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.

Authentic Project Ideas – Ants

Most couples celebrating their anniversary would sit and watch a romantic sunset after a special dinner.  My husband and I celebrated our anniversary by watching ants and several drops of a melted chocolate marshmallow from cooking s’mores over a fire.  Obviously, nerd marrying a nerd works because we were celebrating our 38th.

We were curious as to how long it would take the many ants that were out to find the chocolate.  Finally, one did, and it seemed to very much be enjoying itself. (If you look closely the happy ant is to the right of the biggest drop.) We thought the ant might then go and somehow inform the rest that dinner had been served.  When the ant took off, quickly, it went right through a line of ants and kept on going away from the rest of them.

Nearby, there was another group of ants very aggressively pursuing a dying dragonfly. They did not seem interested in the chocolate. (No accounting for taste.)

Authentic Driving Questions:  Do ants prefer bugs to chocolate? (That would just be sad!) How do ants communicate?  Will one ant communicate to the rest of the ants that there is a food source available?  How do ants live?  Colonies?

Create an actual living ant colony. Just don’t waste any chocolate marshmallows on them!

Authentic Project Ideas – Playgrounds

We just spent several days on playgrounds with our two-year-old fearless grandson.  He is a tad bit of an adrenaline junkie and I am now totally grey!

Playgrounds have changed so much since I was a child in the stone age.  They are actually much safer, so I really shouldn’t fret so much about my grandson climbing to the top of very, extremely, awfully tall equipment. 

Watching him play got me thinking of possible authentic projects about designing the perfect playground.  This could be a simple project for very young students, up to a complex math activity for older students (including advanced measurement skills, budget and cost analysis).

The history of playgrounds could be explored from see saws of centuries ago to the modern playgrounds of today.  The continued improvements for both fun and safety could also be explored.

Models, timelines, diagrams, maps…have fun!

Authentic Project Ideas – Tropical Fish

How many kinds of tropical fish are there?  Why are they called tropical fish? Are all tropical fish so bright and colorful?  Do all tropical fish live in reefs?  What is a reef made of?  What is an artificial reef?

So many authentic driving questions.  A great authentic project might be to design an artificial reef. This could incorporate many science and math goals. Another authentic project might be to create and take care of a tropical aquarium. (Or not – fish never did well in my classroom – I’m better with plants!)

Tex the Explorer: Journey Through the Alphabet Wins First Place in International Contest!

I was beyond excited when our book Tex the Explorer: Journey Through the Alphabet made it to Finalist in the Chanticleer International Book Awards Contest – Little Peeps Division (Early Readers). Well, Eyen and I found out last night that we came in FIRST PLACE in our category. (We will get a new digital badge for our cover that says First Place!)

And once again, I need to say that I am so proud of my amazing illustrator – he is the reason these books shine!

Available on Amazon.

Authentic Project Ideas – A Sailing Ship

This is a photo that was taken near the US Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut. If you look closely up in the masts, you will see Coast Guard Cadets getting the sails ready.  With modern ships, why would these cadets need to learn how to sail an old ship?

A driving question/authentic project could focus on why these cadets need this skill.  Or it could focus on old versus modern ships.  Or what it means to have a career in the Coast Guard. Or perhaps designing a dream yacht…

Maybe this photo could inspire a creative writing project about sailing, or pirates! 

What this photo will not inspire is – me ever being photographed that high up on anything!

Authentic Project Ideas – Iguanas

Caught this guy climbing up a tree near my Mom’s home in South Florida.  He was about 80 feet long.  Ok – he was actually about two feet long – but he was one big iguana!

I grew up in South Florida and we always saw plenty of little lizards running around – most without tails as our cats liked to bite the tails off.  But we never saw these huge iguanas until almost half a century later.  Driving Question:  What changed?  Why were we seeing these huge iguanas all over South Florida? 

Other authentic project ideas for younger children could be to learn about the iguana.

And I have always wondered, did those lizard tails ever grow back?  Poor things…

Authentic Project Ideas – Rock Formations

This photo was taken by a hiker I happen to know.  Not so sure I would have hiked through this! How did the rocks get into this formation?  How would you know it was safe to hike through?  What kind of rocks are these?  Where did the beautiful colors come from?

So many authentic questions.  This photo could lead to authentic projects about rock formations, types of rocks, best hiking trails in your area, equipment needed for hiking, hiking safety, beauty in nature…  And I’ll be participating in my favorite, much safer pastime while my husband hikes…on-line shopping!

Authentic Teaching – Make it Real, Make it Count

Make it real and make it count.  That is the mantra of authentic teaching and learning.  But does “real” really mean “real”? 

The photo above is from a Virtual Science Fair on Mars.  While creating the Martian Colony, we decided to hold a Virtual Science Fair – on Mars!  We learned about the scientific process and the kids all came up with a question and hypothesis, and a proposal for conducting an experiment on Mars.  They then built a model showing what their experiment might look like on Mars. 

Our focus was teaching the concept of hypothesis.  So many times, we see Science Fair entries that are really reports, not experiments.  So, with this group of fifth-graders we took the process apart and focused on each piece throughout the year.  The kids were graded on whether or not they wrote a hypothesis.  In the end, most of them went way beyond that.

The Science Fair may have been “Virtual” in that we really were not on Mars, but it was real science, and it did count!

*Our favorite entry was the student who wanted to know what would happen if you took a can of soda out on the Martian surface.  Her hypothesis was that it would explode because of the extreme cold temperature on Mars.  She decided to test this out in her freezer at home.  And the can did explode.  We hid from that mother when she visited the Virtual Science Fair!

Authentic Teaching – Cooking

I don’t think I can write too often about cooking.  I can’t think of an authentic activity that can inspire so many driving questions and possible authentic projects. I have written before about using cooking to teach math.  But you can also teach reading through cooking.  And social studies.  And science…

Children need to use math to cook.  But they also should be looking up and reading recipes. And how about finding special dishes that represent different cultures.  Why do people eat different foods in different countries?  What grows best in different locations?  How does this affect what people cook with and eat?  Lots of different and delicious authentic ways to go with cooking! Enjoy!