Authentic Prompts

I look at the above photo and see mountains. I see clues as to where this photo might have been taken. I ponder how mountains form. I see high mountains, but hear my husband’s voice reminding me that these east coast mountains are nothing compared to the mountains out west. I see a US National Park and think about the history of the National Park system. I see beauty, but I also see possible stories about survival in the wilderness. I see clouds. I see trees in the summer. I wonder how the colors might differ in the fall, or winter.

One photo can inspire so many different thoughts and authentic projects.  What authentic means is make it real and make it count. Making it real means starting with something real, or something that matters. (Photo, story, article, book, movie, personal experience, field trip…)

As a teacher, it can seem daunting to simply let students go in a million different directions. But it can be real to each student within curriculum goals, while allowing the teacher to maintain classroom management. Management from the instructional stand point, behavior becomes almost a non-existent problem when students are engaged.

If this photo is used as a prompt, a driving question can be formulated that takes the students in the direction that the teacher wants/needs to go, while leaving room for students to follow a path of interest to them. You just may be surprised where you end up when you start with a specific goal, but have an open-mind about how you might get there.

*This photo was taken in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. My husband went on a long and difficult hike to capture this photo. I went on a long and not-so-difficult shopping trip in town!

Authentic Teaching

We recently stopped by a museum that depicted the past Native American inhabitants of the area. I particularly liked this display that showed the underlying structure of the shelters that they built. I was going to do some research into what these shelters were called, who the Natives were… Then I realized that is the whole point of teaching authentically. The kids do the research and they take their interests from there.

What happened historically in teaching was that the teacher did all the research. The teacher presented all the facts, and then gave a quiz. The students memorized all the facts, passed the quiz – well some did – and then promptly forgot what they learned.

If a driving question were developed from this photo, it could be something like, “What were the Native Americans building with this framework?” That is actually probably all students need to know to start their research.

From there, students could engage in authentic projects about Native shelters, food, clothes, or they might segue this into a project about modern homes, or mountain ranges (as seen in the background of the photo)… That is authentic teaching and learning.

Authentic Project Ideas – Boats

This is a “Paddle Wheel” Boat that runs one-hour tours on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania.  While it appears that the wheel is moving the boat, in actuality the movement of the boat is turning the wheel.

So, how did Paddle Wheel Boats really work in the past?  What were other ways that people traveled by water in the past?  How do we travel by water in the present?  How do you think we will travel by water in the future?

Create an authentic time line of water travel in the past.  Create an authentic booklet.  Build an authentic model of a boat that really floats.  Design an authentic boat/ship of the future. (Can a future design be authentic?  Authentic means “make it real, make it count.”)

And if this project turns into a study of shipping companies of the past – that is authentic learning.

*On this trip we learned about a method of moving logs down the Susquehanna River in the 18th Century.  Another possible authentic area of study…

Authentic Project Ideas – Mills

The above photo is of an historic grist mill in Pennsylvania.  It still works and we bought some wonderful flour from their shop.

The mill no longer runs on water power but converted to electrical power in the 1950s.  What is the history of mills and how they ran on water power?  Are there still mills that operate solely by water power? What exactly does a mill do? What kinds of mills are there?

Create an authentic time line of mills and their use throughout history?  Create an authentic model of a mill run by water power.  Create an authentic mill that actually works!

And if this project leads to an authentic cookie bake-off using different types of flour (compare/contrast, survey, graph…) please send a sample or three my way!

Authentic Project Ideas – Supply Chain

The above photo was taken in our local car dealership earlier this week.  When we questioned why these cars were on the floor, it was explained that the cars were selling faster than they could get them, so they have no stock to display on the floor.

Currently, there is a shortage of many things.  This could lead to many driving questions and authentic projects about the supply chain. Why is there a delay getting many goods right now?

Is it a worker shortage?  Material shortage?  Shipping problems?

For younger students this could be a simple authentic project about supply and demand.  Sometimes we have to wait for what we want.  And if the supply is low the cost can be higher.

And I am still waiting for the Legos I ordered for my grandsons on Amazon a month ago!

Authentic Project Ideas – Gas Fire Pits/Fireplaces

Driving Question Number One: Why is it so difficult to photograph a flame?  Do I need a better camera?  New phone?  It took me at least 20 shots just to capture this photograph, and the flames were so much bigger and more impressive than in the photo.

Driving Question Number Two: Are gas fire pits/fireplaces good for the environment?  Are they better/worse than burning wood?  Do they cause any pollution? How economical are they?  How do they work?  There are so many questions you can ask using this picture as inspiration.

Design a gas fire pit/fireplace.  Build a model.  Build a real one!  So many authentic ways to go with this…

Authentic Project Ideas – A Photo is Worth a Thousand Poems

I love this photo.  There are so many layers to it. A river.  Trees.  Water so clear that the reflections of the trees are sharper than the actual trees in the photo.

To me this photo screams authentic poetry.  There is just something about it that begs for prose. 

As a mature (somewhat) adult I would write about the crystal clarity of the water.  Or the majesty of the trees.  As authentic means something that is meaningful to the writer, a child may write about tire swings over the water, or pushing a friend in, or fishing, or jumping off a cliff into too shallow a river – splat!

Or maybe instead of a poem, a story about exploring a lost river. Or becoming lost on a river…

I would love to hear about what your students come up with.

Authentic Project Ideas – Designing a Fountain

Fountains are very soothing to look at and add a serenity to the surrounding area.  Driving Question:  Why are fountains soothing?

This could lead to an authentic project to design a fountain and perhaps even build a working model, or a real fountain. 

Another Driving Question:  Do fountains waste water?  While the answer to this is hopefully no, this could lead to an authentic project learning about the energy a fountain does use and how to make a more energy efficient fountain. 

For younger students this project could simply be to learn about different famous fountains.  Actually, this could be a great project for older students as well. There are some very famous fountains around the world with a rich history.

Post Script – Growing up I lived near a fountain in front of a neighboring community.  My high school friends and I enjoyed putting a box of detergent in the fountain and watching it bubble up and over the fountain and then cover the nearby street with bubbles.  We were “cleaning” up our community.  Frequently!  It was the 1970s and we were before our time in developing authentic social responsibility skills by performing this community service.  Sadly, the fountain is long gone, so there will be no fifty-year reunion to clean the street again.

Authentic Project Ideas – Trucks

Our two-year-old grandson is infatuated with trucks.  Fire trucks, cement trucks, delivery trucks, freight trucks, construction trucks, food trucks, garbage trucks – especially garbage trucks!

It is amazing how many different kinds of trucks there are.  This is one topic where the driving question for an authentic project can be as broad or narrow as you like.  And this is also an easy topic to use for any age group.  Actually – all driving questions for authentic projects can be as broad or narrow as you like, and most topics can be used with any age group.

How many different types of trucks are there?  (I think perhaps millions based on the truck videos we have watched with our grandson the last few days!)  Can trucks be broken down into categories?  What kind of categories?  What kind of new truck do you think we need?

Design a better fire truck, construction truck, garbage truck…

Create a poster of different kinds of trucks…

Build a model of a new truck…

And might I add that on-line videos of garbage trucks are actually quite fascinating!

Authentic Project Ideas – Save a Starfish

The whole point of authentic teaching is that it is – well – authentic!  Make it real.  Make it count.

Teaching social skills is definitely something that is authentically real, and certainly counts.  But coming up with driving questions and project ideas that develop these skills can seem daunting, especially if you want what you are doing to really make a difference.  But, I think sometimes the problem is that we think that to make a difference we need to save the world.

There is a story about a boy on a beach who is picking up starfish and throwing them back in the water.  There are thousands of starfish washed up on the beach and there is no way that the boy can throw them all back in the water and save them all.  A man is watching him, questions this, and asks him why he even tries.  As he throws another starfish back in the water, he replies, “It made a difference to that one.”   (Adapted from The Star Fish Thrower by Loren Eiseley, 1907-1977)

I love this story.  I repeat it constantly.  To me it is the core of everything I do when I do something for someone else.  I don’t have to send a card to every elderly, lonely person to make a difference.  Just one.  I don’t need to donate a toy to every needy child at the holidays.  Just one, or two, or however many I can handle. I don’t need to clean up litter on every street in my town.  Just one block. I don’t need save the world by myself.

And when I devise a driving question, or come up with a framework for a project, I don’t need to come up with something that will save the world.  Just one starfish.  And imagine if every educator devised a project to save one starfish.  We might just end up saving all of them. This is the truly authentic lesson we need to teach children.  Save one starfish.