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.

The Real Spirit of the Holidays – Teaching Children About Giving

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The holiday season is upon us.  (OK, I know it is early November, but the trees are going up in the stores, and the Hallmark Channel is starting with the holiday specials.)  The holiday season always reminds me of the amazing way my mother handled a situation with me when I was 12 years old.

My great-grandfather stopped by in early December to drop off his holiday gifts.  I don’t remember what my brothers received, but I do remember what I received.  Avon Face Powder.  Now, I am not bashing Avon or face powder, but I was 12.  My great-grandfather was in his 90s at the time, so this probably made sense to him that a preteen girl would want something that was considered elegant and extravagant, in his day.

I was polite and thanked him, but after he left I started to cry.  My mother could have slipped into a “you are ungrateful, he is 90-year-old man” sermon.  Instead she non-judgmentally stated that she knew I was disappointed, but that there might be a family in need where the mother would appreciate the gift.

My mother then spent the next few hours on the phone finding an agency that would accept the face powder.  (This was before the internet, and was surprisingly difficult to find an agency that accepted gifts for families in need.)  My mother was a single parent with three children.  You really couldn’t have blamed her if she took the easy way out, told me to be grateful, or replaced the gift with something else.  Instead we ended up “adopting” a family for the holidays.  We went out, as a family, and purchased gifts for everyone in that family, wrapped them (including the face powder and some additional make-up for the mom), and delivered them to the agency.

This became a yearly tradition, something we did every holiday season.  To this day I can’t imagine the holidays without donating to Toys for Tots or adopting a family from the tree at the Y or the mall.  And that Avon Face Powder represents one of the best holiday gifts I ever received.

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.  Read for free on Kindle Unlimited.

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.

Currency Exchange – The Value of a Dollar

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From my wonderful Guest Blogger Carissa Yfantis-

Before a recent trip to Grand Cayman (for vacation, not to visit our hidden millions), my husband and I were lamenting the fact that their money is worth more than the US dollar and that everything would be more expensive. We explained to our daughter that the Cayman dollar was worth $1.20 for every one US dollar, and that each time we purchased something, we would be paying 20 cents more. We told her that if we exchanged one US dollar for Cayman money, we only get back 80 cents. She didn’t think this was quite fair, but she didn’t appear to be overly concerned. We didn’t tell her that sometimes you have to pay an exchange fee in addition to the conversion. A discussion for another day.

Grand Cayman accepts US dollars, and most things are priced in Cayman and US dollars to make things easier for the sun addled tourists. We did not exchange money since it isn’t necessary, but looking back, I wish we had exchanged a few dollars. Physically handing over one dollar and receiving only 80 cents back would have been an amazing authentic experience for our daughter.

Even without actually exchanging money, she had some valuable authentic experiences. When we ate at restaurants, she saw both prices on the menus. She was shocked when her chicken tenders were $14 Cayman and $16.80 US and when her spaghetti was $15 Cayman and $18 US. Now things were getting personal, but not personal enough. We were paying for her food, so this “unfair” pricing didn’t have any impact. However, when we went to the resort gift shop on our last day, the exchange rate became real. We gave her a budget of $20 US, but reminded her about the 20 cent deduction per dollar. This left her with about $17 Cayman to spend. She was less than thrilled with the automatic $3 deduction from her spending limit, but when in Cayman… She chose a Christmas ornament that was $10 Cayman and keychain that was $4 Cayman (every tween needs at least 15 keychains to hang off their backpack-with no actual keys on them.) She had to leave behind the $5 magnet (that would have ended up lost in a desk drawer for all eternity). She advised us that in the future we should pick a place where their money is worth less than ours. We advised her that next time we could leave her home!