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 – 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 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.

Authentic Teaching – Poets and Poetry

Illustration by Eyen Johnson

I just attended an on-line poetry reading where the iconic Robert Frost Poem The Road Not Taken was shared.  I love Robert Frost and I love this poem.  Listening to this poem made me think about what a great idea it is to teach elementary and middle school students using the poetry of Robert Frost.  Ummm…NOT!
Let’s be honest – there are very few children who are mature enough to appreciate Robert Frost.  Maybe by high school, but I can assure you I didn’t appreciate him when I was in high school.  I had no use for his poetry.  I hated memorizing his poems.  And I honestly had no idea why this was anything but a waste of my time.  I pretty much hated poetry.

So fast forward to my teaching career and good old Robert is part of the 5th grade curriculum.  Now I am not one to fight city hall…so what to do?

Well, enter authentic teaching, learning, and projects.  We introduced the kids to Robert Frost and all the other poets that were in the curriculum. But then, instead of memorizing a poem, or writing in the style of Robert Frost we turned the kids loose to write their own poetry.

In one class the kids were working on a Martian Colony, so they wrote Martian Poetry.  Their poetry covered every topic possible – sports on Mars, monsters on Mars, weather, friendship, loneliness…  Some of the kids modeled their poetry after a Robert Frost poem, others looked to different poets. (The most popular choice by far – Shel Silverstein). 

The class ended up publishing a book of Martian Poetry that went home to every family. 

So, the kids really learned about poetry, they learned about different poets, and they had fun writing poetry.  The curriculum was covered. The project was authentic. The learning was authentic

Happy Holidays

Many people will be celebrating Christmas this week.  Many other families are, or will be, celebrating different winter holidays.

The holidays are certainly not what I hoped for this year.  My dreams of my entire family gathering for Thanksgiving, as we always have, did not happen.  The holidays this month have been piecemeal and very different from other years.  But different does not mean bad.  This has been an opportunity to grow and learn about what is truly important.

There are many ways children can be involved in the celebrations this week, even with the restrictions, monetary concerns…  Time for homemade gifts, letters, cards, homemade gift cards (for cleaning, cooking, babysitting).  Starting new family traditions.  And of course, these activities can all involve reading, writing, math, social studies, science…

Whatever holidays you celebrate this month, I hope they are safe and happy.  And the teacher in me also hopes you find ways to authentically continue to allow your learners to blossom and grow.

Authentic Learning Turning Into an Authentic Project

I finally learned how to bake cookies.  Seriously!  I have never been able to bake cookies – my result was always a melted, burnt mess.  But thanks to a lot of instruction and patience from my daughter-in-law, I have finally mastered baking cookies.

So, for the first time, I am going to make holiday cookies this year.  I am going to use the recipes I have already mastered and change them slightly for the holidays.  For example, using red and green M&Ms only for my M&M cookies.  I am also thinking about how to tweak my chocolate chip cookies for the holidays.  Any ideas?

I have written about baking and cooking many times on my blog.  This is one of the best authentic ways to teach so many math and reading skills.

With the current pandemic, I was also thinking about authentic social awareness skills.  There are many single people in my neighborhood who have been isolating alone now for months.  I am thinking about leaving a plate of holiday cookies on several doorsteps.  I thought about doing this anonymously, but with food I think it is better that the receiver knows where the treats came from.

Doing this with children could easily turn into an authentic project.  Baking is just the starting point. Conversation while baking could turn into a project of making and leaving home made ornaments on doorsteps to brighten people’s holiday.  Or maybe making a small homemade gift. 

Perhaps this could turn into an authentic project learning about all the holidays people celebrate this time of year, and what gifts are usually given, if any, for these holidays. I would love to receive a gift from another religion/culture with a written explanation of what this gift represents. 

So, I started writing about my new-found ability to bake cookies, and am now thinking about leaving some unique gifts from other religions/cultures on my neighbors’ doorsteps, with an explanation about what the gifts represent. I need to do some research and planning. I will need to do some writing. And I am going to need to be creative. This is an authentic project!

Authentic Teaching – Including Educational Objectives

Parents frequently have the opportunity to just explore with their children.  Just spending time looking, listening, talking…  And this is when children really learn.  When the exchange is spontaneous, real, authentic

Authentic learning is just that.  It is spontaneous and real.  The only difference is that the educator also has objectives and goals that need to be woven in. 

Here is the difference.  The father gets up in the morning and decides to take his young son on a hike.  While on the hike they discover a lake.  The father and son enjoy the view, and the father also talks to his son about what they are seeing.  Lots of authentic learning is taking place.

Now, picture the father as an educator (and aren’t all parents educators).  He gets up in the morning, looks at his plan book, and sees he wants to introduce the concept of “lake” to his young learner.  So, he plans a hike that ends at a lake.  Here is the big difference. The father went on a hike and happened to end up at a lake. The educator plans a hike that ends up at a lake.

Once they get there, the educator lets his young learner take everything in, and also introduces the concept of “lake.”  And if there is not a lake nearby to explore, he plans a field trip.  Or he finds a video on line that explores a lake. (Authentic can be virtual as well…)

Oh…and in the first scenario, the mom left at home enjoyed some quality nap time!

Authentic Project Ideas – Domestic vs Wild Animals

What is the difference between a domestic and a wild animal?  Your learners may be surprised once you dig into this a little.  I had assumed that domestic animals were simply those that were pets – cats and dogs.  

But it turns out it is not that simple.  I found this out when I wanted to enter a wonderful photo I had of alpacas into the wild animal category for a photo contest.  A friend told me that was the wrong category for this photo.  Alpacas are domestic animals. Once I started to do research I was really surprised at what is considered a domestic animal. I really didn’t understand what the term domestic meant.  It is also fascinating to find out when an animal was domesticated.  Dogs – 30,000 years ago!

Lots of authentic projects here.  Starting to research this topic could easily move into an authentic project about pretty much any animal out there.  Gotta go, time to feed my pet alpacas.