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 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.
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!
While on a recent journey through the northeastern waterways of the United States and Canada, I saw one small island after another. Thinking back on the authentic project I was involved with about establishing a colony on Mars, I started to imagine what it would be like to survive on one of these islands. What would I need to survive? What would I eat, what kind of shelter would I need, what kinds of clothes would I need? (OK-this is definitely a fictitious authentic project as personally I need a five-star hotel in Bar Harbor, Maine, with plenty of lobster, and lovely clothes available in the local boutiques-but I digress…)
This project would vary based on where the island was located as needs would be different based on climate, natural resources, etc.
I recently returned from a journey where I saw many wonderful and enchanting lighthouses. There are so many different questions that I thought about while enjoying all of these lighthouses. How do they work? What purpose do they serve? How did they operate in the past? How and why are lighthouses built today?
What would I include in a lighthouse if I designed one? (My lighthouse would resemble a five-star hotel – just saying.)
There are so many interesting stories about lighthouses of the past that could be a jumping off point for authentic projects. I heard about a lighthouse keeper in Portland, Maine who became bored with just tending the lighthouse. He began to carve wooden horses that he sold for 75 cents to the local market. Today these horses are worth thousands of dollars each. An authentic project could be to develop other ways to pass the time while tending a lighthouse.
While purchasing a memento of the Egg Rock Lighthouse in Bar Harbor, Maine, the charming woman at the cash register introduced herself as the granddaughter of the last keepers of that lighthouse. She briefly shared her story with me. I wish I had had time to hear more about her grandparents! Another jumping off point for an authentic project, reading stories about past lighthouse keepers, and perhaps creating a compilation, journal, or even writing new stories based on past stories – endless possibilities… Grace, whose grandparents tended the Egg Rock Lighthouse near Bar Harbor, Maine
American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture
This site is a wealth of information for teachers and students about farming. There are free resources and lesson plans, food and farm facts, and much more….
“The American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture is helping learners of all ages understand agriculture and the important role it plays in our daily lives.”
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.