Authentic Project Ideas – The Northern Lights

I am just fascinated by the Northern Lights.  I would love to see them some day.  We came close recently in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but we were a few days late and fifty miles away from a dark enough area.

There are so many authentic projects I can think of about the Northern Lights.  As an adult learner, I need to do a lot more research about what causes them and where is the best place to see them. 

For older students I can imagine authentic projects about the atmosphere, geography, solar phenomenon, magnetic fields, latitude, longitude… and unlimited art projects involving color.

For younger students I can imagine all of the above on a simpler level, depending on the age group and abilities being worked with.

BTW, the above photo was taken by a friend of mine in northern Wisconsin.  I am so jealous!

Authentic Project Ideas – Making Maple Syrup

We recently attended a spring Maple Harvest Festival near our home in Pennsylvania.  It was great fun, especially the part where you eat pancakes with the maple syrup on them!

So how is maple syrup made?  How are trees tapped for the syrup?  Then what happens?

How else can you make maple syrup?  Does the syrup from trees taste better than the artificial type? (No such thing as a dumb question – that was a dumb question.)

What other foods/products do we get from trees?  Create a booklet, a chart, a display… Actually make the product.

And if this project turns into an authentic project about harvesting trees for lumber and the impact on the environment, that is authentic learning.

Authentic Project Ideas – Mountains

We live in the Appalachian Mountains which I think are so impressive and beautiful.  That was until we went to Colorado and saw the Rockies.
I thought of so many authentic project ideas when I saw the Rockies.
Why are the western United States mountains so much bigger than the eastern United States mountains?  How did mountains form?  Are they still forming/changing?  Where are the biggest mountains in the world?
I am not crazy about heights, but planning on taking a train to the top of Pike’s Peak the next time we are in Colorado.  I’ll let you know how that goes!

Authentic Project Ideas – Rock Formations

This is a rock formation in Colorado Springs.  When I first saw it I thought it was an old castle.  There is actually another formation called Castlerock. 
How did this form?  What kind of rock is it?  What will it look like in the future? 
I am actually going to do my own authentic project and research, and make a scrapbook page of all of the rock formations I saw in Colorado. It will be a very big scrapbook!

Authentic Project Ideas – Solving One Problem, Creating Another

On a recent drive with my husband, we saw wind turbines on a mountain ridge. He mentioned that he had talked to our local government about whether they would ever put up wind turbines on the mountains in our area, and they said they would not. This surprised me, but the reason they gave him made a lot of sense. Our mountain ridges are major migratory routes for several types of birds. Putting up wind turbines would disrupt the migration pattern.

And now we have questions about wind turbines and the possible connections to whale deaths.

By late elementary school, students are old enough to grapple with problems like this. Why do we care if we disrupt a migration route for a bird? Should we care? When we think we are doing something good for our environment, do we sometimes end up creating another, or even worse, problem? Lots of driving questions, lots of possible authentic projects.

Lots of authentic ways to incorporate reading, writing, math, science, social studies, art…

Authentic Project Ideas – Zoos

We just visited the most fantastic zoo I have ever seen, the Cheyenne Zoo in Colorado Springs.

I am not usually a zoo fan. My childhood memories are of animals in captivity that did not seem happy. Fortunately, today most zoos are about conservation and humane treatment of animals. The Cheyenne Zoo was amazing, not only because of the way the animals were treated, but because of the interaction between the visitors and animals, and the beautiful setting of the zoo.

What is the history of zoos (depending on the age of your students: the good, the bad, and the ugly)? Why do we have zoos today? What do good zoos hope to accomplish? Design a zoo. Write goals for your zoo. Figure out what kind of food, and how much food each animal needs. So many authentic ways to teach reading, writing, math, social studies, and science…

And just so you know – giraffes have the grossest tongues in the world! I know because I feed several, and it was very gross, and super cool! And there was a sink nearby to wash your hands afterwards…

Authentic Project Ideas – Volcanoes

This is a real photo! I took this photo! We just returned from Hawaii where we stayed at Volcano House, a hotel on the edge of the Kilauea Volcano. When my husband first suggested we stay on the edge of an active volcano, I thought he was crazy. And then when I learned that the volcano was currently erupting, I knew he was crazy.

I learned so much about volcanos and volcanism, and why the Hawaiian volcanoes are not dangerous. There is enough information out there to keep a student busy and involved in authentic projects about volcanoes for a life time.

Many students have done the quintessential project of building a model of a volcano erupting. But do they truly understand what they are modeling? What causes volcanoes to erupt? Why are some volcanoes active while others are dormant? Why do some erupt violently while others, like the Hawaiian volcanoes, do not? For a project to be truly authentic, students need to ask questions and plan research to answer their questions. Building a model of an erupting volcano is a lot of fun, but is this really an authentic learning activity. (Perhaps it is, if you are including learning about chemistry. Or, how to clean up a huge mess cooperatively.)

I was truly fascinated to learn why some of the Hawaiian islands are dormant while others are not. There is even a new island forming in the Hawaiian chain. You can’t book your hotel room on the new island quite yet…it won’t break the surface of the Pacific Ocean for another 10,000 years! I am on the waiting list…

Authentic Project Ideas – Hawaii


I recently returned from an anniversary trip to Hawaii. What an amazing state, and an amazing group of islands. I can’t even begin to list all of the authentic project ideas I had while visiting the islands.

An authentic project about Hawaii could start with the driving question, “What would you like to learn about Hawaii?” Simple, straightforward, individualized…authentic.
Before you ask this question, begin with some background knowledge for your learners. Books on Hawaii available on all classroom reading levels. Videos. Guest Speakers – Native Hawaiians or past Hawaiian tourists. Then ask the question and let the students follow their interests – while the teacher incorporates school curriculum. (For more on this read some of my past posts under “Authentic Teaching.”)

I learned so many amazing things, that furthered my desire to learn more about Hawaii. The islands are not all the same age. The older islands have a distinct eroded look (photo above), while the younger islands are more gently sloped (photo below). All of the islands were/are formed by volcanism. We were incredibly fortunate to be on the Big Island of Hawaii while it was erupting (next post on this)!

We learned about the Hawaiian economy including agriculture – I personally consumed enough pineapple and Kona coffee to increase the Hawaiian GDP. We learned theories about where the original natives came from. My husband hiked to a hieroglyphic site and learned more theories about early Hawaiians.

After your students select areas of interest – how will they present their work? We attended a luau on the island of Oahu that included many displays and demonstrations before we entered the actual dining area. This included a palm tree climbing demonstration that I would NOT suggest including in a classroom luau if your students decide to go this route!

Reading, Writing, Math, Science, Social Studies, Music, Art… All of these could be including in a classroom luau, or tourism presentation, or a student written/directed/produced video…

Culture, Geography, Clothing, Agriculture, Tourism, Language, Sports, Dancing… Student areas of possible interest are endless.


Hawaii (The Big Island)

Tricks of the Trade

Teaching is an art. And artists have many tricks of the trade, as do teachers.

I recently remembered an event that happened years (decades) ago, that I know definitely made me a better teacher. A trick of the trade, so to speak. Early in my career, before marriage, children…when I actually had some free time…I took figure skating lessons. I was a legend…in my own mind! I could jump at least a quarter of an inch off the ice for a distance of at least two inches. I could spin so fast that you had time to do your laundry during each rotation, but hey…I was impressed with myself!

I took private lessons, which was honestly therapy for me. You can’t focus on anything else while you are skating, if you want to remain upright! So, it took my mind off of school problems, boyfriend problems, etc.

At one point, I worked on the entrance to a spin for about six months and made no progress. One night my instructor was sick, so I took a lesson with someone else. I learned the entrance that night. When my instructor was back, she was amazed and asked me how I finally got it. I told her that the substitute instructor told me to put my weight on the back of the blade, and all of the sudden it happened. She said she had been telling me that for six months. I replied no, she had been telling me to lean back. She was totally exasperated and replied that that is the same thing!

Now basically both convey the same message. But obviously one statement resonated with me, while one did not. When I thought about it later, I took leaning back to mean to lean my back back. I wasn’t leaning back on the blade. Now in hindsight it seems obvious that I needed to lean back on the blade, but I just wasn’t hearing that. It was just semantics really. But the different words made all the difference to me.

As a special education teacher, one of my tricks of the trade was to listen how the classroom teachers were explaining something and then use different words to explain the same thing. Or to use a different example. Or a different approach. It wasn’t that one of us was teaching better than the other…it was just that you never knew what was going to make it click for a student. And I learned this from the figure skating incident.

Using projects to teach authentically will only work if teachers continue to work on the art of teaching. It actually becomes even more of an art when you teach authentically, because it is different, and engaging, and wonderful.

And the above photo is of my figure skating awards, which are now 40 years old…and I still have them and still am proud! See you at the Olympics!!

Teaching Authentically

“We miss you.”  No, you miss my money.

“You are like family.”  No, family doesn’t charge me for things they give me.

“Sale ends today.”  And you will start another one tomorrow.

“Come into our store, we are having a New Year’s Sale.”  Same thing, you will have another sale next week.

None of these sale tactics work for me.  However, we just went into a store that totally got my attention.  There was a huge Ferris Wheel in the center of the store.  They had a cafe, a play area, a huge assortment of goods for sale at a good price, and excellent service.  They weren’t pushy, they didn’t care if you came in, rode the Ferris Wheel, got a cup of coffee and left.  But once they had you in the store, they had a chance for you to see the good prices and witness the excellent service.  This is how you entice someone to come into your store to shop.

What are other ways to get someone’s attention?  To make them want to shop in your store? To make them want to invest in or buy your product?  I believe that being authentic makes the difference to a buyer.  Just like teaching authentically makes a difference to the learner.

Asking a student to work on a project to make an ad or commercial for a store is not authentic unless the student has an authentic involvement with the product.  If your goal is to have your students write persuasive ads for a product, sit back and listen and wait for the authentic opportunity.  It will present itself.

Working on projects to create a new sport.  You will need advertising to get people to buy tickets. Designing a new type of airplane.  How do you get people to invest in it, or fly on it? 

Designing a warmer winter coat.  Don’t send me an email telling me that you miss me and I should buy the coat!  Not authentic, not interested!

And I authentically wish you a Happy New Year, and a wonderful year of teaching authentically!