Classroom Technology

Language Arts Educators Map Out 21st-Century Skills

By Katie Ash — December 23, 2008 4 min read
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A new resource created by the National Council of Teachers of English and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills provides English teachers with practical tips for how to infuse their classes with 21st-century skills.

The resource offers many examples, such as encouraging students to produce movie trailers for classic novels, having them start a thread on an online forum about a local issue, or showing students how they can collaborate with members of the community in a digital-storytelling workshop.

Called the 21st Century Skills and English Map, the suggestions lay out concrete suggestions for how to incorporate 21st-century skills—such as communication, collaboration, information literacy, and media literacy—into a traditional English curriculum in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades, breaking down the skill sets into specific outcomes with tips on how to reach those goals.

“People don’t always understand what it means to incorporate 21st-century skills into classroom-based instruction,” says Valerie Greenhill, the director of market leadership services for the Tucson, Ariz.-based Partnership for 21st Century Skills. She managed the development of the map, which is intended for superintendents, principals, policymakers, and educators.

The English map is part of a broader initiative headed by the Partnership for 21 Century Skills, which aims to create similar maps in all of the core subject areas.

A social studies map was released in June 2008, and the math, geography, and science maps are expected to be released in 2009.

Redefining Literacy

The 21st-century skills map is just one part of a forward-thinking philosophy adopted by the Urbana, Ill.-based National Council of Teachers of English, or NCTE, the national professional association of English, literacy, and language arts teachers, says Dale Allender, the director of NCTE-West.

“NCTE, as an organization, has really been on the forefront of the 21st-century curriculum,” he says. “We’ve been moving in this direction, with an actual definition of 21st-century literacy.”

Last February, the executive committee of the organization approved a new definition of 21st-century literacies that reflects the changing and malleable nature of what it means to be literate in today’s society.

“Literacy has always been a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups,” states the definition. “As society and technology change, so does literacy.”

The dynamic nature of literacy, and the curriculum surrounding it, makes the map even more relevant for both teachers and students, says Allender. “The maps are important because the way kids are learning is changing, and what is expected of them in the terms of work is changing.”

Instead of writing a book report about an author, for example, the map suggests that students use tools in Google Earth to create a digital map of authors with a mash-up of information about their locations, literary works, biographical information, and relevant images. Or, to teach communication, students could brainstorm concerns they had when entering middle or high school and record a series of podcasts or videos as a survival guide to younger students.

Create, Advance, Investigate

Sandy Hayes, an 8th grade English teacher at the 650-student Becker Middle School in Becker, Minn., northeast of Minneapolis, and immediate past chairwoman of NCTE’s Middle Level Section, helped produce the map.

Her experience as an educator greatly influenced the examples and suggestions she added to the map, she says.

“You want [the suggestions and examples] to push where we are right now to where we could be,” she says, “but not too far out there, or teachers don’t see themselves in it.”

Researching and coming up with innovative, but realistic, examples of how to incorporate 21st-century skills into the English curriculum that a wide variety of teachers would be comfortable with was one of Hayes highest priorities when formulating the map.

“I do think that the examples capture what’s possible in most classrooms,” she says, although both Hayes and Allender admit that technological equipment and capability vary greatly from school to school.

Hayes, who was involved in creating another map put out by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and NCTE several years ago based on an older framework, says that this new map has a stronger focus on integrating English with other subjects as well as 21st-century skills.

“Four years ago, the Partnership [for 21st-century Skills] framework was more divided,” she says. Now, the map includes tie-ins with subjects like civic literacy, global awareness, and financial literacy.

For example, to demonstrate critical thinking and problem solving, the framework suggests that students use the Web site www.kiva.org, which lists entrepreneurial microfinancing proposals in order to connect them with lenders, to evaluate the economic and social impact of some of the proposals profiled on the site, write a persuasive essay about a proposal they support, and come up with ways to help finance that proposal.

“The most important thing is to fit it in somehow so that kids are dreaming up projects like this—otherwise this becomes another textbook,” says Hayes. “It should be integrated into the fiber of their being, not [just] semesters or quarters, that this is what literate beings do—create, advance, investigate, learn how to gather the information that they can’t find.”

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