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by Aaron Brengard
Principal, Katherine Smith Elementary School

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Topic tags: 21st century competencies


January 24, 2017
We Were Wrong: A Lesson on Early Grades 21st Century Learning

by Aaron Brengard
Principal, Katherine Smith Elementary School

(This post first appeared at Partnership for 21st Century


Driving Question: How early does equal access to 21st century learning start?

Rehearsals complete. Doors open. A packed room of guests in their seats. It was time for the big performance. The kindergarten class at Katherine Smith School had just completed its first project of the year, and it was exhibition night. In groups of five, kindergartners stood up and orally shared a portion of the findings from a recent project called "Stray, Stray, Go Away."

Over the course of the prior months, these kindergartners involved in project-based learning dove into a local problem. The driving question was "How can we prevent stray animals in our community?"

They read about animals, met with experts including those from the animal control center and veterinarians, and with the help of their teachers put all the findings together in an oral presentation to teach others. With a pointer in hand and speeches prepared, each student presented to an audience of parents and special guests and shared facts about how to care for animals, advice on preventing animals from getting lost, and tips for what do if a stray animal is found. Students, mostly English language learners, stood confidently and delivered oral presentations and demonstrated the strong integration of 21st century skills with rich academic content.

Prior to this project, we thought of academics and 21st century skills as separate things. Following a linear approach, first students needed to master important literacy skills, and then we could enhance the learning with integrated projects like "Stray, Stray, Go Away." We even worried that maybe 21st century skills would distract from the foundational skill like learning to read. It was thought that one was more important that the other, and guess what? We were wrong.

Scaffolding for Equity
Scaffolding was critical to support the differentiated needs of the students. During the presentation, the teachers provided a number of scaffolds to support the five and six year old presenters. They taped small footprints on the floor so students would not forget where to stand. They helped students make note cards with pictures instead of words to help remember the speeches. They even assisted students in creating a display board to enhance the presentations.

However, one scaffold taught us the importance of all students getting access to 21st century learning. It was a matter of equity and fortunately, it was caught on video thanks to the Buck Institute for Education. It happened at 1 minute and 39 seconds.

Like the others before him, Jose grabbed the pointer, stood on the footprints in his professional attire, and began to present. Behind him stood another kindergartner, Giovanni. With a closer look, you'll see Giovanni whispering the words into Jose's ear. Jose was not fluent in English and, in fact, had only a few months of English instruction. Giovanni was the scaffold Jose needed to have access to the oral presentation demands of this project. While Jose had not yet mastered English, he did get a chance to stand up in front of an audience (including a film crew), speak with a clear voice, show persistence, and deliver his part of the group presentation. Skills many adults have not mastered.

The Right of Access
Access to 21st century learning is a right, not a privilege. If we want our students prepared for this ever changing world, it is critical that we give them a well-rounded experience that includes not only strong academic content, but essential college and career 21st century skills such as thinking critically, speaking and writing clearly, working with others, and problem solving. We did not wait for Jose to master English and then later give him access to the 21st century learning. We provided the scaffolds needed to give him access right now. While we are still intently focused on supporting his English language development, we did not withhold his opportunity to participate in the oral presentation.

It was in that kindergarten class that we learned the importance of scaffolding to support the access to rigor—the rigor of the academic content and foundation skills, and the equally important rigor of 21st century skills. It was there in that kindergarten class that we learned how strong integration of content and skills gave opportunities to all students to become college and career ready. It's no longer academic content and 21st century skills—it's academic content with 21st century skills. And when it's done well it opens access to all.


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