Sunday, April 4, 2010

Authentic Learning is the Kind We All Remember

flickr CC image via stevendepolo

As much as I was dangling them in junior high school, I cant remember the rule about participles. Maybe a more authentic lesson would've helped me get it right on the test.

In all seriousness, I was speaking with parents at parent/teacher interviews last week about the difference between how kids were taught a generation of students ago, and how we are teaching their children today, (or at least how some of us are trying.) I can remember doing worksheet after worksheet correcting sentences that contained dangling participles, but although I know one when I see it, I couldn't give you a really good description of what one is. Perhaps it's not important beyond knowing what one looks like so I can avoid using them in my writing. That's where authentic learning comes in.

With regard to developing writing skills, why not allow students to simply write? They can write about whatever they want in so many many different forms... and I'd know they used dangling participles because I would read their writing. After reading, I would provide feedback regarding how to do it differently and more appropriately. My kids love to write; they do it all the time. When we're at home and they ask me to read their writing, I don't give it a mark as if it were one of the worksheets I did so long ago; I just tell them that I'm proud of how hard they worked, and then I suggest some things they could do next time to improve their writing. They seem to appreciate this feedback. If it works with my kids at home, why can't it work for my students at school?

One way for teachers to provide more authentic learning opportunities for their students is to provide choice in the manner students desire to show us what they can do, and then use formative feedback to assess how they're doing. I had some really good teachers in junior and high school, and I remember many writing assignments they gave me; all with an element of choice embedded within them. One of my favorites was a poetry assignment within which students were to choose animals that each of their classmates reminded them of. The teacher made a list of students and the animals that were matched to them, and then we were to choose one from the list that matched our name and write a poem about ourselves as characterized by the traits of that animal. Another one was to write a manifesto that was designed to change the world... just like that; whatever we wanted to write. I chose to write a statement about how to solve the world's eventual overpopulation problems. Yet another was to write a first-hand account of the scariest thing that ever happened to me without using a single adjective. I wrote about my first spill of one of our horses.

I'm sure that all three of the teachers that assigned me these tasks provided feedback; after all, that's their job- to assess my writing- but the fact that I remember these assignments at all over twenty five years later is a testimony to their skill in designing writing activities that are fun, meaningful, motivating and dare I say, authentic.

I am certain my love for writing is in no way attributable to those damn worksheets. Other than remembering having to do them, those worksheets didn't leave me with a lasting impression at all.
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