This picture appears to be of flowers, but if you look closely you can see snow out the window.
When we present students with driving questions and prompts, it is surprising how many times students notice the snow in the background and want to frame their project around that.
I taught in Central Florida for several years, and had the opportunity to take field trips to EPCOT at Disney World several times. (It was not exactly a tough day at work.) What fascinated me was how often the kids were enthralled by something other than the actual ride or show. More than once I had to grab a kid by the collar who was leaning over way too far to see what was making the ride move or stay in its lane.
When we finished the ride, the discussion wasn’t about the obvious, it was about the behind the scenes mechanics. How cool was that!
This trip was the culmination of a yearly unit on countries. Each student researched a country, wrote a report, and constructed a diorama. Decades later, I realize that it would have been even better to go to EPCOT first and then have the kids design and build their models. I can’t imagine how far they would have taken the project with the information they gained on the trip. And if their final projects were more about design, motion, and construction, rather than the country they picked to learn about, then the projects would have been less “themed” learning and more “project-based/authentic”
So, while we may be presenting a driving question about flowers, to really be authentic, be willing to go off on a project about snow.
On a recent drive through the country, we found this satellite dish. It is hard to tell from the picture how huge it is, I believe the area of the dish is several football fields!
So, what are these dishes used for? Why are they called “satellite dishes?” How are they constructed? Are they always round? What are some jobs associated with satellite dishes?
Read about satellite dishes. Write about their uses. Calculate their different sizes (area, perimeter, radius, circumference…) Build a model. Write a sci-fi story. (ET Phone Home!)
So many authentic projects…
Water. Where does our fresh water come from? Does it come from different places/sources depending on where you live?
How can we conserve water? Why is it important to use water wisely? Are there places where there is a shortage of water?
Is water recycled? How is waste water treated? Can you drink it after it is treated? How is seawater desalinated?
Write a brochure about where your water comes from. Create a poster about the importance of water conservation. Research where people in different places get their water from and create a chart… So many authentic project ideas, so many ways to go with this very important topic.
Working on a recent blog about project ideas for horses, I was thinking that really this blog could be about any animal. Which got me thinking that any of my blogs could be about something similar…or not similar. That is what authentic teaching and learning is all about.
The point of authentic learning is to present an idea, and see where your learners take you. You are still in the driver’s seat, but you are allowing your learners to navigate how you get there. As long as you get there, that is the point.
So, if your goal is to learn about animal habitats, and you suggest an authentic project about horses, and your learner(s) are more interested in dogs, or cats, or snakes (yuck), then that is fine. And if your learners are only interested in football…and they want to read about football and write about football…the history of football, create a timeline about the sport, design a football stadium. Start pulling in all of your goals into football.
So, we started with horses and now we are on football. Back to animal habitats…how many stadiums are home to wild animals? What kinds of animals? How did they get there? Has a wild animal ever interrupted a game? What happened? That is authentic teaching and learning.
How many types of butterflies are there? Where do different butterflies live? Are there butterflies that prefer cool climates to warm climates? Are there butterflies in cool climates? Do all countries/continents have butterflies?
Do research about butterflies (Reading). Write a book about butterflies (Writing). Design a sanctuary for butterflies (Science/Math). Build it (More Math). Photograph butterflies (The Arts).
One photo, unlimited authentic questions, unlimited authentic project ideas…
My daughter was taught reading in fifth grade using a very analytical program developed for above grade-level readers. It was very researched-based. Lots of solid educational theory behind it. She was a voracious reader. By the end of fifth grade she hated reading. She hated books. She refused to read. (With a fantastic reading teacher in sixth grade, my daughter discovered her love of reading again, thank goodness.)
Why? This program picked books apart. The kids had to analyze them to death. Every chapter was torn apart and looked at.
Think of it this way. View a gorgeous Monet painting. Stand several yards back and take it all in. Breath-taking. I fell in love with art through the work of Monet. Now, press your nose up to the canvas. Pick it apart. Analyze the color. Analyze the strokes. Not so great anymore, is it?
I see the same thing happening with project based learning, what I call authentic learning. Semantics – project based learning, authentic learning, learning through play…everything has the same goal – to make learning real, make it worthwhile, make it count. Not only are folks hung up on the semantics, they are hung up on planning every detail out ahead of time, getting plans from others, following commercial programs – not authentic at all.
Don’t do to authentic projects what that reading program did. Don’t pre-plan and pick apart the experience until you destroy the spontaneity and joy of learning for you and your students. Go with the flow, as the captain of your ship keep it on course, but allow for your passengers to experience the choices from the buffet along the way!
This was a small, simple Ferris Wheel that I saw at a carnival last summer. It actually looked kind of sad to me – it definitely needed a tad more creativity in the design. Perhaps a theme, a little decoration, something…
Which got me thinking about designing a Ferris Wheel. Students could add creative carriages, etc. And for older students there is the engineering behind Ferris Wheels. The history of Ferris Wheels, famous Ferris Wheels…
And always remember that this is just the starting point. If a student ends up doing research on the clouds seen from the top of the Ferris Wheel – that’s an authentic project!
*We were in London about a decade ago with our children and didn’t ride the London Eye because it was expensive. We are still kicking ourselves!
One of the best games I ever played was a game that several fifth-graders had invented. It involved shooting a basket, then running a diamond backwards, jumping rope… I don’t remember all of the things you had to do to score, but it was a blast! (And I came in last – no surprise.)
Making up rules for a new game is a great authentic project. The project can involve reading (reading about other games and rules to get ideas), writing (recording the rules, and editing after you follow the rules to see if they covered everything), and math (developing a scoring system).
With social distancing and other limits to what kids normally play, it is a great time to invent a new game that can be played and enjoyed with the limitations currently in place.
I had this photo in my file of posts to write, and I realized that the timing was perfect to work on this topic. Children are hearing lots of things on television about a meat shortage. This just adds to their concerns (and ours) about what is happening in our world. While my original topic was going to be to explore organic and free-range food sources, I think a better topic might be what our options are for food today.
My original prompts for authentic exploration were as follows: Many stores advertise that their meats are organic or free range. There are also many other claims markets make. What exactly does organic mean? Free range? Are there benefits to one over the other? Is there a better way to raise livestock? Are companies really honest about this? How is this enforced? This may lead to an authentic project on ranching, farming, or even the pros and cons of being a vegetarian (and how is that different from veganism).
So, take this topic and incorporate what is happening in our world today. What are our options for food today. The reason I am totally committed to authentic learning and projects is because it approaches education in a real and current way. Adjusting a lesson/project to address current events – well you can’t get much more authentic than that!
Stay Well, Stay Healthy
I was finished posting my weekly Saturday blog when I started to scroll down and look at all of the posts on my blog. I was thinking that perhaps I should refine my menu, and file the posts under whether they focused on reading, writing, math, science, social studies…
Then I realized that is exactly what you want to avoid in authentic teaching and learning. Projects start with a driving question or a prompt, and then they go from there. One of the most important parts of authentic teaching is to listen to your students, pay attention to what they are saying, and give some gentle guidance and suggestions as to what path they might follow to accomplish their goals. (And also accomplish your own goals as well.) A good project often includes all academic skills – certainly reading for research, writing notes and/or presentations, math calculations/graphs…
There was not one project that I worked on with students, that I wasn’t surprised at the end, at how many academic goals we were able to accomplish within the project. And I was also surprised, as I evaluated what we had accomplished, at how much coffee I had consumed to keep up with our students as they authentically explored and grew as learners. It was impressive!