Authentic Teaching Opportunities – Project Presentations, and more…

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Adults often do many things for children that they can do for themselves, especially when preparing for a project.  We all know how important it is to be prepared for a lesson with students.  But being prepared, and adults doing work that students can learn from, are two very different things.  Planning and gathering materials for a project are important activities that students can and should be involved with.  When plans miraculously happen, and materials just appear, many learning opportunities are lost.

When we presented the State Fair to other groups of students, many math opportunities occurred.  There was measurement to plan how to set up the fair in the space we had available.  There was discourse and compromise among students to agree on how to place each state in the fair – Alaska wanted to display the states alphabetically, Texas by size, California by population…   A schedule was developed – after the students figured out how much time each group would need at the fair based on number of displays to visit and how much average time would be spent at each display.  Groups were invited based on this schedule.  Then the schedule was adjusted for groups that had a conflict with the available times.  Then the schedule was re-adjusted after the first day when the students realized larger groups and older students needed more time at the fair than smaller and younger groups, etc.

There are many math opportunities for parents working with children at home as well.  When inviting other children over make sure your child is involved in this discourse.  You would be surprised how much math you use every day without even realizing it.   (Except of course when I balance my checkbook.  Then I totally realize how much math is involved as I try to make sense of the usual mess I have made!)

The State Fair Project – Teaching Math

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When we developed The State Fair Project in fourth grade there were countless opportunities to use math.  During the year we were constantly looking at statistics for each state.  Size, population, socio-economic make-up, average temperature, significant dates…  All of these numbers were looked at and discussed.  The numbers were used not only to compare and contrast the 50 states but to develop some cause and effect hypotheses.

If the average temperature of a state was warmer than most, how would this effect the size of the population.  How about the average age of the population?  Why would older people tend to live in a warmer climate? Why would more Olympic skiers grow up in specific states?  But, why were there Olympic figure skaters training in Florida?

Every statistic became a jumping off point for further discussion and research.  Questions created more questions.  The use of math was constant, fluid, and authentic. (And of course, reading and writing skills were strengthened as well.)

*This authentic project can be easily adapted for territories, counties…whatever system the country you are studying uses.

Real Authentic Learning

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Doing projects with kids is a great starting point for learning.  But the goal should be for the authentic learning experience.

Following directions for an arts and crafts project, or following a recipe, is definitely great practice using reading and math.  However, if it stops there, the opportunity for real authentic learning is lost.  I don’t think we can state often enough that we are raising children to function in a world that we can’t possibly imagine.  Many of the jobs they will hold in the future don’t exist yet.  And more importantly, many of the jobs people hold today, will not exist in the future.  The children we are educating today need to be able to think outside the box if they are going to have a chance to really succeed in the world they will live in as adults.  Simply following directions to get from Point A to Point B, or repetitive drills filling in correct answers on a worksheet, is not going to prepare them for the future.

Following a recipe, or a set of instructions, should just be the starting point.  The real authentic learning occurs when adults listen to what children are saying while they are working, and follow up on this discourse.  Why just one cup of chocolate chips?  What would happen if we used two cups?  Do generic chocolate chips really taste the same as the more expensive Nestle brand?  Can you taste the difference in the finished product?  How can we test this?…

Sometimes adult prompting is needed to take the project to the authentic level.  But often, just listening to children, really listening, provides the springboard to that authentic learning experience.

Authentic Teaching – 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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ONE SCHOOL’S JOURNEY By Eleanor K. Smith and Margaret Pastor

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Available on Amazon.

I am very excited to announce that my book about Authentic Learning with my former and forever principal, Peggy Pastor, is now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions.  Click on the Amazon link above to check it out!

One School’s Journey tells the story of an elementary school in Maryland, in the suburbs near Washington, D.C.  The school’s student population is extremely diverse, with students representing many races, socio-economics levels, and academic abilities.  The path towards the use of authentic projects to teach and reach this diverse population is chronicled by the two authors –  Eleanor K. Smith (me), a teacher, and Margaret Pastor, the building principal.

While offering procedure, guidance, and examples, this is not a book of lesson plans.  Our bias is that for true authentic teaching you cannot follow someone else’s lesson plans.  Authentic projects come from the heart and are adapted to meet the needs and interests of the students.

This book is about the journey of the staff at our elementary school, as we set down the path to discover how to engage our students.  What was not a surprise, was that when children are engaged, they learn. And authentic projects engage the learner.   Our hope is that the reader will find inspiration from what we discovered along the way.

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…

The Authentic Experience

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Make it real, make it count!

It doesn’t need to be a year-long study of Mars and the creation of a Martian Colony.  Authentic teaching can also be that quick hit – the moment when something real, something important to the child, something that matters is addressed.  Those powerful interactions can remain with a child for life.

The “thinking out loud” comment is more powerful than the “lecture.”  Authentic exposure is more powerful than reading about something in a book.

Pause and pay attention to what is going on and you will be surprised at the authentic moments that are happening all around you.