The projects were awesome. The talented kids learned more than I could ever teach in a lecture, the special education students amazed me. What happened next?
The projects went into the trash. We had to quickly move onto the next standard. State tests were only three months away, chop, chop!
(Looking at it in writing seems so shameful. It is the pressure of being a public school teacher. )
Having had enough, I decided to invite the parents into my classroom after students completed a project based learning activity. The project was called Newton’s Laws at Park Junior High. I introduced the project and we came up with questions to be answered to complete the project. I kept my eye on the questions making sure the state standards were covered, but the kids had most of the control. My students developed locations in school where they might find Newton’s three laws. Students were allowed to go to the locations and take pictures or make a movie. The media were presented to the class in a linear presentation (Keynote or Power Point).
The parents were amazed. They filled out a reflection page I shared with each class. The kids were so proud. The reflections meant so much more to my students than the grade.
This was Authentic Assessment Year One.
I had to find a way to do more of this.
I began inviting parents in for all of my big project presentations. This included the roller coaster design and my google sketch-up design activity. It was great.
This was Authentic Assessment Years Two and Three.
Eventually I wanted to reach out more. I had been a teacher on The Gulf of Mexico Foundation teacher/scientist field training. I asked the scientists I worked with to Skype with us. I was on the trip the summer before the BP Oil Spill. The scientists and I had planned to Skype, then the oil spill hit. Within a week of the oil spill, my kids were discussing the environmental effects with the same scientists working to clean up the spill!
This was Authentic Assessment Year Four and Five.
I love Skype.
In addition to Skype, I established connections with the national laboratories in my area, Argonne National Lab and FemiLab. Both organizations had scientists willing to come to schools and do activities with kids. We had a scientist from Argonne National Laboratory in my classroom working with students on a design project. The kids were thrilled to meet a real engineer. He helped them understand the connection of science to real life.
This was Authentic Assessment Year Six to Eight.
I still wanted more. As a Chicago Architecture Foundation Docent, I read about the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning(CMAP). I contacted Erin Aleman and she and I set up three problems students could solve. Erin came to my school and presented the three problems. My students wanted to help CMAP promote Local Foods.
Using a problem based unit design, students determined questions they needed answered before they could start. We used internet resources and print resources. The homework was to do a search and print off at least two pages of information that could help answer the questions. The students without computers were allowed to print in class.
We compiled all of our answers and determined the best ways to start our promotion. I introduced the concept of communities; our school community and our village community. My students developed ideas to promote local foods in all three communities and they chose products. Before starting, the students and I worked together to develop rubric criteria for all products, and rubric criteria for specific products. I used science, math, technology, reading, health, art, and language arts standards to determine my approach to assessment. As a STEM teacher the science, technology, and math components were vital. I had a hard time integrating the math so I developed a worksheet called My Pantry. Students were asked to find the cities in which their foods were produced or distributed. They determined from Map Quest, the miles the food traveled; the printed address on the box or fruit to their home. Using diesel truck gas cost and mileage, students calculated the cost to get the food to their homes. The worksheet sparked a lively discussion of distribution centers and the cost of food.
After two weeks the students had answered the questions and finished the products. We invited Erin back in to see the projects. She was thrilled. “This is exactly what my organization is looking for!” With Erin’s political connections, my students hosted a Local Foods Panel and five local mayors came to our school to see their projects. My students knew their hard work had an impact on their school community as well as their local community. This experience connected school and real life for my students. They understood why math and science are so very important to humans.
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This was Authentic Assessment Year Ten and Eleven.
Lessons Learned about Authentic Assessment
1. As you can see from the years I have worked on this, we are all works in progress. Think Big, Start Small, and Act Now. I may not get to my most profound ideas, but my students learn from the journey.
2. Start by inviting parents into class for a project demonstration day. My district has a cross-section of work-at-home attorney-types and two-job single moms. I was threatened by the parents who act like they can do my job better and I felt I was not doing enough to reach out to part of our community. The first set of parents were so impressed, they became my champions and offered to help me again and again. The second group of parents started showing up after they realized it was not a one-time shot. Given ample time, they took off a couple of hours of work to see the projects.
3. Skype is your friend.
4. Ask kids for references. Another way I bring parents into my classroom is by inviting the moms and dads that are engineers. I’ve had construction engineers, material engineers, and a dad who worked as chief engineer in a public school. I coached the parents on what I wanted the kids to learn, the parents just talked about their jobs. It was always a great experience for my students. It connected what kids learn in school to real life.
5. Look for local organizations with an interest in your subject. Send an e-mail and you may get a great visitor or even an authentic project. I was incredibly lucky with CMAP. I went into the experience devoting two weeks and thinking if I failed, at least I tried. In the end, the experiences I channeled for my students, and the mayors, will always be with them.