What is “Authentic Learning” Anyway??

If you’ve been in Shorewood for even a short amount of time, you’ve likely heard something about Authentic Learning. Its prevalence and importance in our district is something unique. This October we enjoyed sitting down with Nate Schultz, new principal at Atwater Elementary and previous Authentic Learning Coordinator for Shorewood School District, to learn more about the concept and how it impacts our students, even throughout this pandemic.

“Authentic Learning in its best form has a community connection,” Mr. Schultz explained. Many schools utilize project based learning, which is hands on work that helps students to connect to their learning in a visual and kinetic way, but Authentic Learning takes that idea and expands it to have real life application. Even before the district made this sort of curriculum an initiative, Nate was using these concepts in his classroom as a teacher at Lake Bluff Elementary, where he taught for 6 years prior to becoming the Authentic Learning Coordinator.

Former Shorewood Intermediate School 7th graders participating in the annual Outdoor Education Experience at Camp Whitcomb-Mason.
Former Shorewood Intermediate School 7th graders participating in the annual Outdoor Education Experience at Camp Whitcomb-Mason.

In past years there have been many examples of how Authentic Learning has been utilized to research topics that impact our community, bring in expertise from organizations in the surrounding area, and give our students opportunities to apply their learning in a real world setting. At the Authentic Learning Showcase held in the spring, students from across all four schools exhibit their work, make presentations, and tell their Authentic Learning story. Also in Spring, students in 6th and 8th grade reflect on their educational journey and make a presentation on their growth in a cherished newer tradition called Passages.

COVID has certainly made the hands on component of Authentic Learning more challenging, but not obsolete. Authentic Learning is now so integrated and woven into our classrooms and our students’ work that it is second nature. It connects our students’ skills and knowledge to the world’s needs and issues. “Our schools use their best practices to create an Authentic Learning environment…it’s a part of the foundation,” Nate says. Everything from the morning crew meeting, to the learning targets, to the emphasis on PERKS (the school character traits: perseverance, empathy, respect, kindness, and self-reliance); it’s all wrapped up in Authentic Learning. Nate is excited to be continuing this way of approaching education in his new position as Atwater principal.

A former Atwater 6th grader giving a Passages presentation to Nate Schultz and two community members.
A former Atwater 6th grader giving a Passages presentation to Nate Schultz and two community members.

A lot has taken place since February 2016 when “increasing authentic, experiential learning for students” was selected by our community as the top theme at a Community Visioning Summit. At that summit over 100 families, community members, staff, and students worked together to identify the top strategic priorities to guide the direction of the school district for the next 10 years. SEED and the Shorewood School District successfully raised over $1 million through our Meet the Match campaign to fund Authentic Learning opportunities throughout all our schools K-12. This funding supported curriculum implementation, teacher training, professional development, equipment and technology, classroom resources, and special projects and expeditions. Some of the models the schools adopted out of this funding were Experiential Learning (EL) Education and Design Thinking. Furthermore, in the past four years, SEED Donors contributed a total of $80k for Authentic learning programs and up to $10 per student to support Authentic Learning projects at each school.

We are so thankful to our donors and their commitment to this profound work. We are also thankful for our teachers and staff who are so committed to the implementation and practice of Authentic Learning in our district. The program’s success is founded on Nate Schultz’s dedicated work as Authentic Learning Coordinator, while the district continually expands the opportunities and experiences we give to our students.

Atwater fourth grade teacher Cris Kryns with some of her students, showing their project at the Authentic Learning Showcase in spring, 2019.
Atwater fourth grade teacher Cris Kryns with some of her students, showing their project at the Authentic Learning Showcase in spring, 2019.

Bookmark our SEED Stories blog and watch for more Authentic Learning stories about families and teachers putting these concepts into practice. In the meantime, to show your support for Shorewood schools during this challenging year, we encourage you to donate to the SEED Annual Fund today. Any amount helps!

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