Authentic Learning: Engaging Students Through the Arts
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5
No interdisciplinary unit would be complete without including one or more of the arts. The challenge is in choosing activities that are authentic to the topic, interesting, and can be used to rigorously support the standards.
Last week, I described some ways I use realia to engage my students through objects and primary documents. This week, I will continue with music, art, and performance activities that enhance engagement and strengthen connections to student learning.
If you read my post on Using Music to Improve Reading Fluency, this section on music will come as no surprise. I choose music that is either about the topic or from the time period we are studying, and yes, I include it in the reading block as a portion of their fluency practice time! The Internet makes it easy and inexpensive to include authentic music that helps the students make real connections to the topic.
The time period for most of the Uncle Reuben Project is the 1920s and '30s. I chose several songs and instrumentals to use during the unit to immerse my students further into the project and help them form connections to the new learning that would stick. We sang "When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin; Along)," "When You're Smiling," "Happy Days Are Here Again," and "California, Here I Come." My students practiced reading fluently, and I enjoyed their engagement as I helped them!
Toward the end of the project, we had one of my "famous" musical mornings. I had each them go to the U.S. map in their Uncle Reuben notebook and pull out their colored pencils. We traced Uncle Reuben's travels all around the country and stopped for a song as appropriate. As we drew a line from Arizona to California, I clicked on the music to "California, Here I Come" on my iPad, and we sang the song. As we traced his journey across America, we sang "This Land Is Your Land," and so on through his journeys. The kids loved it!
There is a natural connection between learning and movement, so if you can find a way to connect the two, don't miss it! Teachers need to move and so do our students! If you're studying plants, take a 5–10 minute nature walk. If you are studying weather, lead your students through a human rainstorm.
I realize that many teachers feel they will lose control if they allow very much movement, but it is something that students' brains truly need. I make sure my students understand from the beginning that THEIR reactions and ability to calm back down teaches ME how much activity I can give them. They love the idea that they teach me, and they make sure I learn what they want me to learn (which is that they can settle down after activities)!
The Uncle Reuben Project is filled with movement. Our favorite activity has been to practice some of the popular steps of the Charleston by watching clips from YouTube. The hands-and-knees step can be done sitting or standing. We learned it while standing, but it makes a great kinesthetic activity when skip counting, spelling, or doing any type of rote learning. More connections mean stronger learning!
On the last day of school, I looked up from helping a student clean out a desk and found several students spontaneously dancing to the '20s music I was playing on my iPad! They were passing the time between jobs by enjoying music and movement. Of course, their teacher had to pull out her camera and start recording! I couldn't resist including a picture here.
We also learned about Uncle Reuben's many travels on our large U.S. map carpet by talking about his travels, in the order he went, as we walked to the places on the carpet map.
Experiencing other artists' creations is the first way I use art in a unit of study. Art is itself an authentic response to a topic or time period. It is something students can respond to in relation to a concept. Art, which is easily found on the Internet, can be used to help students understand something they haven't experienced firsthand. Images are stored in a separate area of the brain from other information, so connections are necessary to link the image to the information. Those are the types of connections teachers are going for when helping students retain information.
The Uncle Reuben Project was a perfect place to look at some historic cinematography while experiencing the culture of the 1920s. The class especially enjoyed some of Harold Lloyd's silent adventures as they looked at the fashion, transportation, and life of Americans in the '20s. YouTube had some great clips to help us understand the times. We practiced inferring, predicting, and analyzing story structure with a few silent movies. My students closely studied silent movies, black-and-white photos, and colorful realism of the era to glean information they then used when creating their end products. We also studied the fashions of that era by finding catalog pictures and designing some of our own. We looked at several model houses that were made by my grandfather (Reuben's older brother) in his later years. They have been on display as folk art at The Grassroots Art Center in Lucas, Kansas.
Creating art out of their experiences is the second way I use art in this unit. Although we may explore specific techniques along the way, my main goal is to allow my students to use art to respond to and explore their learning rather than developing a particular artistic skill. I'll leave the latter to their art teacher and just use art for ensuring my students' ability to process, retain, and retrieve their new learning!
We created concrete artwork, experimented with silent movies by creating one, and did some photojournalism. I hand out older digital cameras to my students throughout the year to document their experiences. I've never lost one camera to damage or theft. They love taking pictures and get great candid shots of each other.
During the Uncle Reuben Project, we created dioramas of Uncle Reuben's travels. Because we had also spent a little time looking at silent movies, some of the students suggested we use only the black-and-white setting on the cameras. What a great idea! The shots turned out really well and my class got a new appreciation for black-and-white photography.
One of the small presentation groups chose to make a silent movie themselves. They worked on the story line, designed a backdrop, and practiced. I filmed it while they acted and improvised, once they realized they could talk to each other without being heard. I then edited it for the open house, during which it was a very popular station with our visitors!
Authentic performance and presentation of learning is an extremely important part of project-based learning. Other assessments may be used along the way, but for the authentic learning unit to remain powerful, students also need to be assessed in an authentic way.
It's important that students get the chance to present their learning to other people, so often I held a special open house and invited other classes, administrators, and parents to come and see what we had learned. This celebration of learning was an exciting and impressive time in our room.
Everyone seemed impressed, but no one as much as their own teacher. I walked around and listened to them discuss what they had learned and marveled at the new connections they made.
We held our open house for the Uncle Reuben Project this spring. It was well attended and my class had multiple opportunities to use their speaking skills to tell everyone about Uncle Reuben and his adventures. The vocabulary I heard as I walked around thrilled me!
Here is a list of what our visitors got to see and hear during their visits on our open house day.
- Black-and-white dioramas
- Sketches of Uncle Reuben's canoe and blueprints with measurements
- Realia in the form of a 16.5-foot canoe and small metal models of Uncle Reuben's childhood home and school — with students on hand to answer any questions a visitor might have
- Video interview between student actors playing Uncle Reuben and a reporter
- Silent movie made by five 2nd graders
- Posters about the 1920s popular culture
- Photographs of transportation, fashion, and life from the 1920s and '30s
- Posters of students' own family trees that were completed at home with their families
- Time lines of Uncle Reuben's life
- Demonstrations of how to use the scale key on a map to measure the miles with ribbon
- Notebooks full of primary sources to show and explain to visitors
- Students politely interacting with the person who made the "canoe in the classroom" possible (see the photo, below, of my uncle, LeRay Johnson, coming to pick up the canoe and receiving heartfelt thanks)
- Twenty confident seven- and eight-year-olds proudly talking about their newly acquired knowledge
- One proud teacher who was already planning the next authentic learning experience in her imagination
Resources to Help Get You Started
Resources for the Uncle Reuben Project
- Using a Time Line as an Established Tool (first post in the Uncle Reuben series)
- Top 10 Reasons to Use Authentic Learning (second post in the Uncle Reuben series)
- Successful Planning for Authentic Learning (third post in the Uncle Reuben series)
- Authentic Learning: Keeping It Real (fourth post in the Uncle Reuben series)
- The Uncle Reuben Project, my website about the project where you can download all of the resources — including copies of the primary documents and lyric sheets
- American Cultural History has information about different decades in America
- My Project-Based Learning Planning Sheets (PDF) for you to download
- Up Against Authentic History, a Scholastic article about helping teachers make the most of primary source materials online
Resources for Learning More About Project-Based Learning and Authentic Learning Experiences
- Buck Institute for Education, a website all about project-based learning
- Inquiry-Based Learning, an online workshop from thirteen.org
- Interdisciplinary Learning in Your Classroom, an online workshop from thirteen.org
- Project-Based Learning Resources on Edutopia.com
- Project-Based Learning Online, resources for designing and managing projects, from the Buck Institute for Education
- Engaging Readers & Writers With Inquiry by Jeffery D. Wilhelm
- 13 communication and life tips that children teach us by Garr Reynolds
- Text Complexity Bands and Lexile® Bands, using text levels with CSS