience.  Drilling for hours doesn’t come close to the impact of the quick but Authentic hit.

Most teachers and parents are extremely busy and may overlook the quick and easy Authentic Experience for children.  One of the main focuses of this blog is a reminder about all of those wonderful Authentic Teaching moments out there.  Sometimes I’ll go into detail if I think the details are important, but usually I’ll try to just put out a quick note about anything that strikes me as a great Authentic Learning moment for kids.

This also pairs with my favorite teaching and parenting strategy, the “Model Your Thoughts Out Loud” strategy.  By voicing your thoughts out loud for organization, planning, problem solving, etc, you are modeling behavior for children to internalize.  This can be talking in front of children to a co-worker, spouse, partner, relative, friend, caregiver, or even out loud to yourself.  What is important is that kids hear how and why things happen.  Events don’t just magically occur and things don’t magically appear without organization, planning and problem solving.  I will post ideas about this as well.

My last main focus will be Authentic Project ideas for teachers.  Again, I will go into detail when the details are important, but often I’ll just relay ideas that come to me, or that I come across.

 

Parents: Planning the Summer Vacation

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This is the time of year when many families travel.  Whether it is over to the next town to visit relatives, or a vacation involving hotels and restaurants, children of all ages should be involved in the planning of, and preparation for the trip.

Children can and should read about destinations before they get there.  Younger children can watch videos.  This is not only great authentic reading (or pre-reading) practice, it allows children to have expectations and ownership for the trip.  Not only does this increase reading skills and knowledge, but improves behavior.

Looking at pictures of grandma and her cane can lead to conversations about how grandma can’t chase young children around her house.  Books about the ocean lead to increased knowledge about our oceans, and the required rules to enjoy them safely.

Depending on the age and abilities of your children, they can also be involved in researching and planning a trip.  One of the most interesting and fun hotels I stayed in was found by my ten-year-old daughter, researching a place to stay overnight on our way home from a gymnastics meet.  (She also knew what my budget was and found a hotel within this range – authentic math practice.)

All children can and should help pack for a trip.  Packing lists can be made by parents to be followed by children (pictures work for pre-readers). Not only are lists reading practice (and writing for an older child who can write the list as well) but teach children that there is preparation, organization, and planning for travel.  Older children can do most of the packing themselves with some supervision.  For teenagers, that’s another story, just be happy if they pack for the right season. (Pick your battles here!)  If there is a special outfit needed, do double check that this is packed (that includes the husband’s suit for the wedding).

 

Parents: The License Plate Game

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This is a new twist on an old travel game.  For years parents have entertained children on long car rides by having them look for and check off a license plate from all 50 states.  As many kids now have access to on line information through phones and tablets, you can add the task of looking up and naming the capital of the state, population, etc.  Math Bonus:  additional points for each plate can be added based on larger population, geographical location, etc.   The more you add, the busier the kids are, and they more reading they are doing.