21st Century Teaching and Learning

I regularly hear 21st Century Learning referred  to as learning a lot of technology, a big term saying that I need to know a lot of apps.  However, this isn’t a definition I choose.  Those technologies are important, as are those apps.  But if we are to keep up, learn the newest programs, adapt to the next big paradigm shifts, then the most important areas of learning are the foundational skills that we will need. thinking Learning the newest programs serves me well until I am no longer someone’s student. At that point, what I need is the ability to teach myself, to discern what I do and do not need to know and how and when I need to apply my learning.  I need to develop and choose the techniques best suited to solve the problems I will face in my life.  And if the new reality is that I will work in several different jobs and fields, then any job specific skill set is less useful than the skills to help myself transition to my next career.


And so it is that the new reality, in so far as it exists or will exist, is best served by students who have highly developed critical & creative thinking skills.  These students can teach themselves the newest tools and apply them with skill and meaning.  Students who can pose and solve problems will navigate change with success.  Students who understand their place in the world of technology, in the social world and in the natural world, and who can think and make informed choices to shape the best future possible.


In selecting these topics, it is inevitable that there will be objections about the 3 Rs and how more time spent on other topics lessens the English or Mathematics learning of our children.  I disagree.  If we look at the broader areas of literacy and numeracy, we find critical thinking and problem solving as essential skills.  A quick look at my school’s OSSLT results from the past years shows that our literacy is most fettered by students struggling to make connections and use high-level thinking skills.  Teaching critical thinking might address this deficit.  On the math EQAO, we suffer most in questions related to solving problems and that fall under the thinking/inquiry category of the achievement chart.  We’d be better mathematicians, and certainly more numerate if we were better thinkers.  In both tests, students do fairly well in their recall of knowledge and facts.  We don’t need kids with more facts, we don’t even need kids who know where to find more facts. We need kids who know why they need to know something, what kind of facts they need, where to find them, how to connect them and what limits the information they gather may have.  We need kids who can face the environmental and political crises that they inherit from us.  That’s what I believe will lead to success in the 21st century.  It’s what I want for my own children.


This post in part of a blog hop on 21st century learning.  Please see the other entries here: 
Susan Campo @susancampo
Jim Cash @cashjim
Greg Pearson @vptechnodork
Phil Young @_PhilYoung
James Nunes @jameseliasnunes
Donald Campbell @libramlad
Ken Dewar Bestbefore2030
Graham Whisen @grahamwhisen
Lynn Filliter @assessmentgeek
Debbie Axiak @DebbieAxiak
Alicia Quennell @AliciaQuennell
Jonathan So @MrSoClassroom
Jim Blackwood @jimmyblackwood
Jason Richea @jrichea
Tina Zita @Xna_zita

Planting Seeds to Grow Empathy and Biodiversity

RCRPLANTING-CLOSEWe wanted it all: beauty, biodiversity, character development and learning. That’s why I’ve been growing native flowers from seed for the last five years. With the right seeds, equipment and method, it can be very easy, very rewarding and work toward many of my most important class/school goals all at once.  We’ll also be doing important work to support our local monarchs and other pollinators.

The Learning: Students learn curriculum and build character. I use growing native flowers from seed as an opportunity to talk about eco systems, invasive species and biodiversity in general as well as landscaping and horticulture professions. Sometimes we measure and graph the growth of our species. And, as a teacher working with students at-risk, I am always grateful for this activity as a chance for students to practice caring for something living, practicing being nurturing and thus working on their capacity for empathy. Watching this in action with my students has been a really rewarding experience.

The Equipment: You do not need a grow light stand, although it helps. For years I grew seeds only using a window ledge, I just had to start the seeds a bit earlier and choose the right plants. What you do need:

  • A self-watering seed tray from Lee Valley Tools. This is your best friend because it survives through March Break and it’s hard to overwater your plants. Thin versions are available that can perch on smaller windowsills.
  • Soil. Even cheap potting soil will be just fine.
  • A spray bottle with a gentle mist setting for watering young Hyssop (see below)
  • A few trowels
  • Seeds

Choosing the right seeds: Go native or go home! Native plants have vastly greater eco-system benefits and will survive better. Non-natives may actually be hurting your ecosystem. For Ontario schools, I recommend ordering seeds from Wild Flower Farm near Orillia. They have a variety of fantastic native Ontario seeds. However, for your first year, I highly recommend these three species as foolproof and great in the garden: 

Lavender HyssopAll three grow very easily. All three are long-lasting flowers that will be great to help our troubled pollinators. The most serious problem is usually that too many seeds sprout(ed) in each cell: an embarrassment of riches! If you plant them early enough, say early-mid February, you should see flowers in the first year! Just remember to follow the instructions on the packet, particularly for the Hyssop which needs the seeds to be “planted” on (the) top of the soil.

I’ll have more as we near the season for planting outside.  I don’t have any financial connection with Lee Valley Tools or Wild Flower Farms other than being a regular customer.

Parents and Alternative Education

images-11I’ve had a long history working with students in alternative environments.  In the past I’ve worked in youth corrections, a drug rehabilitation center and an alternative school. I am now a department head responsible for student success, which means in part, an alternative classroom within a “traditional” school. However, in all of these workplaces there has been one constant: we need to increase parent involvement.

I’m not out to criticize parents. Often there have been hundreds of calls home, dozens of meetings and intervention plans before their son or daughter reaches me. Some parents need the school to stop calling them at work and to be taking less time away for meetings or risk unemployment. Still others are exhausted by the number of interventions, phone calls and the amount of time they have invested in strategies that have ended poorly. Fair enough – the behaviours we see at school can sometimes be exponentially worse at home. And of course, I do see some involved parents, but not enough.

The trouble is that parent involvement can really help make a difference for our students in alternative placements. Often these placements offer a new start and opportunity to turn everything around, an opportunity that may work best with home support.

So what can we do? We can’t change work circumstances or the past.  So I set out to try to discover what other barriers there may be to parent alt. ed. involvement and to isolate the ones that I could influence. I came up with two and I’m working with my team to try bring more parents on board by changing what we can.

Understanding the program. Alternative education is often poorly understood. We’re not well marketed because our existence means that sometimes our other programs aren’t adequate to serve a minority of students. They can be seen to symbolize failure. On this front, I disagree. Instead, in our alternative programs, I see an understanding that some students require a unique path and that caring educators will go to great lengths to build success for all of our students.

Others perceive the program as a punishment or a validation of their child as a failure. Messaging akin to “If you don’t do X, we’ll be sending you to the Y program” is common in some of my past workplaces. It doesn’t help anyone if students and parents are overcome with feelings of shame or resentment while we are trying to motivate and encourage change.

Hope. The road to my classroom probably hasn’t been good, but the outcomes still can be. Instead of failure and punishment, we could recover several credits and get their child completely caught-up! And in a new environment with lots of 1:1 and understanding, there is lots of reason for hope if we can change mindsets. Lots.

So what to do? We’re trying a video and phone campaign. The video above is less flashy than some of our other work, but is designed to show parents the nature of our programs and to encourage their involvement. And because it’s online, it won’t interfere with  parent work schedules.  We’re sending students home with a small slip of paper (reduce, reuse, recycle) with the link and QR code for the video, instructions on how to sign up for remind101 text message updates and asking for the parent’s signature that they received these messages.

We’re beginning a phone home campaign at the beginning of the semester, before any new negative messaging may occur, to welcome their child, connect to parents and share the amazing possibilities of their semester in an alternative environment. As the semester proceeds, our challenge will be to maintain the hope of parents and students as we navigate the rest of the semester.

That’s our parent plan: information and hope. It’s modest, but it’s something that can be maintained each semester without undue hardship. We know that parents want the best for their child and are doing the best they can.  Perhaps our work can help inform their efforts and re-connect them with school.  We’re hopeful that at the end of the semester we’ll be able to share information about the success of campaign.