Inspiration for Authentic Problems is Right in Town

I got to share my work with other educators in Connecticut last week as the Two-Minute Tuesday guest for InnovateCT. In two minutes, I told the state about the authentic learning units Early College Studies has been able to create in partnership with Innovate Stamford, and I highlighted three other sites throughout the state that were recipients of Innovation Place grants.

If you’re looking for ideas for how to tap into your school’s city (or town) for authentic learning inspiration, below is one idea we looked at in considering and preparing ours.

First Impressions

Part of the Innovation Place grant for the city considered the visual appeal of the area…or lack thereof. While this is pertinent to Stamford, CT as it builds itself up to be a hub for innovation, this is relevant to any town or city nation-wide. All towns and cities can benefit from visitors; visitors spend money and contribute to the areas economic growth. Stamford, CT in particular, though, is working on attracting and retaining talent to the area. How inviting the city’s impression is matters greatly.

What your students can do:

See the city or town with “fresh eyes.” Have students conduct a visual assessment of the town or city to determine the first impression that a visitor might form. What colors are present? What structures exist? How would they describe the mood of the various areas? What signs are around town and what impression would they give a visitor? How much “natural green” exists versus “grey cement”?

If tackling the entire city or town feels daunting, students could focus on just their school building, or a building their home, or perhaps their favorite place to hang out.

What the students learn:

Depending on what subject area you teach, this authentic learning task could take various forms and serve a number of purposes. In an ideal world, this could become an interdisciplinary project where, at the least, English, Social Studies, Art, and any Business class could work together.

If the students conduct the assessment of first impressions in the town, their goal could be to turn their findings into research-backed solutions and present both to a real audience. (The great thing about living in a digital world is that “presenting to a real audience” does not have to happen live. It can take the form of a recorded presentation that is sent to a city official or to someone else who is relevant.)

In Art, students could learn about color theory as a way to evaluate the colors of the city or certain places and provide an analysis of how the colors contribute to the mood of the surrounding area. They could then propose alternative colors and provide a rationale for the change along with a summary of expected results.

In Social Studies class, students could take a historical perspective — learn about the history of the structures and/or the space, and then make design decisions based on that. They could also take a sociological perspective and look at hoe people interact with one another in the space and propose a redesign to encourage (or discourage?) interactions.

In Business class, students can approach this challenge from multiple angles as well. One such angle being that of learning about the marketing of a space in a city, or how to use the space as marketing for other elements of the city. Business students could create a marketing plan for city officials to implement to draw attention to the space.

Lastly, in English class, students could implement narrative techniques to tell the story of the space and use the story as a way to persuade a targeted audience that changes need to be made. Students could also experiment with persuasion using various genres of writing, so after using narrative techniques to write a persuasive piece, they could experiment with using much more direct language instead.

Lasting Impressions

Authentic learning units can take time to organize, and initially can seem like much more work than a teacher is used to. They are, however, worth it, and inspiration is all around you. When students do meaningful work about their hometown, it is something that can leave a lasting impression on them and on the town officials they interact with. It’s a way of connecting the classroom to the world beyond the school walls; it’s a way of making learning relevant.

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