Month: November 2013

A reading program for the future?


The 21st Century Learning Skills (distilled into 3 key categories)

The whole point of school, I believe, is to wake up students to the treasures and passions they have within themselves.

If this is true, then these “21st Century Learning Skills” are not merely to ensure that our future students find amazing jobs, or make our nation more impressive, or ensure that our children don’t fall behind some international standard, but these progressive learning skills should be in service of our young people becoming more human. We are moving beyond a factory model of education, churning out obedient little widgets, to a student centred, innovative, and connected model that nurtures the inherent potential in young people.

So with this in mind, I want to share with you some thoughts about one way I am trying to cultivate this within my students. This is my attempt at a personalized / progressive Grade 7 reading program:

  • I started the year giving my students a personal reading log, where they can track and record the books that they read.


    One student’s reading log in Grade 7 English

  • My students choose their own books and the only requirements is that they have read at least 5 different genres and 30 books through the whole year.
  • While many students had mini-cardiac attacks when they heard the benchmark, my stance on this is firm: you have to constantly be reading. Big books (over 300 pages) count as 2 books and shorter books are valid. Just read. Read more than you thought was possible. Choose books that you are excited about and you will be shocked at how quickly you will WANT to finish them.
  • While we have different kinds of assessments attached to their reading(writing letters to friends about their reading, book talks, letters to authors) most of this reading is not attached to grades, rubrics, or marks. Separating
    evaluation from reading actually gives some space so they can enjoy the process of reading. There is a time and a place for assessment; when cultivating a passion and a love affair, grades can often have a deterring effect.
  • This approach is largely inspired by Nancie Atwell’s approach to literacy instruction and her personalized workshop instruction.


    Four classes worth of reading logs!


What I have noticed is working:

  • My students are reading. Other teachers are commenting on how they are reading in the hallways, before their classes start, and for the first time, they are going into the library to take out books.
  • My students are challenging themselves. I have a collection of students that are hungry for bigger reading challenges and will willingly take on more adult / mature reads (“To Kill a Mockingbird”, “The Bell Jar”, “Prayer For Owen Meany”, “Cats Eye”, “Catcher in the Rye”, “Girl Interrupted”), because there is incentive to do so now.


    A table strewn with books: just a typical reading workshop in Grade 7.

  • My students are developing their tastes. So many of my students don’t know what they like to read, because they have always had teachers tell them what to read. They are actually articulating now what they like to read, which I believe is a step towards these students understanding themselves more as learners and as human beings.
  • My students love coming to class. We start every class with at least 10 minutes of reading to ourselves (and I join in). It’s not a new idea in education, but it is for my students. Our classes are calmer when we begin our session together. It allows my students to transition their thinking to English learning. It gives them a quiet space in a frenetic and chaotic world (many students actually come in early to get more time to read).

 And this is what I am pulling my hair out over: 

  • What is the right balance between “un-evaluated” and “evaluated” reading work?
  • How do I ensure that the students are actually understanding what they are reading? While I diagnose, support, and scaffold comprehension with other activities, it is possible that some of the texts my students are reading (especially the students with IEPs) are going under-appreciated or misunderstood.
  • How do I ensure that the developing readers still feel successful when they are “falling behind” the reading benchmarks?
  • How can I keep my students reading actively outside of school? Other than assigning little homework and giving time in class for some reading, I’m often pulling my hair out with some students who just don’t engage with their reading at home.

What can I do to address these challenges in my program?

Re-reading through those struggles, it actually sounds like more of a challenge that I am having between control and freedom. Allowing for space to ensure that my students can take risks, explore new territories, and yet also be accountable to their own learning is a tricky balance for any classroom. What have you done in your own progressive classrooms that help to nurture this delicate balance?

Revised: The Three Pillars of 21st Century Learning

I love how when a question is roaming around my imagination and the answer starts showing up in surprising ways and at unexpected times.


During our in-school PD session this last Friday November 8th, we had Laura Gini-Newman come and speak to our faculty about critical thinking. She framed the importance of critical thinking in the bedrock of 21st century learning, arguing that it was one of the key components of this way of thinking. She also said, which I loved, “The skills of 21st century learning are not new, THE IMPORTANCE of these skills is what is new.” I feel like this confirms for me defending that reading books are a vital ingredient in 21st century learning. Tradition can be part of innovation!

The “21st century competencies” that Laura Gini-Newman cited are as follows:

    • critical thinking
    • creative thinkers
    • collaborative thinking
    • communicating (via multiple mediums)
    • global thinkers
    • self-regulated learners
    • digitally literate

After hearing this list, I realized some of the shortcomings of my own definitions. I didn’t really consider the global piece (a huge consideration of our newly connected world), the need for critical thinking, or the value of collaboration.

This said, when comparing our two lists, I couldn’t help but feel critical of Laura Gini-Newman’s “competencies” and that they were missing some key elements. So I blended them together (three cheers for blended learning) and came up with something I like much more. I like how simple this is (three key pillars rather than seven) and how it acknowledges far more than just the skills needed to be a successful worker in a digital world, but how we become an actualized and healthy human living in this brave new world.

 So, here are my 3 pillars of 21st century learning:

  • Student Centred: personalized, autonomous, accountable, appropriately challenging, vigorous, relevant, current, timely, critical, applicable, and engaging.
  • Innovative: Responsible risk taking, creative, “out of the box”,  expressive, experimental, shifting school norms, problem solving, constructive design, and unexpected.
  • Connected: Globally minded, collaborative, digitally literate, self-aware, other-aware, ethical citizenry, socially responsible, interdependent, and engaged in the world.

My goal this year while teaching Grade 7 English, is to document and reflect on how these three pillars are already showing up in my teaching practice and where I need to develop my skills in order to more effectively balance my pedagogy.

Considering my more expansive (and yet also more compact list), what is missing that shows up in your classroom that you consider 21st century-centric?

My working definition of “21st century learning”


As I am grappling with articulating my central question for my action research this year in Grade 7 English, I am struck with the realization that I don’t have a firm grasp on what “21st Century Learning” really means. Am I alone in feeling how nebulous this term is?

I mean, I know on one level I know that it revolves around leveraging technology, connecting with our global world, collaborating with others, being innovative, and solving complex problems…but I have yet to internalize an effective and concise working definition as it applies to my practice and discipline.

So I consulted the oracle (Google) and I found this article from EducationWeek that was asking the same question I am pondering and posed it to eleven different educational thinkers.

As you can probably guess, their answers reflected the complex nature of this subject. But I pulled a few themes that either resonated with my personal beliefs or reflected an aspect of English teaching that I thought was applicable. According to these experts, 21st century learning is:

  • Personalized: the learner’s goals and interest drive instruction
  • Focused on Excellence: the fundamentals do not get replaced in this paradigm, but rather technology is leveraged (there’s that word again) to enhance instruction and improve how the basics are taught.
  • Innovative: Getting outside of the box means rethinking the “norms” of school. Teachers become learners, risks are rewarded, the outside world is reflected in the classroom, and authentic problems are solved in order to teach concepts.


This makes me wonder if the educational community needs to collectively agree what we mean when we say “21st Century Learning”. Or is it that we don’t know what the future will hold, so we are all just collectively guessing about what we need to teach / how we teach it in order to best serve our students? Or should we all come to understand this term in our own way, even if that means uncertainty and confusion, because navigating these two ideas will be key for finding success in the world to come?