Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Authentic Activity

I have used this activity many times, but I have never stopped to break down all the skills incorporated, let alone share those skills with my students. Being explicit about this seemingly tedious task allowed us all to sit back and say, “Wow!”

Without a single worksheet we work on…

parts of speech
note taking

What are we doing? We are doing a novel study on Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare. There are many purposes to this novel study. It gives us an introduction to Product Detailsour Explorer unit. It provides background knowledge of early colonial time in preparation for our American Revolution unit in the spring. (Remember, I am in the Middle East and most of my students have ZERO background knowledge of that time period, let alone life in the woods.) We focus on test taking skills in preparation for middle school. We practice taking quizzes, staring with open book / open note and working in groups and gradually relying on only our own memory. And then there is this activity.

What is this activity? It is taking the new vocabulary from a section of the novel, looking up the words in the dictionary, and writing the meanings, in our own words, in our Social Studies Notebooks. How does the information get organized on the page? What is the best way to separate words so you can find them later. (As we read, we mark the page number so we can go back and look at the word in context.) There are multiple definitions, which one is this word? What part of speech would it be if it ends in –ed? Do does the noun definition help us? If this word is really in this dictionary why isn’t it on the page I think it should be on? (It is amazing how, even 5th graders, need to be retaught about guide words and the alphabet!)

I give them some class time to work on this activity. It allows me the chance to stop and support individual students as needed. When we finished our first class session I asked them what they thought about the assignment. You can imagine the joyous bored expressions that stared back at me. This is when I thought, “Hey, if I don’t explain to them all the good stuff that comes out of this work they are going to think it is tedious, busy work!” I then asked if anyone knew what tedious meant. (No one did.) I seized the moment to be explicit and we wrote the list of skills you saw above, on the board. When I said, “and I could have given you eight or more worksheets to practice those skills” they all smiled and decided that authentic activities aren’t so tedious after all.


I am so glad you joined me for this slice of life. Please consider reading on other days as well. Add me to your Reader and see what shows up on days that aren't Tuesday.


  1. I love that you explained tedious to them. That made me laugh. Always important to explain the words we use, isn't it.

  2. I work with preschoolers and all of our learning is done like this - taking the activities from the content of the play and activities. I love when I hear this is happening with older students too.

  3. Loved the crossed out joyous. Next time ask them, "So what are we learning?" See what kind of a response you get.

  4. The Sign of the Beaver is one of the few assigned books I remember reading as a student and loving. The part that sticks in my memory after all these years is that Matt (is the protagonist named Matt?) makes notches in a stick to keep track of the days when his father is gone. I might have the dad and the name details wrong, but I am sure I remember those notches in that stick correctly! Glad to hear students are still enjoying this story. I just might have to reread it.

  5. Your work with an authentic text is refreshing. I appreciate your way of helping them to think while reading and writing. :)Booksavors

  6. It's so important to step back and see what you've accomplished in a school day. Good for you that you did this...for yourself and your kids!

  7. Very interesting to see and to communicate all the skills the students have worked on. I'm glad that you showed them that they were doing so many things. I've made a list similar to this concerning short reports to show my students and then to show parents the complexity of a simple report. Thanks for sharing this lesson!

  8. It's amazing how much happens in just one lesson! So great that you made it explicit for your students!

  9. What a wonderful challenge: bringing the American Revolution to Saudi Arabia. Beats a high stakes test!