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 Project Ideas – Beaches

Photo by T.B.♥️

Why do some shores have rocks while others have sandy beaches?  This authentic driving question can go in so many ways and result in so many authentic projects and products…

With younger learners this may lead to an authentic project about beaches.  What is a beach?  What are the different types of beaches?  Do rivers have beaches…lakes…oceans…cold water…warm water?

With older learners this may lead to an authentic project about waves and tides.  What causes them?  What is global warming doing to coastlines/beaches?

And as I look at all the snow in my backyard, I am trying to convince myself it is a white sand beach…

Authentic Projects Need Authentic Products

Photo by T.B.♥️

How does a river like this become a “Grand Canyon?” 

Authentic projects need authentic products:  Create a booklet with illustrations and/or photographs.  Create a chart.  Create a graph to show the timeline.  Build several models showing the progression.  Write a fictional legend…

Deciding the best way to present your research is as important as the research itself. It is also a great time to experiment with different ways to reach your audience.

And according to some former students of mine, I was old enough that I saw the beginnings of the Grand Canyon form – hmmmm – definitely a need for authentic time lines!

Authentic Project Ideas – Ships and Ports

We now pause to take a break from the winter.  We were buried in snow this week and as I started to write a blog about more authentic project ideas for the topic of snow, I decided I really wanted to write about the sunny south of the US.

So, I looked through my photos and found a favorite from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  Cruise ships are a huge part of the Florida economy.  What are all the ways that a ship impacts a port’s economy?  What are all the positive impacts a ship brings?  For little ones this could be a project about jobs on ships.  What are all the negative impacts?  For older learners this could go into a project about congestion and pollution. 

How has COVID-19 and the shutdown of the cruise industry impacted port economies?

Study ship designs and design a better ship.  Design improvements for a local port.  Create a list of all jobs on a ship and “apply” for a job…   Tons of authentic ways to go with this topic.  Bon Voyage!

Authentic Project Ideas – Salt

Salt has been a very valued commodity for centuries. Why? What are all of the uses for salt?

One winter use is salting roads. We have bad weather coming in and the trucks are out salting our roads. Why? My husband and several other people in our neighborhood have put out signs to stop the trucks from salting our driveways. Interestingly, my husband and my neighbor’s husband have two very different reasons for not wanting salt on the driveway. What are reasons to not use salt on driveways/roads?

Why has salt historically been used on food? Why is salt bad for you?

So many places to go with this topic – so many authentic roads to follow – with our without salt!

Authentic Project Ideas – Folk Art

I friend I taught with introduced me to Hex signs. She grew up in Berks County, Pennsylvania, which is where most of the barns in the United States with Hex signs are located.  When I first heard about these signs I thought they had something to do with casting spells.  Turns out this is not true!

I spent a great deal of time researching, and planning for our trip to Berks County.  Then we drove around and photographed the gorgeous barns. I learned a great deal about the Pennsylvania Dutch.  The photo above is my favorite barn in Berks County.

Doing an authentic project about Hex signs will involve reading for research, and writing to explain the history and/or what Hex signs represent today.  An authentic project can go in the direction of history, current barns and where they are found, or branch off into Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Art. 

You don’t have to live in Pennsylvania to do a project on Hex signs, you don’t even need to live in the United States.  Just like you don’t need to live in the UK to do a project about castles.  While US Hex signs are predominately found in Berks County, Pennsylvania, a friend I sent the above photo to told me about similar folk art in Wisconsin. Except the Wisconsin folk art is done on furniture, and was brought over from a different area of Europe.  He ended up researching that. 

And if a leading question about Hex signs becomes an authentic project about another kind of folk art, that is authentic learning!

Authentic Project Ideas – Snow Categories

Before this snow fall, our local forecasters said that it would be a nice fluffy snow.  How did they know that?  What are the different categories of snow and what causes these types of snow?  What temperature and atmospheric conditions are needed for different categories of  snow?  (I found five categories and they have very descriptive names that kids will like!)

And if this project turns into an essay on the perfect snow for building a snowman and a photo-journal of snowmen…that is authentic learning!

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 – Following Student Interest

This picture appears to be of flowers, but if you look closely you can see snow out the window. 

When we present students with driving questions and prompts, it is surprising how many times students notice the snow in the background and want to frame their project around that.

I taught in Central Florida for several years, and had the opportunity to take field trips to EPCOT at Disney World several times.  (It was not exactly a tough day at work.)  What fascinated me was how often the kids were enthralled by something other than the actual ride or show.  More than once I had to grab a kid by the collar who was leaning over way too far to see what was making the ride move or stay in its lane.

When we finished the ride, the discussion wasn’t about the obvious, it was about the behind the scenes mechanics.  How cool was that!

This trip was the culmination of a yearly unit on countries. Each student researched a country, wrote a report, and constructed a diorama.  Decades later, I realize that it would have been even better to go to EPCOT first and then have the kids design and build their models.  I can’t imagine how far they would have taken the project with the information they gained on the trip.  And if their final projects were more about design, motion, and construction, rather than the country they picked to learn about, then the projects would have been less “themed” learning and more “project-based/authentic

So, while we may be presenting a driving question about flowers, to really be authentic, be willing to go off on a project about snow.