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.

Authentic Project Idea – Designing a Better Airplane

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Having recently flown on a Dreamliner (and that plane is a dream to fly in) I was thinking about how airplanes, especially the wings, have changed in the last few decades.  Wing-tips were added, and have changed several times. Why?

I thought this might be an interesting authentic investigation and project – doing research on why airplane and airplane wings have changed.  Students could design and present their ideas for improved airplanes.  Older students could focus on aerodynamics and airplane wings, new building materials used for planes, etc.  Younger students could focus on interior changes to the inside of planes.

*I fall into the “younger student” aka “I don’t understand aerodynamics” category!  My plane is going to have wider, more comfortable seats including armrests for each passenger – in coach class!  Only two seats per row on each side, so that you are not climbing over, or being climbed over when someone needs to get up.  Better food, more movies, the Ice Skating Network…

Teaching Poetry

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I had a great conversation the other day with a girlfriend about authentic learning.  I was explaining how it makes all the difference in the world when the project is something the student is interested in – if the students are not interested, then it really isn’t authentic.  Having fifth-grade boys read Robert Frost’s poems, and then write poetry in that style has never been a very meaningful or successful endeavor.  (I am a Robert Frost fan, but for some strange reason most fifth-grade boys are not.)  Exposing students to many different poets and styles of poetry, then having them pick a style they like, and you are moving into the authentic experience.  They can then write poems in that style about an interest they have, and you can watch the engagement happen.

I mentioned that, of course, most of my boys were passionate about football.  Most of them wrote poems about football.  She asked if I knew a lot about football.  I confessed my knowledge was limited, mostly things I picked up from my Miami Dolphin fan brothers and son.  (Cue the violins here for the long-suffering Dolphin fans.)  I am a “Dolfan”, but certainly don’t have a ton of football knowledge. I wore my turquoise and orange, and professed my true love, which the boys fell over laughing about.  (I taught in Redskin territory so it’s not like they had a lot to laugh at me about!)  Honestly, my background knowledge about football didn’t matter.  I knew how to teach poetry, I knew how to guide children through an authentic learning experience, and the boys certainly knew enough about football to take it from there.

*If you give this a try – after the poems are written, continue with a poetry reading, complete with refreshments (party planning/math budgeting), or create a poetry newsletter to be shared with people at a retirement home, or sell that newsletter and raise money for charity….the authentic options are endless.

Tex the Explorer: Journey to Mars in the Classroom

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Available on Amazon

A friend asked for ideas on how to use Tex the Explorer: Journey to Mars in her classroom, and I thought this was a great question!

I came up with two ideas.

First of all, I hope it is a great book to use to support the study of the planets in the primary grades.  All of the information in the book about Mars is factual. (I have space scientists in my family and had all my facts triple checked!)  I have heard from folks who bought the book, that it is a great conversation starter for kids about space.

Another use for the book would be that it was written by a teacher and illustrated by her former student.  Neither of us are professionals, and neither of us has done anything like this before.  I hope it would be an authentic inspiration for students to write their own books about what they are passionate about.  You don’t have to  get your book published and sell it on Amazon for it to be a real book.  With technology today, it is fairly simple to produce a book to share with friends.  Holding a “book fair” to showcase student work would be a great way to present final products.

I would also be honored to communicate with students who are working on writing their own books.  I am happy to email, Skype, or visit in person – if you happen to live in Central Pennsylvania, the DC suburbs, or any place I could use as an excuse for a good trip – Venice would definitely be doable!  If you are in the DC area, I could also see if my illustrator is available.  He is pretty busy with college, but I might be able to get him to join me on a visit.  Again, it’s those interactions with real people that have accomplished real things that make the experience authentic.

*If you use Tex the Explorer: Journey to Mars in your classroom, please let me know how!

Authentic Project Idea – The Smart Watch

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With all the fancy Fitbit, Garmin, Google, Amazon, etc., smart watches out there, I thought it might be a cool authentic project for students to design their own devices.

This idea came to me on an airline flight when my husband was obsessing over the fact that his Garmin watch was calculating altitude by air pressure rather than GPS.  As the plane was pressurized (this is a good thing), his watch was reporting altitude by air pressure inside the plane, rather than the altitude the plane was at.  I am sure there are many further examples like this that older students could research, learn about, and maybe even figure out a “fix.”  They could also design their own devices with all the capabilities that they would like.

For younger students this could be more of a fun “imagineering” (thanks Disney for that word) project where they design watches with all of the capabilities that they would want.  They could also research what is available, what they could like to add, and create their dream smart watch. This could also include some authentic practice in telling time.  (Listen for the opportunity and work that skill in.)

*I would like mine to be able to, with the press of a button, bring down the temperature of any room to a lovely 69 degrees!  Oh, and instantly connect to Amazon for shopping. And give me “step” credits for said shopping.  And how about a map directing me to where my favorite television star is hiding (hint – he is Scottish and gorgeous).  And…gosh I may have to do some research and complete this project myself!

Authentic Learning – Biographies

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Almost every curriculum has a grade level objective of writing a biography.  Writing about a famous person is a great objective, as long as the student is really interested in,  and has a connection to, the person they are researching.  If this isn’t present, it is just another exercise where little to no learning will be internalized.

Writing biographies can easily be incorporated into an authentic project.  For the group of students I worked with who did the year long State Fair Project, we had them write a biography about someone famous from their state. (Definition of “from” included –  born there, lived there, worked there, retired there…) Not only did this tap into their interest about the state they “owned” for the year, it also allowed them a great deal of latitude in picking a person who really interested them.  We even managed to find a subject for a young lady who was determined to research and write about a figure skater – and her state was Florida!  (This was a bit of a stretch, but an Olympic Gold Medalist in figure skating from Canada had spent her later years retired in Florida – worked for us!)

Teaching About Time Zones, Part I

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I am passionate about Authentic Teaching and Authentic Experiences, because I believe that is truly the way we internalize learning.  I  just returned from a marvelous trip to Alaska.  I kept a list of entries I wanted to add to my blog when I returned home.  However, yesterday we traveled for 22 hours through four time zones, arriving home at 4AM.  So in order to publish somewhat coherent blogs, they will have to wait for another day or two!

Having completed hundreds of worksheets on calculating time and time zones as a student (and admittedly giving students hundreds to do as well during my early years as a teacher) I can honestly state that nothing compares to the authentic experience of resetting you watch four times, recalculating your departure and arrival times, and trying to drag yourself out of bed the next day suffering from severe jet lag.  I definitely internalized the “time zone” concept!   Bye for now…gotta go take a nap!

*I promise to publish some authentic ideas for ways to teach time and time zones (without taking your students to Alaska) once my brain fog clears!