• 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.


True Love: Reading

booksFour years ago, my summer reading included The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. It changed my life. It also changed the lives of over a hundred students, so far, that have passed through my classroom. Simple truths in Miller’s book brought me to tears because of how deeply they resonated within me. Students don’t learn to love reading by doing worksheets. I know that. So why was I still assigning them? The books students love forever are not the books assigned by teachers. True. I don’t know anyone who has Billy Budd or Candide or (what else did I read in high school and college?) on their all-time favorite reading lists. Not books you admire, not books that made you think, but books that you LOVE and reread and must have on your bookshelf in real paper. The Book Whisperer validated everything I knew to be true about my own love of reading, and it gave me the courage to change.

In July of 2011, I began talking to fellow teachers about it and found others who were just as excited. That summer, a handful of us from a few schools in our district formed a secret club on Facebook. Everyone read the book. Spilling over with ideas, we met to discuss implementation. Doing a good job with Reader’s Workshop meant throwing out the district-approved textbook and workbook. That caused me some trepidation, but I had already seen the power of the workshop approach in writing. So our secret group continued to meet after school started and we began to try this new style of reading instruction.

I developed short lessons that taught the concepts students are required to master: connecting to ideas in the text, identifying main ideas and details, using context clues, etc. Students take these lessons and apply them to their self-selected silent reading books. Every day in class, they read. Once a week, they write me a letter about their reading that shows me how they are applying the skills learned. I continue to be blown away by how their literature analysis grows throughout the year. They now read their textbook only if they choose to. We never open the workbooks.

Parents always ask what they can do to help. It’s much easier for them if there’s a worksheet! The best thing parents can do for their children is to read. Read to the younger ones and with the older ones. I remember sitting with my sons and reading, each of our own book, but together and engaged. Read the same book as your child and discuss themes. You might be surprised at the depth of some of the themes in Young Adult literature!

Not yet convinced? Read this article:

Reading for pleasure builds empathy and improves wellbeing, research from The Reading Agency finds

I’ve been very successful at getting my students to read. New challenge: get the parents reading for pleasure!

Evidence in the Text

readerAs California begins the process of adopting the federal Common Core Standards, teachers are required to examine their teaching. The Common Core, as I understand it so far, focuses on teaching content in a deeper way. Students will be required to think critically, be creative, collaborate, and communicate. Much of this we already do.

In my district this year, we are focusing students on providing evidence from the text for their conclusions. In my Reading Workshop, students write letters to me once a week about what they are reading. They are required to respond to my last letter to them, summarize oh so briefly the section they read this week, and fill one page of thoughts about their thinking–supported with evidence from the text.

Here is an example of a student letter (even cooler because it’s about my novel!):

Dear Mrs. Ulleseit,

Thank you for complimenting me on last week’s letter. I really did try to include all the points you covered in class. You make it so easy because you read us so many books.

This week I continued reading In the Winds of Danger by Linda Ulleseit. In this section, Nia has an encounter with Jenett, pregnant wife of the barn leader.

Early on, the text says, “With her snarkiest tone, Nia asked, ‘Having a bad morning, Jenett?'” This tells me that Nia is upset with Jenett. When I use a snarky tone with my mother, it’s usually because she’s not letting me do something I want to do. I love and respect her, but I am upset with her. Since Jenett is the wife of Nia’s barn leader, Nia probably respects her. In this section, however, Jenett is spying on her and acting weird. Nia is self-conscious and ends up being snarky.

Showing how different Nia is with Jenett than other characters, there are more friendly interactions with Gregory and Ana. When Nia is in the tavern, she approaches Ana and politely asks to join her. Ana agrees, and the text says, “Ana sounded delighted.” Clearly Ana likes Nia. Later in the chapter, when Jenett stalks off after a confrontation with Nia, Geoffrey asks Nia if she’s okay. A bit later, he leaves her some flowers and a nice note. These are things boys do if they like you, which Geoffrey wouldn’t if Nia wasn’t nice to him.

I predict Nia and Geoffrey will work together to start a new barn that will dominate the Aerial Games. The text has already said that Nia will lead. It’s only a matter of who she will work for. I think she will work for Geoffrey.


(Susie Student)


This student referred to the text and quoted it in a couple of places. Nice job! Bring on the Common Core. My students are ready!

Standardized Testing

smiley-12All year I strive to teach my students to enjoy thinking.

In Reading Workshop, they read books of their own choosing and write letters to me making connections to other books, to their own lives, or to the world. They visualize settings and infer character motivation from their actions. All of this is done with great excitement because they are reading self-selected books. Students leaving my class love to read.

In Writing Workshop, something similar happens. They write a novel during NaNoWriMo in November, and their confidence soars. They choose what they will write about, and discuss strategies with me and with their writing partners. Students leaving my class love to write.

The school district currently emphasizes project-based learning (PBL) as one way to implement the new Common Core Standards. Both PBL and the new standards focus on critical thinking and problem solving, on student-directed activities. It’s a very exciting time to be a teacher.

Yet this week I watch my students take the state standardized tests. In unity they open their answer sheets and write their names. All together they turn to the day’s testing section. I read the same words heard by every student in the state at this grade level. Then quiet falls over the room like a cloak as they begin. There is no collaboration here, no project, no open-ended response. It’s all right or wrong, bubble in the answer.

Parents push their children to do well on state testing because they think the scores are important. I don’t know any teacher who feels this way. Any test only shows what a student knew on that particular day at that particular time. As with any test, scores are affected by the student’s health (testing is always at the height of allergy season), the weather (testing always happens on the first warm, sunny week that promises summer), and the classroom environment. Sitting in rows silently, not able to get up out of your seat for two hours, is not how I normally teach.

I know that state testing is changing when Common Core comes to California. It will be computer-based, which will heighten student interest, and more interactive. I will reserve judgment until I actually see the test, but I don’t see how standardized testing can assess the most important skills we teach: collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking.

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