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“This will help you in real life!” hear students day in and day out. But how can instructors transform this mantra from a tired and hollow statement into authentic learning? The truth is, real-life experiences are an exceptional way to learn and important to teach, but one of the greatest challenges teachers face. “Breaking the script” of the ordinary project (Heath 71) is essential because it offers activities that teach and integrate real-life scenarios that apply beyond the four walls of the classroom and bring life to the mantra.
I work at the Hybrid School of Innovation (HSOI), a small, blended and personalized public school of choice within Corona Norco Unified School District. The program offers a technologically rich learning environment with a small teacher-to-student ratio, which is made possible by requiring alternating groups of students to attend two days a week. The three remaining days, students work remotely in the LMS (learning management system) and CMS (content management system). I also use Turnitin for student paper submissions, which makes feedback at each stage efficient with the ability to personalize QuickMarks, rubrics, and tools for each project.
This unique environment in which I work provides the opportunity to instruct all levels of English Language Arts (ELA), allowing me to implement authentic learning at every stage. The real-life curriculum that I have created for my students is a meaningful blend of experiential learning and project-based creativity that continues to build each year of high school.
And while I’m passionate about giving students real-world learning experiences, I haven’t always worked in such a specialized environment. In the more traditional classrooms of my past, I made every Friday “Project Day.” Throughout the semester students completed one meaningful project, allowing for that unique building of authentic, real-life experiences. Once I saw how full of life and curiosity my students were after completing the projects, I knew that I wanted to take what I had learned in a traditional setting about breaking the script to a more unique learning space. Now, as an instructor at HSOI, I can thoroughly implement my purposeful curriculum at each grade level and artfully link the curriculum year-to-year. I can also watch as my students develop life-long skills in the classroom that they will utilize outside of school for years to come.
Authentic, project-based activities allow students to take learning into their own hands, while the teachers provide the scaffolding, resources, and positive guidance. Student success is then measured, not by test-scores, but by real-life experiences that ask them to think, reflect, interview, create, and problem-solve. And while not every educator has the chance to work in a specialized learning space like HSOI, I’ve come to realize that every educator can implement authentic learning in small, but meaningful ways.
Below are three examples of how I’ve added real-life projects to my curriculum across grade levels. Personalize the components as you see fit or use them as an inspiration to bring authenticity and reality to a project of your own:
In ninth-grade, the theme is L.I.V.E (Love, Interest, Vision or Experience), where students determine a topic about which they are passionate, then conduct extensive research on that topic over the course of the year. Topics can range from skateboarding and photography to mental health. The students ultimately display their newly-gained knowledge by creating a final art project that is illustrative of their learning journey. At the end of the semester, the LIVE Art Show not only provides an opportunity for students to showcase their hard work but is also an invitation to community members to visit HSOI and learn more about our one-of-a-kind environment. The event promotes goodwill with and interest in the school, and we spice it up with students serving glasses of Martinelli’s alongside crackers and cheese.
Tenth graders build on their LIVE experience by embarking on a Career Explorations Project (CEP), where they conduct research on a specific career and actually interview someone in that field of expertise. Not only do they build their own empowering skills as an interviewer, but as a result of the conversation, students often land a VIP behind the scenes tour or even an internship. Most recently, a student from HSOI interviewed a marine biologist and was offered an internship at the Aquarium of the Pacific shortly thereafter.
The CEP further ignites their interest in the career or saves them thousands in student loans discovering the career isn’t right for them. One student shared, “Interacting with someone was very instructive. I learned more in the 30 minutes I interviewed someone than in two or three hours of research.”
Students at HSOI continue to build on these real-life skills as the years progress. As juniors through the College Career Analysis Project (CCAP I), they profile and visit schools based on their CEP. As seniors, they jump into the College Career Application Project (CCAP II) and use their newly-acquired interview skills to apply for their first summer job, while touring college campuses, and/or in the scholarship application process. The value of these traits is not lost on the students, as one junior working on the CCAP recently observed: “This project builds up skills for my future.”
The impact of the authentic scenarios goes beyond adding depth and meaning to the academic aspects of the refrain, “this will help you in real-life.” These projects create opportunities for students to engage with their community, local businesses, and families in new ways that support their future development while inviting stakeholders to participate in the educational process and growth of the school. This symbiotic relationship makes the “academic experience as memorable as prom” (Heath 265). What better reason to enrich projects than to help our students for life?
Heath, Dan, and Chip Heath. The Power of Moments. Random House UK, 2019.
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