Authentic Project Ideas – The Starting Point

NASA Photo of Ingenuity Flying Over the Surface of Mars!!

Early this morning, NASA flew a helicopter on Mars! I think that NASA has had so many successes recently that it is easy to forget how difficult this is, and what a huge historic accomplishment this represents. For the first time, humans have flown an aircraft on another planet!

To be honest, to me this is such a huge event that I can’t even begin to think about an authentic project, or an authentic driving question for a project. I think just talking to students, and gaining an understanding of their questions about this event, should lead to an authentic starting point. And honestly, isn’t that how all authentic projects should start?

Congratulations to NASA on the first flight of Ingenuity!

Authentic Project Ideas – Global Warming

If you look closely at this photo you will see that the middle house is jacked up on stilts.  This house sits across the street from the Atlantic Ocean.  Why is this house up on stilts?  What are the owners doing?  Why would they be doing this?  These homes have been here for a long time.  What has changed?

These questions could lead to possible projects about the rising ocean and global warming.  But if they lead to a project about home restoration, or the tourist industry (these are homes that are vacation rentals) and the impact of COVID-19…that is authentic learning!

Authentic Project Ideas – Domestic vs Wild

I had never seen a wild turkey before.  It was so cool to see this flock (are they called a flock) of turkeys on a drive north of where we live.

Looking through my blog photos, I found a picture I had taken of domestic turkeys and was very surprised at the difference.  One big difference, literally, was that the domestic turkeys were bigger, as in more meat.  In the photos I had, the wild and domestic birds looked to be different colors also.

So, a driving question for an authentic project might be about the differences between wild and domestic turkeys.  Or wild and domestic “any animal.”  A question/prompt could be about the history of domestication of an animal. This could easily turn into an authentic project about the history of the domestication of dogs and/or cats.

Learners might also be surprised as to how many animals are considered domestic and what the definition of domestic is.  I learned this lesson when I entered a gorgeous “blue-ribbon” photo of alpacas into the wild animal category of our county fair and found out after I entered the photo that alpacas are considered domestic animals.  I had thought only dogs and cats were considered domestic.

If a project is truly authentic, you start with a photo of wild turkeys and end up with a project about domestication and a future award-winning photo of alpacas. (I let you know how the alpaca photo does in the domestic category next summer!)

Authentic Project Ideas – Groundhog’s Day

On another voyage through our home state of Pennsylvania, we happened upon a groundhog named Phil.  As in Punxsutawney Phil! 

So how did Groundhog’s Day begin?  What is the history of this day?  Do other countries have a Groundhog’s Day or a similar type day?  Why is the legend that if he sees his shadow on February 2nd, there will be six more weeks of winter?  If he sees his shadow, that means the sun is out, so shouldn’t there be an early spring? 

The project could easily turn into an authentic project about what effect Groundhog’s Day has had on the economy of Punxsutawney.  Driving around the small town you could see that the impact has been significant.  The tour guide up in Gobbler’s Knob, where the official day is held, told us that everything changed after the movie Groundhog’s Day, which ironically was not filmed in Punxsutawney. What other cities have dramatically increased tourism due to a movie? Lots of authentic driving questions could come from the photos above and below.

Punxsutawney Phil lives in a glass enclosed burrow at the Punxsutawney Library.  There were actually two groundhogs in the burrow and they looked very snuggly on a cold March day.  When it was explained to us that 40,000 people show up at Gobbler’s Knob at 2am on February 2nd to wait until that morning to see Phil, we thought that sounded like fun – NOT! We will stick to seeing him at the library.

Punxsutawney Phil

Authentic Project Ideas – Ice Formation

This ice was on the side of a rocky cliff.  It was absolutely gorgeous!

There was no visible source of water.  How does this kind of ice form?  Is there a name for this kind of ice? Are there different kinds of ice?

Create a poster to show how this ice formed.  Make a photo-journal.  Draw diagrams.  Create a booklet.

Write a fictional story inspired by this photograph. (I wrote this blog two days ago, on St. Patrick’s Day, so my story will be about the leprechauns that live behind this ice in a secret cave guarding their pot of gold!)

Authentic Project Ideas – Creative Writing

I have a tendency to look at photos and think about projects that teach math, science, social studies… It is very easy for me to tie in writing to all of these projects. Even with very young children, a written description should accompany the final product.

But when I look at my photographs, I feel something. I don’t take photographs unless the subject matter somehow “reaches” me. I don’t take photos just to take photos. And in my head I am usually thinking of a story, a song, or a poem. Sometimes I forget to include these ideas on my blog.

The above photo could certainly be a prompt for an authentic project about snow, deciduous trees, ice formation, or rock formation. However, I took this picture to use it on my holiday cards next year. (Yes, I am already preparing for the 2021 Holiday Season.) Looking at this photo could inspire a driving question for writing poetry, or writing a fictional essay, composing a song…or as a featured photo on a holiday card!

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!