Authentic Teaching and Learning

This artwork was done by a 5th grade student who was working on the Martian Colony Project I was involved with.  I wish I could remember his name, I would give him credit for the artwork.

Someone from the outside looking in might question the time spent on this illustration.  Isn’t this a waste of valuable learning time.  This was done in the classroom, not in art class.  Shouldn’t the student have been reading, writing, or doing math.

When working on authentic projects it is important to remember that what you see as the final project is only a snapshot of the learning that took place.  While I don’t remember the student’s name, I do remember that conversation we had while he worked.  He was looking at a picture of a rover on Mars and asking all sorts of questions.  His classroom teacher and I directed him to sources to find his answers.  He also posed improvements to the rover.  This illustration accompanied a brochure that the class put together to accompany the tours they were giving of their Martian Colony.

So if you walk into a classroom where students are constructing, drawing, painting…stop and listen to what they are saying and what they are really doing.  The learning is authentic, ongoing, and owned by the students.

Authentic Teaching – Poets and Poetry

Illustration by Eyen Johnson

I just attended an on-line poetry reading where the iconic Robert Frost Poem The Road Not Taken was shared.  I love Robert Frost and I love this poem.  Listening to this poem made me think about what a great idea it is to teach elementary and middle school students using the poetry of Robert Frost.  Ummm…NOT!
Let’s be honest – there are very few children who are mature enough to appreciate Robert Frost.  Maybe by high school, but I can assure you I didn’t appreciate him when I was in high school.  I had no use for his poetry.  I hated memorizing his poems.  And I honestly had no idea why this was anything but a waste of my time.  I pretty much hated poetry.

So fast forward to my teaching career and good old Robert is part of the 5th grade curriculum.  Now I am not one to fight city hall…so what to do?

Well, enter authentic teaching, learning, and projects.  We introduced the kids to Robert Frost and all the other poets that were in the curriculum. But then, instead of memorizing a poem, or writing in the style of Robert Frost we turned the kids loose to write their own poetry.

In one class the kids were working on a Martian Colony, so they wrote Martian Poetry.  Their poetry covered every topic possible – sports on Mars, monsters on Mars, weather, friendship, loneliness…  Some of the kids modeled their poetry after a Robert Frost poem, others looked to different poets. (The most popular choice by far – Shel Silverstein). 

The class ended up publishing a book of Martian Poetry that went home to every family. 

So, the kids really learned about poetry, they learned about different poets, and they had fun writing poetry.  The curriculum was covered. The project was authentic. The learning was authentic

Authentic Learning Turning Into an Authentic Project

I finally learned how to bake cookies.  Seriously!  I have never been able to bake cookies – my result was always a melted, burnt mess.  But thanks to a lot of instruction and patience from my daughter-in-law, I have finally mastered baking cookies.

So, for the first time, I am going to make holiday cookies this year.  I am going to use the recipes I have already mastered and change them slightly for the holidays.  For example, using red and green M&Ms only for my M&M cookies.  I am also thinking about how to tweak my chocolate chip cookies for the holidays.  Any ideas?

I have written about baking and cooking many times on my blog.  This is one of the best authentic ways to teach so many math and reading skills.

With the current pandemic, I was also thinking about authentic social awareness skills.  There are many single people in my neighborhood who have been isolating alone now for months.  I am thinking about leaving a plate of holiday cookies on several doorsteps.  I thought about doing this anonymously, but with food I think it is better that the receiver knows where the treats came from.

Doing this with children could easily turn into an authentic project.  Baking is just the starting point. Conversation while baking could turn into a project of making and leaving home made ornaments on doorsteps to brighten people’s holiday.  Or maybe making a small homemade gift. 

Perhaps this could turn into an authentic project learning about all the holidays people celebrate this time of year, and what gifts are usually given, if any, for these holidays. I would love to receive a gift from another religion/culture with a written explanation of what this gift represents. 

So, I started writing about my new-found ability to bake cookies, and am now thinking about leaving some unique gifts from other religions/cultures on my neighbors’ doorsteps, with an explanation about what the gifts represent. I need to do some research and planning. I will need to do some writing. And I am going to need to be creative. This is an authentic project!

Authentic Teaching – New is Old Again

This old Sampler was hanging on the wall of a home I was recently in.  It got me thinking about how we used to teach – make it real and make it count. 

I am certainly not advocating that we return to the days of girls being educated in sewing and cooking only – with only peripheral attention to other academics at best. But if you put history in context, these were skills that girls needed to survive.  So, what do girls – and boys – need today to survive?  What counts?  What it authentic?

With a major holiday tomorrow in the United States, and many holidays approaching world wide, what are some things that children could authentically do to learn and grow?  Children need to be able to read, write, calculate, and understand our place in the world.  They need to be computer literate.  They need to be able to evaluate information being presented to them.  They need to think for themselves.

For Thanksgiving tomorrow, they won’t be stitching samplers, well I am guessing most won’t, but they can be reading recipes and helping with the cooking for Thanksgiving. Perhaps they will be adding favorite ingredients to recipes, or creating homemade centerpieces. And with many families not able to gather due to the pandemic, perhaps they can think of creative ways to include those they are separated from.

Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate this holiday tomorrow. And Happy Holiday Season to everyone!

Stay Safe!

Authentically Teaching Across Subject Areas

One Room School House

I once again decided that I needed to refine my blog and sort the authentic project ideas out by academic subject area.  Having been posting on this blog for over two years, it is becoming hard for even me to find what I wrote on certain topics.

So, I started to sort the posts out by reading, writing, math, science, social studies… And after about ten posts I realized I was posting every post under every academic subject area.  That is actually the point of authentic learning and using authentic projects to teach.  Teaching in isolation is isolating – that was profound!  Learning reverts to rote and meaningless – information to be accumulated to finish a worksheet, write a report, or memorized to pass a test.

When learning authentically, the subjects should be integrated.  Yes, a math teacher is responsible for teaching math, but by making it real and making it count, you are also teaching reading, writing, science…  And your lessons are meaningful to the student, and will be internalized. 

In a way, the teachers in one-room schoolhouses of the past had a huge advantage as they naturally had to teach this way.  Across all the academic subjects, across grade levels, with limited access to text books, and no worksheets.  Yes, they did a lot of drilling that we don’t have to do today because children don’t need to memorize, they need to learn how to access information. Access that wasn’t available in a one-room schoolhouse.  There was no internet, there were no calculators. But there also were no monstrous curriculums that needed to be covered with far too much information and far too little time. They had the same students for years on end, they got to know their students, and they had no choice but to make it real and make it count. It was a matter of survival, not a matter of a child passing some exam at the end of the year that had little to do with what mattered to them and their lives.

Yes, I am looking at one-room schoolhouses with rose-colored glasses. And yes, some teachers got paid in apples and horses – probably not the preference of most teachers today. (I won’t even comment on the out-house at the side of the one-room schoolhouse pictured above – thank you modern conveniences!) But there are some interesting authentic lessons to learn by looking back to the past.

Authentic Teaching – Engaging Your Learners

If your goal as an educator is to engage your learners, then authentic teaching is what you want to do. It works.  Why?  Because your learners get to explore what interests them, within the constructs of your objectives and goals.  I’ve used the analogy before, they are in the driver’s seat, but you are navigating.  Or maybe you are in the driver’s seat, but they are navigating.  I think it goes back and forth actually. But the bottom line is that they are exploring topics of interest to them, while you are meeting your own objectives and goals.

The photo above is from the Martian Colony Project that I was very involved with.  These fifth-graders came in from recess to work on the colony board.  The board was a great vehicle to teach many math skills – perimeter, area, scale, map grids…  But the students were also reading (research about Mars and everything else they wanted to incorporate into the colony), writing (writing about their colony plans), working with science, social studies…

And they were able to easily explore their own interests within the colony.  The colony had sports teams, a spa, snack bars, health clinics…you name it and the colony had it. 

So, substitute a project designing a new office building, a sports complex, a university, an airport…the authentic list is endless. 

Authentic Teaching – Horses to Football

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.

Authentic Project Ideas – Cliff Divers

Put this under the project idea category of “you have got to be kidding me!” This is what these folks do for a job.  They dive off of cliffs.  I have never been so glad that I earned my living as a teacher!

This photo was taken in Acapulco.  Our guide told us that none of the divers have ever been seriously injured.  They start out as children and learn to dive off of the lowest rocks and gradually move up. My daughter was a competitive gymnast and it was fascinating to watch how gymnasts learned new skills.  It took years to develop some skills and by the time they were doing them on different apparatus they were so well trained for so long, you really didn’t worry about them getting hurt. 

Still, watching the divers, I held my breath!

So how long does it take for a diver to master the highest cliffs?  Are there cliff divers in other places?  What is the history of the Acapulco cliff divers? (Research, time line, report, display, Power Point…)

Do they use math when they dive?  How?  Could computers be used to make their dives even safer?  How? How are computers used in other sports to improve achievement and safety?

While I really push the idea of authenticity, please don’t authentically dive off of a cliff to research this topic!

Authentic Learning – Never too Young to Explore Books

Authentic learning can’t start too young.  Exposing children to books and reading should start the day they are born.  As they grow, let them explore and enjoy books that interest them, on their level. 

Having a rich reading environment for children is hugely important.  Not only having lots of high interest reading material available, but having care-givers that model reading as well.

And remember, reading is reading. It doesn’t need to be Shakespeare for a child to grow as a reader. I am a voracious reader, mostly sci-fi. I don’t believe I would be the reader I am without sci-fi. No offense to the Great Bard, but not my cup of English tea. I’ve been reading sci-fi since I was old enough to hold a book. And now I write it!

And yep – that is my book, Tex the Explorer: Journey to Mars.  And yep – it is upside down! (Authentic Exploration)

Authentic Project Ideas – The History of the Elevator

I did a post about elevators a while back, but this one was too cool to pass up!

We just returned from a historic lodge which had this elevator.  You opened the door and then pulled the gate back to get in.  There were modern elevators in the lodge also, but we went out of our way to always use this one. The only other time I have seen an elevator like this was in Europe years ago. 

So, what is the history of the elevator?  Who invented it? Where was it invented?  (Reading)

Design an elevator (Math).  Construct an elevator (Math).  What will elevators in the future look like (Writing/Math)?  Lots of authentic ways to go with this…up, down…sideways?