A friend of mine recently sent me a text from a day trip to Washington, D.C. It was one of our first beautiful spring days and she had gone down to enjoy the spring flowers.
I had just finished two blog posts that needed pictures from Washington. I asked her if she could take a picture of the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian Castle. As an afterthought, I asked for pictures of other Washington icons.
She was not able to get the two pictures I needed. (Oh well, guess I will need to grab the husband and make the four-hour trip from Pennsylvania down to Washington to get the photos…and go out to lunch, do some shopping…) However, looking at the gorgeous pictures she did send me, I immediately had ideas for several future blog posts. The pictures were total authentic inspirations. And, of course, my hope is that my blog inspires authentic teaching and projects.
Then it dawned on me, looking at the pictures, that perhaps we do field trips with children backwards. I did the majority of my teaching career in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. We frequently took field trips to iconic D.C. places at the end of units of study. The thought was that at that point, the kids would have plenty of background knowledge and would benefit the most from the field trips. But authentic projects should start from an inspiration. The kids were the most engaged when something real inspired them, and then they took the project from there.
So maybe instead of waiting until nearly the end of a unit of study to take kids on a trip to see what they were actually learning about, we should take kids on trips to see what inspires them, and then start the authentic learning from there.
Quilt by Chris Staver
As I have often mentioned in my blog, so many different things can inspire an authentic project. A girlfriend of mine creates amazing quilts. I call what she does “painting with fabric.” I was at a museum exhibition of her work recently. Several of her quilts have environmental themes. One of her quilts depicts toxic waste drums. (Unusual for a quilt, and absolutely incredible work!) This got me thinking about waste management.
We produce so much waste on our planet that we need to dispose of. There are several ways a project could look at this issue. Ideas about how to produce less waste. Recycling ideas, disposal ideas…
The important thing to remember when teaching authentically is the starting point is just that, a starting point. If somehow this project turns into recycling old cookbooks, which results in the use of, or the improvement of, an old recipe…that is exactly what authentic teaching and learning is. The goal is for the student to read, write, use math, investigate, produce…
When students are engaged, they learn!
Who invented the donut? Why do donuts have holes? How do you make donuts?
Authentic projects often start with a few simple questions and end with a student developed recipe for delicious tasting zero calorie donuts! ( My blog…my fantasy!)
The picture at the top of this post and the picture at the bottom of this post were taken on the same day. And they were both taken on the same island in Hawaii!
How is that possible? Snow in the tropics? On the same day the young lady went from short sleeves to a winter coat? (Hint – she was high up on a mountain at an observatory in the second picture.)
So, what impacts weather? How many places can you think of where someone could wear a summer outfit and a winter outfit during the same day? Take the authentic learning experience from here…it may end up being a long authentic project about what impacts the weather or a short authentic research experience about what the young lady is standing inside of in the top picture. Or maybe even a huge authentic project about the Hawaiian Islands. With authentic learning you never know where you will end up! Aloha!
While searching for information on the United States Mint, I accidentally ended up on a site that sold coins. (Don’t you love how companies set up domain names with one different letter from another domain, hoping you will type a wrong letter and end up at their site – and maybe not even notice.) Once I realized I was on the wrong site, I was fascinated by the price of coins. What makes a coin extra valuable? Some of the current coins were still in circulation, why would anyone pay more for a coin that they could still get for face value in circulation? What is a “proof” coin? Do the pictures a country places on its coins (and/or paper currency) tell you something about that country?
I was then reminded of the coin collection I had as a child, and how much fun it was to collect coins. I learned so much about geography and was constantly using math without even realizing it. (Value of foreign currency, exchange rates, saving my allowance to buy a coin I really wanted…)
So many questions, so many possible authentic teaching moments, and maybe even an authentic project…
A simple question or picture can lead to a huge project. My Martian Colony Project (all school year for four years) started with a NASA video. But authentic teaching doesn’t always lead to a project and that is fine. Authentic teaching sometimes means a student answers a question and then moves on. You can’t force that spark of interest that becomes an authentic project.
The above photo is of Haleakala Crater on the Hawaiian Island of Maui. Research about what caused this crater and how the Hawaiian Islands formed (and are still forming) might lead to a short project, a huge project, or no project at all. As long as students are researching and learning, that is all that matters.
A really important teaching strategy we learned early in our journey with authentic teaching was not to answer student questions. If a student asked how the Hawaiian Islands formed, we did not simply give them an answer. Very little learning takes place when students are simply given answers. We usually responded with, “That is a great question! Where do you think we can find information about that?” We would then guide them to a good starting place for research. This is one of the most important skills we can give students today. Students no longer need to memorize facts and answers to questions. Everything we need to know is literally at our fingertips – on our cell phones! What students need to know is how to go about finding the information they want and then what they should do with that information.
Where would be a good place to look for information about how the Hawaiian Islands formed? That is a great question! Let me know what you find out! And let me know if this becomes a starting point for an authentic project…
I live in the Eastern United States. My husband is from the Western United States. He has always laughed at the “hills” we call “mountains” on the east coast. The mountains out west do put our eastern mountain ranges to shame.
So why are some mountains bigger than others? How do mountains form? How do scientists know this? What kind(s) of scientists study mountain formation?
And this makes me crazy – why do the leaves at the bottom of our local mountains lose their leaves in the fall before the leaves at the top of our mountains? Isn’t it colder on the top? Isn’t that why trees lose their leaves? I think I am going to find out exactly what kind of trees we have that are doing this, do some research, and create a book to explain this! (Yep – I started with a picture of a mountain and now I am writing a book about a specific tree and how and when it loses leaves in the fall – that is called an authentic project!)