Teaching 21st Century Learners | Mindsteps Inc.

Teaching 21st Century Learners

By: Renee Shea, a professor at Bowie State University and author of several books. Her latest, The Language of Composition is a fabulous resource for AP English Teachers.

21st Century learningAfter thirty years in the classroom, I was more delighted than surprised to hear Marcus comment, “Hey, I’m teachin’ my teacher!” as he came up to help me do the right thing with the Smart Board. Yet these days it’s happening more and more often. Even though I hear the 30-something teachers lament that even they can’t keep up with their technologically savvy students – the ones who had computers in their cribs – it’s cold comfort to those of us who can hardly understand the vocabulary of Promethean boards, texting, blogs, twitters, interactive classrooms, hypermediacy, and a host of other terms that remind us that we’ve gone into the 21st century at warp speed in every subject area, including English Language Arts.

What choices do those of us who are moving into our third and fourth decades in the classroom have: give up and leave? become entrenched Luddites who just say no? desperately try to keep up? I’m fascinated by the technology but have absolutely no intuition about it the way I do, say, poetry. This past semester with my freshman English classes, I think I took the desperate route. Trying to teach in a 1960s building, I brought in my MacBook, spent my own money on an LCD projector, and dragged both of those as well as external speakers to each class; set everything up, admittedly, with a little help from my student friends; and did my best to appear competent until a few tell-tale signs gave me away. “Why do you always type the ‘www’, Dr. Shea?” asked Allyson. “Hit the button on the right to make it full screen,” suggested Curtis. And on and on. I fooled no one.

As I think long and hard about how I can continue to contribute to the education of today’s techno-kids, I’ve been remembering a project I did a decade ago when I decided to replace the standard research paper in an honors composition class with web sites: in an intrepid move, I assigned the students, working in groups, the design and development of a web site for a contemporary author. I established criteria (e.g., annotated bibliography, biographical information, original interview, critical essays) and let them loose. I did not know the first thing about designing web sites, I did not pretend otherwise, and the project was a real success. The kids were involved, they worked collaboratively, they appreciated one another’s strengths, and they developed such good sites that some remain to this day. What did I contribute? I knew how to do research, document properly, analyze literary works, write critical essays, ensure grammar and sentence structure are in order … what English teachers teach. I was guide, mentor, coach, partner.

Maybe partnership really is the key as one technology replaces another faster than my learning curve can handle. Richard Miller, chair of the Rutgers University English Department, certainly thinks so in his definition of “the new humanities.”* In a speech to the University Board of Trustees, Dr. Miller asserts that technology has “radically redefined what authority and expertise means.” Specifically, composing in the 21st century is, he claims, “multiply authored and multiply produced,” and involves not only written expression but also “the use and manipulation of images, especially moving images.” Nonetheless – and here’s what heartens me – he says that at the center is the “sustained study and deep understanding” of trained and seasoned teachers. The digital labs and multimedia studios that are becoming our classrooms may be more familiar turf to our students than to those of us who are veteran teachers, but we bring the expertise and analytic skills our students, however deft with technology, are still developing.

So maybe we model lifelong learning by becoming partners with our students more than ever these days. Recently, I’ve been doing quite a bit of work with documentary film in my English classes, capitalizing on students’ preference for the visual to use this genre as a way to teach principles of argument. Whether it’s An Inconvenient Truth or Bowling for Columbine, we consider how the filmmaker builds and develops an argument, look for logical fallacies, and explore the visual components as style. The next step, one many schools are already taking, is for students to present their own arguments not as a print text of a documented essay but instead as a documentary film. I doubt I’ll ever become a proficient documentarian, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be uncomfortable in a classroom where reading and writing share time with and are enhanced by multimedia. My role evolves, perhaps more colleague than supervisor, more partner than authority, as I teach – and learn – my way into the 21st century.

* ” The Future Is Now,” speech by Richard Miller.