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Building 21st Century Skills
Below you will find 10 ways that teachers at your school can foster and build
21st century skills into students’ learning experiences. It is helpful for teachers to
discuss these 10 suggestions always through the lens of how each one fits into their
1. Have students sit in groups of four to six. Encourage teachers to abandon
rows of desks that only separate and isolate students. For collaboration to
take place and for students to have opportunities to choose and discuss
materials, they need to sit in groups and work together or separate into
partners who report back to the group.
2. Allow students to choose reading materials. Invite your school librarian to
meet with English and reading teachers to explain how he or she can help
teachers select books that meet the diverse instructional needs of students in
their classes. When teachers organize units of study by a genre, such as
biography and historical fiction, they can differentiate instruction by having
students read books in those genres in a range of reading levels. The school
librarian can select high-quality books in the genre and separate them into
stacks by reading level. Then, groups of students can browse stacks at their
levels and choose books that appeal to them.
3. Initiate student-led literary discussions. Have teachers build on the turnand-talk strategy that asks students to turn to a classmate and discuss
questions about a read-aloud text or an aspect of a lesson. The next step
might be having students discuss a text for 5 to 20 minutes with a partner,
using questions the students themselves composed. Then, students can make
the transition to small-group discussions.
4. Use inquiry learning. Put the questioning process into students’ hands by
asking them to compose interpretive, open-ended questions. (A question is
open-ended if it has two or more answers that text evidence supports.) This
is a powerful technique because students need to collaborate and
communicate to write open-ended questions; they also need a deep
knowledge about, and an understanding of, the reading material. Teachers
can also show students how to compose guiding questions, which works
well when groups read different books in a particular genre or on a specific
theme. A guiding question is broad and can’t be answered in one or two
sentences. For example, eighth-grade students reading science fiction wrote
this guiding question: What warnings does the story give, and what in our
society caused these warnings?
5. Invite students to debrief their discussions by asking: What worked and
why? What could have been improved and how? This kind of problem
solving requires students to use their creativity and communication skills to
determine what went well and how to improve what didn’t.
6. Have students set goals. Groups can set goals after they debrief a studentled discussion along with ideas for reaching those goals. Ask groups to
review and discuss their suggestions for improving literary conversations
immediately before the next literary conversation occurs.
7. Integrate technology by asking all faculty members or specific departments
to read an article on their computers (I use Google Docs). Then, let the
communication begin! Teachers write their responses to an article and pose
questions so everyone who received the article can read all the responses and
questions. The next step might be to use software such as Google Docs with
students. For example, teachers can post a short reading selection on Google
Docs for students and have them respond to questions in writing. Students
can use the articles and all responses for a whole-class discussion. In
addition, students can collaborate and write a blog, informational piece,
play, and so on and post their work on Google Docs for peers to read and
respond to. Google also offers tools for groups to do digital storytelling and
for turning data into visuals such as graphs.
8. Have students write about reading. Consider the research by Steve
Graham, Karen Harris, and Tanya Santangelo, who make it clear that when
students write about books they read their comprehension improves by 24
percentile points. Writing is informal—a way to express on-the-spot
reactions, connections, evaluations of information, characters’ decisions,
conflicts, themes, and short summaries.
9. Use the jigsaw strategy. If you have several questions you want students to
discuss, divide the work among groups. Give each group a question and
have them discuss it. Once groups discuss, they choose a spokesperson who
explains the ideas discussed to the class. Not only does jigsaw advance all
the 4Cs, but it also moves lessons forward.
10.Try chat centers, a spin-off of jigsaw that gets students out of their seats
and moving around the room. You can put questions about literary elements,
vocabulary, or a text all students have read or listened to on five to seven
sheets and post them around the room. Assign each group a chat center, have
members discuss the questions, and then present their findings to the class.
To communicate clearly and effectively, students have to adjust and clarify
their ideas so that their classmates understand their thinking.