• Linda Ulleseit, author

  • NaNoWriMo!

What is a 21st Century Learner?

imagesWhat is a 21st century learner? Equally important, what does a 21st century classroom look like? It’s important that students learn the same content they always have. They will need reading and writing, math, science, and social studies. They will also need interpersonal skills like teamwork and collaboration, as well as skills learned on the playground like sharing, being polite, and dealing with bullies. So far, not much change from the 20th century classrooms that taught me.

So what is different today? Teachers must prepare students for a very different future than my teachers prepared me for. I learned from my teacher in the classroom. The teacher talked to us, and we listened. Then we completed worksheets and were graded on points correct out of points possible. A lot of that is still valid.

The world, however, is changing at a much faster pace now, and every bit of it is broadcast to devices in our students’ backpacks. Students must be taught to navigate social media, create digital content, and locate effective information. Learning has exploded from teacher-directed, in-the-classroom, fact-based answers, becoming much more student-directed. Students learn any time of day, by actively researching, blogging, or discussing online. They collaborate in teams to create authentic products that have value outside the classroom.

So back to the question in paragraph one. What does a 21st century classroom look like? Step into my sixth grade classroom. The walls are lined with books, and team-created student posters illustrate the latest math concepts. Each student has a Chromebook on their desk. They begin a typical day by editing sentences, interacting with a Smartboard and writing in their binders. Reading is still done with real books, although after a lesson the students open their lids and log on to Google Classroom. All their assigned work is there, as well as grades for what they submitted yesterday. Students may choose to use Google Docs to write a Reading analysis letter or essay, or take an online quiz in Social Studies. They may access a fact practice website for Math, Reading, or Writing. They may work on their eportfolio, especially in Science.

After recess, they log on to their online Math books and use virtual Base Ten Blocks to work in their teams, changing between fractions, decimals, and percents. During Science, they complete a Lab on the Food Chain, or discuss the solar ovens they built at home. Phones are pulled out to take pictures and video that is then uploaded to their portfolio. On Friday, they have Genius Hour, where they work on a project of their choice and blog about it.

After lunch, they work on their Social Studies packets, choosing between activities to learn about Mesopotamia. They research online and visit websites with virtual tours of ancient sites, or activities like writing their name in cuneiform.

Assignments are not given to be completed by the next day (except for Math). Students have several days, a week, or even a month to work with each other and the teacher to create work, in class and at home, that truly reflects what they are learning. They love the Chromebooks, and when they are publishing work to the world they are very careful to put forth their very best work. They are completely engaged in learning content by using technology skills to discover and share it.

In my 21st century classroom, students learn the same content they always have: reading and writing, math, science, and social studies. They collaborate in teams and learn to be good citizens in person and online. They have many more opportunities to learn than I did, and it’s exciting to be a part of it.


I’ll Give You the Sun

jandy-nelson I’ll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson, is one of the best magical realism books I’ve read for Young Adults. It features twins, a boy and a girl, named Noah and Jude. They are coming of age in a world where Jude regularly sees and receives advice from her dead grandmother, and Noah sees the world in the blazing color of possible paintings.

Jude has a ‘bible’ from her grandmother, who referred to God as Clark Gable, that contains spells and proverbs. Jude sums up every situation with one of these bits of wisdom. For example, to avoid serious illness, keep an onion in your pocket.

Both twins have artistic talent, but Noah is exceptionally talented. He’s also a serious misfit at school. This is further complicated when he develops a crush on another boy. All of his observations are punctuated by possible portrait titles. For example, when he’s angry with Jude, he thinks, PORTRAIT: My Spider Sister.

The death of the twins’ mother, as well as Jude and not Noah getting accepted at a special art school, begin to drive the twins apart. The story unfolds as they struggle to find their way back to each other and back to being comfortable in their own skin.

This is a book full of beautiful, lyrical language that evokes strong images. Some of my favorites:

“No woman can resist a man who has tidal waves and earthquakes beneath his skin.”

“Our eyes meet and we both crack up like we’re made of the same air.”

“We’re sprinting at the speed of light when the ground gives way and we rise into the air as if racing up stairs.”

Okay For Now

Okokay-for-noway For Now, by Gary Schmidt, is the story of a boy who discovers a love of beauty and of himself by learning to appreciate plates from a book of Audubon’s birds. Doug is fourteen years old. He is new to town and has no friends. His father abuses him and his brother is a jerk.  Life is pretty much miserable at school and home. Then he finds a refuge in a new friend, Lil, and in the library.

This book is a wonderful coming of age read for teens and adults. The darker moments of Doug’s abusive father and his wounded brother’s return from Vietnam, while definitely negative, are not written in an unnecessarily graphic way. The focus is on Doug finding the plates of bird paintings that have been cut from the book and sold to pay for the library. As he locates each one, he also discovers something about himself. All the characters in this book grow, but Doug and Lil are special.

Planting Seeds

Growing tree22450289.gifOne of the most rewarding things about being a teacher is watching students’ minds encounter new ideas, filter them with what they already know, and come to their own unique conclusions. It’s only the third week of school, and already we’ve had a couple of discussions that planted seeds. They will continue to process everything they read and encounter, and someday later this month or next, or maybe in the spring, we will discuss these topics more fully.

One seed had to do with my dog’s cataract surgery. Someone asked what it was, and I drew a diagram on the board and explained. Then I said, “What’s most amazing is that someone had to think of this. Someone saw a need, thought of fake lenses, and figured out how to make it happen. Solutions like that require being curious about the world around you, caring about making things better, and thinking outside what has already been done.” They were silent for a minute or so. Then they asked questions. We talked about a few other great inventions, and the need to wonder about the world.

Another day, I showed the class American Born Chinese, a graphic novel by Gene Yang. I talked about how it weaved three different characters together into a great story. One of my boys raised his hand and said, “That book’s racist.” No one else had read it. I agreed that it had stereotypes of Chinese people in it, and I showed them a page with a picture of that. I asked, “Are racism and prejudice the same?” We discussed that stereotypes feed prejudice, but racism doesn’t exist unless someone is using it to hurt others–like denying them a job because of race. I asked them to think about whether it made a difference that the author of the book was Chinese. Would it be racist if I, as a white woman, wrote it?

Today we talked about distractions to getting our work done. Someone said they play games online and have trouble pulling away from them. I told them I play four Facebook games myself and have the same problem–I would have Aloha Spirit completed by now if it weren’t for Candy Crush! We talked about how adults have to overcome distractions to get their work done just like kids do. They were very surprised to realize this.

As the year goes on, I’m sure we will have many class discussions. I know that, as they become better at observing the world around them, my students will have valuable input to these discussions. I can hardly wait.


Back to School

animated_book02Each year it seems the first day of school is earlier and earlier. I can’t believe today marks a week since school started!

The first day of school I had yard duty at the student drop off. Very few cars came. Most parents walked their child to school. I greeted everyone with a smile and a, “Welcome back!” Students and parents all smiled. Everything is perfect on the first day of school–no issues darken anyone’s anticipation. Students all have shiny new backpacks and new clothes. Many carry department store bags with school supplies in them. (As an upper grade teacher, let me get on my soapbox here a moment and plead with parents to please unpack those supplies at home. I don’t have time to put paper in binders, unwrap pencils, etc.) Parents on the first day walk their children up onto the playground. They visit with other parents as their children find their new class lines and greet friends.

When school starts and the parents leave, the teachers push play and go. They introduce themselves. They talk about the policies and rules and curriculum. They lead getting-to-know-you games and art projects. And they go home tired.

My father was an elementary school teacher. On the first day of school, he made root beer floats when we all got home, and we took turns telling Mom about our first day. In my family, we have milkshakes on the first and last day. My sons are long out of school, but they still want milkshakes on my first day of school.

So the first couple of days are blissful in the classroom. Students are perfect. Teachers are patient. Then the teacher starts to ask the students to do something….like Math. And then begins the opportunity to fail. Every year I plead with the students to make sure they get their work done so they don’t get behind. Every year, some of them only last the first week. So as I sit here this morning with the first two assignments I’ve collected, I hope they are all here. Deep down, I suspect they won’t be and I will know right away which one of my students is That Student, the one who forgets to turn in work, then gets behind and frustrated, then misses so much they no longer know what’s going on. Once again I vow I will not let that student fall behind.

Welcome back to school!

Background in Historical Fiction


One of the hardest things in writing historical fiction is to describe the world fully enough for the modern reader to imagine it while at the same time not having the character exclaim over, or even notice, items that are common to them.

In our everyday lives, for example, we pass by buildings in our neighborhood without noticing them, to the point that when one of them is demolished, we say, “I remember something was there, but what was it?” In my current work in progress, Aloha Spirit, I need to describe Honolulu as it was in territorial Hawaii. My protagonist never had to even notice buildings along the route from her home to the downtown shopping district. As an author telling her story, though, I need to describe it to provide historical context.

Another place authors of historical fiction have to pull back is when characters are doing normal household tasks. These tasks need to be described so the reader understands what is going on, and the process must be historically accurate. In Aloha Spirit, my character does the laundry, a task we all know well. But what did it look like in 1925? What type of machine was used? What brand of soap? These details give the story a historical accuracy and flavor, but it’s important to remember that the character isn’t going to notice the washing machine any more than you notice your coffee pot. Joan Blos wrote an article in the School Library Journal. She included the passage “Mother stood in front of the white box and carefully adjusted the black dial” to illustrate the awkwardness of this type of description. A modern writer surely wouldn’t describe cooking as Blos did in the above passage, so why should a historical fiction writer do so?

Personally, I prefer a little more detail about the setting in historical fiction because it helps me envision the era. I can honestly say I have never felt a historical fiction piece to be over-described. I appreciate the research that goes into novels of this typed, and I get tired of blow-by-blow accounts of battles and political intrigue, but the details of the furnishings, clothing and food, for example, captivate me.



Creative Nonfiction

writingOne of the writing genres we teach in sixth grade is personal narrative. A narrative is a story, or fiction, but a personal narrative is based on a real event. The struggle is getting students to write good stories about an event in their lives.

Now personal essay, or memoir, is supposedly a different genre. It is defined as an actual memory or experience that is enhanced by imagination. Sounds the same to me.

When we remember something from our past, we tend to remember the important part, the climax, the culmination. For example, we remember opening a present and getting something we wanted, or falling off our bike, or swimming in Hawaii. In order to make that a good piece of writing, you need to add details. Who else was there? What was the weather? What happened before that led up to it? What happened afterward? What did you feel before and how did this event change it? What did people say? These details, however, are what is usually forgotten. You are left with a story like this: I went swimming in Hawaii. It was cool. Bad story.

To enhance the memory of the experience, you need to add details. If you don’t remember what the weather was like, it’s safe to assume it was warm and sunny since Hawaii is usually warm and sunny (and you’d remember swimming in the rain). If you were on vacation with your family, you can safely assume they were there with you, even if you have to make up dialogue on what they most likely said.

So where is the line between fiction (personal narrative) and nonfiction (personal essay or memoir)? Nonfiction stories serve up just the facts, like a newspaper article. And many novelists  do a lot of research into facts to help make a novel believable. Remember, too, that memories are colored by our age at the time, and they fuzz a bit over time. When I compare childhood memories with my brother, we are often amazed we are talking about the same event. Our brain already adds creativity.

You may ask, why is it important to know if the story is nonfiction or fiction if it’s a good story? One of an author’s duties is to give the reader what they expect. If a book is billed as memoir, the reader expects that everything in it actually happened. If it’s sold as fiction, the reader assumes it’s all made up. Some people are using the title ‘creative nonfiction’ to bridge this gap. In creative nonfiction, a reader can assume that historical facts are checked and still accept that some of the characters or events are made up. My own book, Under the Almond Trees, I call historical fiction because most of it is fictionalized based on very little information. What about you? Do you like your nonfiction to be factual, or are you a fan of creative nonfiction?


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