Authentic Learning: Keeping It Real
- Grades: 1–2, 3–5
According to Merriam-Webster.com, realia means objects or activities used to relate classroom teaching to real life. Inquiry- and project-based learning are greatly enhanced by the use of realia during a lesson or unit, because it raises student engagement, builds background knowledge, and strengthens vocabulary. I use realia every chance I get, and I believe it helps my students build their knowledge base of the world in which they live.
Objects that relate to a topic of study are beneficial to use as a focus, an inquiry activity, or a discovery lesson. Realia sparks interest and gives students a purpose for their learning. When I hide the object in a box, bag, or suitcase, revealing it at just the right time, it adds a little intrigue to the lesson. There are many ways to introduce realia.
I surprised my class this year by bringing in the actual canoe that my Great Uncle Reuben used to travel more than 1,000 miles down the Mississippi River in 1930. Because we had been studying about his life and travels for awhile before the 16.5-foot canoe arrived, they knew immediately what it was. Needless to say, I was given the "Now That's Realia!" award by my principal this spring at our end-of-year staff meeting. Okay, some of my colleagues thought I had set the realia bar a little high... but my students were focused and ready to learn about that canoe!
What's the object? Obviously, I couldn't hide the canoe, but smaller objects work well with this activity. Hide the object inside some type of container and let students guess what it might be. The teacher can give clues or let students ask 20 questions. If they are already familiar with the topic, be prepared to be surprised at their questions because of their heightened interest!
I wonder... I notice... Once they see the object, students are bound to have questions! I like to draw two columns on chart paper or the whiteboard and label them "Wondering" and "Noticing." Students say what they are wondering and noticing and build on each other's ideas. I try to keep students from jumping to what they know, because it stops the thinking of the other students. I acknowledge their thoughts and ask them to keep their answers to themselves until we are finished with this step. I use objects and images for this activity.
The surprise appearance of Uncle Reuben's canoe in our classroom spurred my students to make this list. They did a great job of building on each other's observations.
Hands on! Unless the object is breakable, allow students to touch and hold it, to watch it, to imagine it being used in real life, sketch it, write about it, and measure it. Use whatever skills make sense to the unit and the object, and that will keep the activity rigorous and relevant.
We measured every inch of Uncle Reuben's canoe. Students sketched and drew blueprints of it as they explored the canoe. They also enjoy holding the model of the house Uncle Reuben grew up in. Because it's metal, I don't worry that it will be hurt. They sketch it and look in its little windows. I can tell they are using their imaginations as they talk about it with friends.
Start small and choose something from home that fits your topic. A full-size canoe is a cool addition to a 2nd grade room, but not necessary.
Quadrant inquiry flip! If no object is available, find an image on the Internet to guess at, wonder about, and notice. Sometimes I use my SMART Board software to lead my students through a quadrant inquiry flip. I build a solid shape to cover all but one quadrant of the image at a time. Then software allows me to flip the part of the shape I am exposing by right clicking and choosing to flip up and down or left and right. Students work through the "I wonder... I notice..." activity while guessing what the image is, but only one quadrant at a time. This activity also exercises students' inference skills as they try to understand the image. The same activity can be accomplished with a document camera, a printed image, and a piece of construction paper cut in the shape of the cover shape.
Primary documents, or photocopies of them, are something that students should be working with as often as possible. Understanding the importance of primary sources for finding information is a concept every student needs and will use throughout their school years for student scrapbooks and transcriptions.
Secondary documents, or transcriptions of the primary document, are the best choice when the primary document is difficult to read. My 2nd graders have a difficult time reading cursive. But they still need to glean information from documents written in it, so I will find a transcription of the document or transcribe it myself. It's important that students understand that as careful as the transcriber is, mistakes can happen and that is why the primary document is preferred.
For the Uncle Reuben Project, I give each student a spiral notebook. We set the notebooks up together: numbering the pages; making a title page, a table of contents, and a glossary; and adding the first documents and photos. The object is to have a place for all of the documents and images I hand them, so they are available for the student to use throughout the unit. They have copies of Uncle Reuben's birth certificate, marriage certificate, even his father's immigration papers. I transcribe pages from his travel journal entries for their notebooks, as well. They check Uncle Reuben's math with copies of his ledger pages. All of these documents make it real for my students who remain engaged throughout the unit because it feels important!
Please come back next week for ideas for real music and lyrics, art, performance, and presentation!
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)
- The Uncle Reuben Project, my website about the project where you can download all of the resources — including copies of the primary documents
- My Project-Based Learning Planning Sheets (PDF) for you to download
- Engaging Readers & Writers With Inquiry by Jeffery D. Wilhelm
- 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
- 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
- Text Complexity Bands and Lexile® Bands, using text levels with CSS