Authentic learning this school year

We asked four educators -- including the 2017 national teacher of the year -- to tell us how they plan to support authentic learning during the new school year. We wanted to hear about tech tools, instructional methods and activities. Read on for their responses.

Sydney Chaffee, 2017 national teacher of the year, ninth-grade humanities teacher, Codman Academy Charter Public School, Boston

Authentic learning can happen every day if we design experiences that push students to solve problems.

Every spring, my students stage a mock trial. They collaborate to explore multiple perspectives, consider bias and craft compelling arguments for a jury of community members. The project requires hard work; the texts are complex, and there are no easy answers or simple truths.

Last year, a team of students struggled to discredit a claim that its witness had been carrying illegal pamphlets in the trunk of his car. They pored over an article for clues. “All they’re talking about is some guy’s boot!” one student said in frustration.

I read over her shoulder. The article referred to the “boot” of the car being stuck shut because of a dent. “Read this part again,” I told the group, pointing to a paragraph that mentioned the location of the dent being above the car’s left taillight.

“It makes no sense,” another student said. “How does this help with the pamphlets?”

“What do you think a ‘boot’ is?” I asked.

“It’s like a shoe,” someone offered. It was clear to me they weren’t reading carefully or thinking critically.

“Do you think it makes sense that they’re talking about a shoe here?” I pressed. “Why don’t you read it again together and try to figure out what’s going on?” I walked away so they wouldn’t rely on me to think for them.

I watched from the other side of the room as they read the sentence again, foreheads scrunched.

Then, the light bulb moment: “It’s part of the car!” a student exclaimed. “They couldn’t get the trunk open!”

Another student connected the dots: “So they couldn’t tell if there were pamphlets inside!” They all scribbled and highlighted furiously.

This moment of students working together to decipher a complex text and support a claim with relevant evidence represents authentic learning. Students practiced these skills for the purpose of presenting to a real audience. They worked with real historical documents. Most important, though, they dug into a problem that had no clear-cut answer. Their thinking was authentic because they were tasked with building a case based on evidence that could lead to multiple interpretations.

When we free students from the expectation that they come up with a predetermined right answer, we enable them to be curious and to really learn.

Follow Chaffee on Twitter at @SydneyChaffee, and check out her website.

Kerry Gallagher, digital learning specialist, St. John's Prep, Danvers, Mass.

At St. John’s Prep, students often use such tools as Adobe Spark, iMovie and Notability to create clean, professional-quality media. Their quote graphics, videos, animations and infographics are clean and beautiful and demonstrate content mastery. By creating the digital products they see adults sharing online, they are more invested in learning. What makes these authentic creations even more exciting is that they are encouraged to share them beyond our classrooms. Our digital portfolio program gives our students that chance to share their work broadly if they wish. But perhaps even more important, through the portfolio process, they have the chance to reflect on what they've learned and why they are proud of their creations. Their authentic learning experience is twofold: They will create what adult professionals create, and they will get to share their graphics, videos, designs and writing with the world beyond our school if they choose.

Follow Gallagher on Twitter at @KerryHawk02, and check out her website.

Alice Chen, teacher and technology coach, Walnut Valley Unified School District, California

When students enter the workplace, they will work for organizations that either produce products or provide services. For this reason, I have always tried to create authentic learning for my students so they can practice the skills they will need in their careers.

I believe my classroom should be a gateway to the world. My students are regularly asked to practice these skills in my curriculum: research, inquiry, creativity and collaboration. One medium that lends itself to global collaboration is world blogging. All my students have their own blogs, and blogging has enabled my student writers to discover their voice and uncover a true love of writing. My students also show their learning by creating content using various media, such as presentations, websites, videos and digital posters. They also write essays and participate in online discussions to express their ideas or defend their arguments.

Because I teach English language arts, I feel that traditional tests and quizzes are not the best assessment tools for my class. My job is to cultivate my students’ communication skills, and I truly believe that it is through the act of creation that they will receive the essential hands-on practice they need. My students demonstrate their knowledge and express their thinking by creating content, and some of my favorite go-to digital tools are Google Docs, Google Slides, Padlet, Adobe Spark and WeVideo. Google Docs is fantastic for peer collaboration and feedback. I love to pop into their Docs to see the real-time learning that’s taking place, and it’s also conducive for peer editing. Though Google Slides was meant to be a presentation tool, it has capabilities beyond its original use. I think of Google Slides as an artist’s canvas, where students can create anything they wish by mixing in text, images and video to get their point across. I also like having my students create digital books with this app. I tell my students to think of each slide as a page in the book, and they have created poetry anthologies, study guides and handbooks using this tool. Padlet is often used to curate information or as a digital poster. Adobe Spark and WeVideo are great for creating videos and showcasing student work.

I try to emulate the outside world within my classroom, giving my students situations and opportunities to practice what they will need to succeed in their lives and careers. Many of my students’ parents appreciate and value authentic assessments, and they are often proud of what their child can create when given the chance.

Follow Chen on Twitter at @wondertechedu, and check out her website.

Bryan Christopher, English and journalism teacher, Riverside High School, Durham, N.C.

Last year, I got a wake-up call. While taking vocabulary notes, a student asked me: “Why do we have to learn this?” “When are we ever going to use the word ‘retinue’?” another chimed in. I immediately dove into an explanation, citing the presidential inauguration and the subsequent appointments of numerous Cabinet members and employees … a retinue of sorts. The example was relevant enough, but I hated myself as I said it. If I had to explain the value of a classroom activity, I’d already lost. A quick scan of the room confirmed it: Kids were on their phones, scrolling through social media feeds, playing with fidget spinners and talking quietly. They had their notes out, but it didn’t matter. The ones who had called me out were at least somewhat engaged. The rest had checked out weeks ago.

I’m spending the summer reliving the “metacognitive timeout” my students gave me and planning ways to throw it back at them. I’m picking strategic moments in my lessons to ask them why we’re doing this, when the skills we’re developing in class will be useful after high school and why their own stories and perspectives related to the curriculum have value.

After I ask them, I’m going to walk away and let them answer it with their classmates. To do this effectively, I’m planning more opportunities to practice authentic conversations -- chances for students to put away their personal devices, summarize the information they covered, share their perspectives, listen to one another and talk about what just happened, be it a poetry explication, quickwrite or research paper.

I’ll do it more frequently than I need to at first so that when we work on extended assignments that foster higher-order thinking, they can be left alone to create.

Metacognitive breaks -- time to reflect on the information and recognize how it applies to one’s own life and practice -- are a vital part of valuable adult education. If my goal is to develop productive, successful adults, it needs to be a bigger part of what I do in my high-school classroom, too. Sometimes they’ll do it independently, other times with a partner or in groups. I’ll call for volunteers to share what they discussed, use it to inform my instruction and, hopefully, never need a student to put me in timeout again.

Follow Christopher on Twitter at @bryanchristo4, and check out his website.

Editor's Note: Article images courtesy of contributors.

Melissa Greenwood is the director of education content at SmartBrief.

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