Real Authentic Learning

IMG_chocolate chips

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 Project Idea – Fall Foliage


I woke up this morning to some really beautiful red leaves in our neighborhood.  While out and about, people were commenting on how gorgeous the leaves finally were.  I had been aware that this fall we had not had the usual amount of gorgeous leaves, but really had not paid much attention to why.  My knowledge of fall foliage is basically that the weather gets colder, the leaves change colors, and then they fall of the trees.

Listening to those around me discuss the late arrival of the fall colors this year, most people were talking about the amount of rain we had this past summer and how that delayed the fall colors.  We had had a very wet summer – ok that is an understatement.  We had a “build an ark and get ready for the flood” summer.  Every day.  It rained.  Poured.  I have never ended a summer so pale!

So, was all the rain what delayed the fall colors?  What causes leaves to change colors?  Why are some red, some yellow, some orange…?  I can think of authentic projects from the PreK level (collecting leaves, labeling colors, identifying tree type) to the high school level (scientific explanations for all of my above questions).

This could lead to authentic projects about evergreen versus deciduous trees, the arctic tree line, tree disease…  There are endless possibilities as to where this authentic project could lead based on student interest and discourse (as is the case with all authentic projects)!

Signing off now….wait…what about understanding how scientists predict when the peak of fall colors will be every year.  Planning a trip to see fall colors.  Where should I go?  When?  What hotels should I stay in?  What is my budget for this trip?

OK…really ending this blog entry now…Hmm…How do those jewelers make those gorgeous pendants of leaves dipped in gold?…Why do the leaves turn colors on the trees at the bottom of our local mountains, before the top trees turn?  Isn’t it colder at the top of the mountain?  Don’t the trees in colder temperatures lose their leaves first?

If it is real and authentic, the project possibilities are endless!

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

One School's Journey_cover

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.

Teachers and Parents: The Authentic Experience

Scan 5 copy

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.

Teachers and Parents: Social Responsibility – Operation Gratitude


One of the most important lessons in social responsibility that we can teach children is to give thanks to those who serve and protect us.  Thanking soldiers and first responders for what they do is an Authentic experience for students, and one that makes a real difference to those who serve.

Operation Gratitude is a wonderful organization that sends care packages and letters to soldiers and first responders. They have very clear instructions and guidelines for teachers to use with students regarding making cards and writing letters.

While the holiday season is still a few months away, holiday cards generally need to be received a few months ahead of time.  They do accept cards and letters year-round, so if the timing for holiday cards does not work, thank you notes and cards can be sent to them anytime.

Cards are mailed to their headquarters in California.  While it shouldn’t be that expensive to pack up and mail letters or cards, don’t miss the Authentic experiences available in fundraising to pay for postage for your package.

This is also a great Authentic project for parents to do at home with kids.

*My knitting group donated over 100 scarves to Operation Gratitude care packages last year and I was impressed with what I learned about this organization while working with them. I am already busy knitting away for this year.


More Testing Does Not Produce Smarter Kids


I’m lying in bed reading my favorite romance novel – I could lie and say Romeo and Juliet, but too many people know what I read and would start to laugh – and take a break to do some Facebooking.

What pops up is the news that the State of Confusion (a state I previously taught in, that I won’t name) is introducing a new test to replace the current national test they are using –  PARCC – which I believe stands for Performance Anxiety Required for all Children Consistently.  While PARCC desperately needs replacing, it is the worst test I saw in over three decades of teaching, I am not optimistic that the State of Confusion will do better with the next replacement test.

Let me do a little mental review.  I am trying to remember what tests we were using when I began my teaching career.  I was teaching in a multi-handicapped deaf preschool in the south in the early 80’s.  Honestly this was not a population that you needed to waste valuable teaching time “testing”.  Think Helen Keller before Anne Sullivan. And I don’t believe we did waste time with testing.  We spent every hour, minute, and second trying to break through to these kids, to teach them how to communicate.

So, I next end up in another southern state, teaching in a gifted program, and the testing climate starts to ratchet up.  I recall entire staffs being rewarded with monetary payments if scores improved.  I happened to be shared by two schools.  In one school, scores went up, so I was rewarded as being an outstanding teacher.  The other school – in my honest opinion the better school, but with a needier population – the scores did not go up, so I was not rewarded, because I was not a worthy teacher – as evidenced by my current use of run on sentences and made up punctuation.

Now I move up the eastern seaboard (no – school systems were not throwing me out, even with my predilection for run on sentences) and I spend the next twenty-plus years dealing with one “high stakes” test after another.  I forget all the acronyms – hysterical amnesia – but the best one (I’m being sarcastic) was the one where the school got the grade, not the child.  Individual scores weren’t reported.  However, an absent child counted as a zero.  I believe the state was terrified that we would expose struggling children to chicken pox so their scores wouldn’t count.  So, and I am not making this up – my daughter, fourth grade gets the flu, during this test.  I stay home and miss the test at my school (silver lining). I get a phone call from her school.  Can she come in?  They need her score.  They don’t want a zero.  I inform the school she can’t come in as she is throwing up.  The response, “Ummm, how often, can she take the test between bouts of throwing up?”  Not making this up folks, I am not that creative.

This test also involved pulling staff for weeks before to prepare all the materials, weeks to give the test, and then weeks demoralizing staff over results.  And let’s not forget the time spent on testing pep rallies, learning testing cheers, producing testing videos….  Is there intelligent life in the Department of Education?  Beam me up Scotty!

We then moved to another test. Question, if this test was so wonderful that we used weeks giving it, and then months terrorizing staff over it, why was it replaced?  Just asking.  If I recall correctly, this one wasn’t that bad. The problem was the data was being used to really terrorize entire schools. Like, worse than ever.  And there was no interpretation of data beyond the actual score.  No thought as to what the data was actually showing.  No thought as to what was impacting the data.  A special education child enters a school in fourth grade as a non-reader.  The year ends with that child reading on a second-grade level.  Wow!  Huge Growth!  Major Success!  Wrong…failure…kid not reading on grade level.

Let’s use some common-sense folks.  If kids are coming from a high socio-economic area with multiple advanced degree parents in each house, let’s be stunned when those kids outperform kids from struggling households. Let’s be stunned when children in general education outperform children in special education.  Let’s gasp in shock when Tara Lipinksi can skate better than I can.  (This has nothing to do with anything except that I love figure skating, this is my blog, and I had not been able to work in a reference to figure skating yet.)

Homes where Shakespeare is discussed will produce students who can do better on a test about Shakespeare.  I am not sure though, that this equates to children who will grow up to be more productive adults.  Not my house – we exposed our kids to science fiction and the VHS tape set of North and South, which is why my children aced the Civil War tests in American History – because their mother was in love with Patrick Swayze. (OK…I am not even sure where to begin to fix that previous sentence, so I’ll just leave it.)  Let’s fire principals and terrorize teachers who are working in the neediest schools.  And let’s reward those that are in the buildings with kids who will learn if no one shows up to teach them.  Makes sense to me.  (This whole paragraph doesn’t work…no wonder they ran me out of so many states!)

What’s the accountability answer? I’m not sure.  Somehow we need to look for growth in each child. Growth as a learner and as a person. I’m not sure there is a test for this.  And realize that when kids come to school from families that are struggling to keep a roof over their head and food on the table, you aren’t going to see the same growth as kids who can spend more time with Authentic educational experiences at home (reading Sci Fi, watching Star Trek, and reciting all three VHS tapes of North and South by heart).  And honestly, with the pace at which our world is changing, our children are going to be doing jobs in the future that we can’t even imagine.  We want to raise children who think outside the box, don’t color in the lines, don’t follow the line-leader, write in run-on sentences, and change the world.

I am not suggesting we write those kids off who come from lower socio-economic households.  On the contrary, let’s put those kids in schools where teachers not only have the time to teach – not test and not “teaching to the test” – but can really teach and reach every child. Let’s give every child this opportunity. Major plug for Authentic teaching and Authentic learning here.

We have wasted the last three-plus decades trying to figure out how to test achievement and we haven’t figured that out.  Every year that I taught we spent (wasted) more and more time on testing instead of teaching. An enormous amount of time! HUGE amount of time. So how do we test Authentic achievement?  How do we produce smarter kids? Maybe with a leap of faith.  Let teachers teach, not test, and let the kids learn.

Teachers and Parents: Authentic Geography


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.)