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!!

Giving Back!

I have written about this story before, but it is so important to me that I feel I should repeat it at the holiday season.

When I was about 11 or 12 years old, my great-grandfather gave me face powder as a holiday gift. He was in his 90s and had no idea that pre-teen girls didn’t wear face powder. After he left, I expressed my disappointment to my mother, in tears – my usual mode of pre-teen communication. Instead of lecturing me that I should be grateful or telling me I was spoiled etc, my mother agreed that this was not a great gift for a girl my age. She didn’t offer to replace it, instead she suggested we find an older woman who might not be getting gifts for the holidays, and donate this to her. After some discussion, my mother, brothers, and I decided to find an entire family that we could donate gifts to for the holidays.

This was before the internet, and giving-trees etc, and it was actually not easy to find out how to accomplish this. But my mother persevered, and we found a family in need, bought and wrapped gifts, and delivered them to the family – including the face powder that started this all.

We continued this throughout my entire childhood, and as adults have all continued this tradition with our own families. I can’t imagine a holiday season where giving to some one in need isn’t a part of it. It is definitely my favorite part of the holidays.

So authentic project idea – brainstorm with your class, children, family a way to give back this holiday season. Something as simple as a home-made card can really brighten up someone’s holiday.

Authentic Project Ideas – Robots

We recently took our grandchildren out to breakfast. We were waiting for our food when a robot appeared to deliver food to the next table. Needless to say, our grandchildren were thrilled, and I was immediately writing a blog post in my head!

There are so many authentic project ideas I can think of that involve robots. Reading about robots, writing a proposal for a robot, designing a robot, building a robot…

A topic we have discussed a great deal within my family, is how the pandemic and the current labor shortage has pushed the use of robots a decade or more ahead. It was inevitable, but the use of robots has definitely accelerated. Is this all a good thing? What are the positive aspects of this? What are the negative?

So much to authentically think about, research, debate…

And sadly, our food was delivered by a human, much to the disappointment of our grandchildren.

Authentic Project Ideas – Snakes

I can not think of one good reason why anyone would want to do an authentic project about snakes. I can’t even think of a good authentic project about snakes! I don’t care why we need snakes. I don’t care how they contribute to a balanced ecosystem. I don’t care if they fascinate many students and would be a great authentic project for them to work on…learning about what snakes contribute, learning about types of snakes, poisonous snakes, big snakes, little snakes… I don’t care that a great driving question would be, “Why are so many people afraid of snakes?”

Just sayin…

Authentic Project Ideas – Dogs

This is my son-in-law’s dog Mollie. She loves to spend time up in Pennsylvania with us, as she much prefers the retirement life to her life at home with two toddlers! When my husband walks her, he always gets asked the same question, “What kind of dog is she?” We are pretty sure she is part bull dog, but not sure what the other part is.

There are so many authentic projects that learners could do about dogs. How many types of breeds are there? How can you tell what breed a dog is? What have dogs been used for historically? When did they become family pets?

And if a learner wants to do a project about cats instead, that is what authentic learning is all about. (And before I met Mollie, I wondered why everyone just didn’t have a cat.) There is another authentic project, dogs versus cats! Why are people “dog people?” Why are people “cat people?” What is the ratio of dogs to cats as pets?

*We asked our daughter if she ever was going to do genetic testing to see what type of dog Mollie actually is, and the answer was, “No, she is a dog.” (Translation…$$ not happening.)

Authentic Project Ideas – Tornadoes

Kinzua Bridge State Park, McKean County, Pennsylvania

This is a photo I took on a recent trip to Kinzua Bridge State Park. A tornado tore apart this railroad bridge in 2003. The standing part of the bridge was reinforced and is now a walkway with a fantastic view of the park. You also see the power, and devastation, of a tornado.

A photograph can be used to be the inspiration for a prompt or question to start an authentic project. There are many prompts/driving questions I can think of from looking at this photo.

How strong would a tornado most likely need to be to do this kind of damage? How are tornadoes rated? Is this similar to how we categorize hurricanes? Why do we have State Parks/National Parks? Write a story about what happened here…

Depending on what your goals are, this could lead to learning and exploration about tornadoes, hurricanes, conservation, creative writing…honestly, the sky is the limit.

And just to brag a little, there were several dogs at the entrance to the walkway who refused to go out on the bridge, but our grand-dog ran right out on the bridge and loved it!

Authentic Project Ideas – Planting Trees

Teaching our children that they can make an authentic difference is something that I think is really important. There are so many current problems we have on our planet. And it can seem like, “why bother,” we really can’t make a difference. But we can! If everyone just tried to make a bit of a difference, think of the changes that we could make.

Our planet desperately needs trees planted. There are many, many groups that are planting trees. A great authentic project would be to learn why we need trees, what we use trees for, what are all the different types of trees… Then involving our students in either planting trees, or fundraising for groups that are planting them. Tons of authentic reading, math, science, social studies… Learning and a good cause – can’t beat that!