Measuring 21st Century Skills In The Elementary Classroom


I’m often asked to share my strategies for developing integrated units that incorporate 21st century skills. An upcoming PBL I’m developing is on The Alamo. It will blend content areas while building 21st century skills and promoting family involvement.

Giving students opportunities to develop and refine their 21st century skills is something most of us see as paramount to learning in today’s classroom. Where many struggle is not with the “why” but with the “how”. One of the most successful ways I’ve found for doing this has come through integration of curriculum and grabbing ahold of Problem Based Learning. When I talk about integration, I mean that in terms of not only content, but 21st century skills as well. I intentionally plan and integrate these for one simple reason:

What Gets Measured Gets Done.

It’s important that students have the ongoing opportunity to develop and refine these skills. They also need  the opportunity to examine their progress in specific 21st century skills and reflect on how they are progressing over time. Here are four of my rubrics used to measure these skills: 21st Century Skills Rubrics

For this unit, I’m going to bring in:

Collaboration, problem solving,  technology literacy, and public speaking.

Each will be measured throughout  the unit in the form of self, peer, and coach (me) evaluations.

Now let’s take a look at  how I develop integrated units. I will also share my plans for my upcoming PBL as well.

Backward Design Intended Outcomes

 I start with identifying what specific content knowledge and skills are coming up each six weeks, and what students need to know at the end of each respective course unit. This is perhaps the “heaviest” part of the process. I’ll use my own upcoming units as an example here.

Social Studies: Understand the significance of the events leading up to the Alamo, and it’s impact.
Language Arts: Develop and refine skills in reading and analyzing nonfiction text. Develop and refine writing skills and produce an expository essay that includes descriptive details to support a main idea..
Math: Understand and manipulate fractions and decimals, and their relatedness. Understand 3D shapes and identify attributes.
Science: Identify forms of energy and understand interactions, pathways, conversions.

I have specific learning outcomes identified for each content area (though here I am just giving you a brief synopsis of the content covered). I also have formatives and summatives identified so I know where we are going. I can now plan out how to get there.

How And Where To Integrate

 Now that I have my concepts identified, I move on to how and where. Quickly we can see a connection here with Social Studies and Language Arts. So I will start there. I know that, throughout the Alamo unit, I want to include opportunities for literacy skills in nonfiction genres. Here is how I will embed this throughout:

  • Primary and Secondary Sources. I will use autobiographies, letters, journals, and our Social Studies textbook as the mentor texts during Reading Workshop. Mini lessons will center on nonfiction reading strategies.
  • We will examine quotes found in letters and journals to interpret meaning, context, and also find synonyms. Rewrite pleas from today’s perspective.
  • Media. We will critically examine a movie poster promoting the film “The Alamo”, and discuss the impact of the chosen colors, taglines, and images.
  • Writing Workshop will be used to provide instruction on effective expository writing strategies, with opportunities to respond to Alamo related prompts, journaling, letter writing, persuasive debate, and cause and effect essays.

Math.  We are working with fractions and decimals, while continuing to spiral in measurement concepts and move into 3D shapes and attributes. How can I use the Alamo unit to support this learning?

  • We will learn about the number of soldiers and ratios between armies.
  • Money as it relates to this historical period.
  • Proportions.
  • Fractions of time.
  • Comparison of rifle and musket range of fire (200 yards/70 yards) and conversion.
  • Examine 3D shapes and attributes found in pictorial representations of Spanish missions.
  • Suggest and design upgrades to the Alamo layout.

Science. We are going to identify forms of energy and how they interact with matter. I will include:

  • Potential and kinetic energy as it relates to gunpowder, cannons, and firewood.
  • Thermal energy.
  • Sound energy as we listen to replays of music used during this battle.

Social Studies. We will examine key players, dates, and locations. We will consider events leading up to the battle, and impact on future events. Students will uncover the significance of this historical event and take a virtual tour of the site using Google Earth  tour.

Ongoing Formatives
Planned throughout in each content area to measure progress on specific content skills as well as 21st century skills. Ongoing feedback allows students to refine and improve in each strand. The Alamo PBL includes benchmarks along the way which are related to both content and 21st century skills. As an example: Students can improve on a grade in Social Studies by improving on a 21st century skill, such as their current level of performance in the area of collaboration.


The Driving Question
In creating a Problem Based Learning unit, I start with looking at the standard. I then develop a driving question. This is the most difficult part of the task. It’s also the most critical. We want students to not only know what they are learning, but internalize and be able to articulate why they are learning it. The DQ is written ultimately for the students. The question will fuel understanding if it’s written well, articulates the standards, and includes a motivation to learn. It can promote ownership and guide students as they move through to unit. It also needs to include a community connection. I use a “tubric” to help me do this. Here is a video on that:

Here’s my DQ:

Why did the American public popularize the Alamo and how might this legacy apply to my own life?

Now, this is the over-arching DQ. Throughout the unit there are Learning Targets which are written to help them ultimately answer that driving question. Here are questions that will be embedded in this PBL:

What were the issues leading up to this battle, and why were they important?
How did those issues impact decisions that were made?
What might I have done had I been involved in this event? What are the issues that drive that decision?

What are some suggestions I might make if I were in a position to affect change?
How can we share our impressions of the Alamo battle with a larger audience?
How do members of my family approach decion-making situations?

Though they will be incorporated throughout, the above DQ’s are where I will specifically embed those 21st century skills I will assess within this unit. I will leave much to student choice as far as designing their final products is concerned. However, I will provide structured choices for them to consider and work with them to identify appropriate avenues for demonstrating their learning. I also have identified required products along the way to help build capacity and to assess 21st century skills. Each week, the four identified 21st century skills will be assessed through these required activities:

Week One

Collaborate in book clubs using texts centered on the event and players involved, such as biographies
Compare/Contrast presentation essay on two key players
Measurement and Conversion/Time/ Fractions

Week Two:

Digital descriptive timelines
Decision Making Brace Map  presentation
Journal entries from different perspectives/problems/solutions (will continue throughout)

Week Three:

Character trait analysis
Student-chosen problem and it’s impact: Cause and Effect presentation Graphic Organizers
Critical writing on energy conversion in science
Collaborate to design a movie poster for an Alamo film. They will decide on a tagline, colors, and actors who they imagine would portray main and supporting characters. These will include critical writing on the reasons behind their selections.

Week Four:

Student-chosen problem and it’s impact: Cause and Effect Graphic Organizers
Impact of different energy sources on the events of the Alamo/presentation
Fraction and decimal conversion practice with Alamo facts and figures we uncover

Week Five:

Students collaborate to produce a news broadcast of a self-selected problem and it’s impact on events
4 Corner Stance with critical writing to defend a position
Shared Classroom Debate with Public Speaking Skills

Week Six:

Collaborate and submit suggested upgrades to Alamo design and layout
Expository Essay: An Important Decision I Have Faced

The final product needs to answer the driving question. These will make excellent artifacts for our Standards Based Bulletin Board as well. For more on SBBB’s embraced by my district, visit this link.

Guiding Options for Final Products:

Web page design
Student-produced documentaries on a chosen Alamo figure
Artwork depicting important events and/or people
Digital Biographical sketches
Reenactments, student-written plays
Poetry anthologies related to the significance of the Alamo/events
Personal analysis through persuasive essay
Resource curation on Pinterest or Live Binder
Creation of games (can be 2d or 3D)
Blueprint design of the Alamo, accompanied by student built model to scale. Includes Legacy Snapshots, which are written supporting documents placed on the model
Produce and direct a Public Service Announcement
Lyric writing/music to accompany a scene

Each will allow for problem solving, collaborating, and public speaking/sharing work.  By choosing an option above, or by following their own inventive ideas,  we can leverage student passions, which always become top-notch products! Each product must be submitted in digital form for uploading to student’s ePortfolio. This will allow for sharing of work with a global audience. Students will include a written reflection on the product, it’s significance to the student, and what was learned through the creation of that product. Each student will also be encouraged to provide ongoing feedback to their peers both during the learning and on the final product. Weekly projects can also be uploaded to ePortfolios, with students selecting the artifacts to share globally.

Community/Family Impact
Students will talk with their families about how they approach big decisions and collect this information. They will explore with their family different strategies for making decisions and short/long term goals. These will be compiled into a class “family advice” book that students can refer to when facing their own “big decisions”. I think this will be a great way to open home communication and provide students with a variety of diverse viewpoints.

Throughout this six week unit, there will be specific mini-lessons and common assessments as written in our curriculum. The backdrop for our day to day learning and connections will be Alamo PBL.

All in all, I’m looking at a great opportunity to develop my students 21st Century Skills, integrate curriculum for deeper understanding through a PBL, and promote family involvement with building decision making skills. So I am very excited heading into the 4th six weeks!

For more on PBL and integrated curriculum, visit here. Visit the Buck Institute for Education for further research based information on PBL.

SBBB informative PDF link that I referenced originated via NISD website.


21 Lessons From My Mentors

leader Lessons From My Mentors

I didn’t grow up with a plethora of mentors. I grew up the only child of a single parent; I struggled in school and received the message early on that I was limited in what I might end up doing.   I am a first generation college graduate. I’m the first one in my family to have even attended college.  For whatever reason, I stumbled  upon Zig Ziglar in my early days and he became my  own little life coach. So I’ve always had the belief that with the right leadership, guidance, hard work and personal commitment, anyone can achieve success. I’ve held on to that as a person and as a teacher, and I’ve always tried to learn from those around me.

Like many of you, I have had the privilege of learning from some amazing administrators over the past 15 years. They’ve taught me (and continue to teach me) about succeeding, overcoming, growing, learning and leading. I  am also learning daily from some outstanding “virtual” mentors. Though they are each unique, they all possess one single, powerful character trait:


As I think about my own journey, I want to capture and remember the wisdom I have gained and continue to gain on a daily basis. So here are a few things I have learned (so far) from the best of the best, framed into little snippets that I have tucked away in my mind. Names will be initials to protect the privacy of these selfless servant leaders!

LR:  Lead with your heart. Whether you are dealing with students, parents, or teachers, let them know by the way you interact that you are on their side. Speak from a positive place, listen with your heart. Seek first to understand.

JM: Believe that great things will happen when you decide they will happen. Commit to the outcome, and then do everything in your power to achieve  it.  Roadblocks are just pathways to another, unique, route.

TR: No matter what happens, or how it turns out, look for the lesson.

ST-E: More important than teaching kids how to be successful, is teaching them how to respond when they are not.

AC: If every decision you make is what’s best for kids, you will not make many mistakes.

DC: Great leaders understand they won’t have all the answers. Know when to let others lead.

RT: Let others know when they have done a good job. People like to be appreciated and complimented; it could be the fuel they need to push through the tough times. Acknowledge gifts in others.

WS: If you have a “why”, you’ll find a “how”.

AE: When presented with a complaint from someone, ask questions.  Guide through questioning to help lead others to their own answers. Offer advice while at the same time empowering and building capacity.

LR: Don’t be afraid to take calculated risks. Always tie your creativity to the standard–don’t lose sight of the goal while designing the journey.

LR: Your “Orange” is a gift to others; while the “Blue’s” are a gift to you.

JM: Poverty must be understood. It exists, and it affects. Understand your student’s and match your actions to their framework.

JM: When dealing with discipline issues, ask yourself: What would I say or do now if his or her parent were standing right next to me? Then proceed.

MK: You can never underestimate the power of showing simple kindness and love.

JB: Whenever possible, surround yourself with others who will dare to play.

NT: Humor can put others at ease and it also can diffuse situations. You have a good sense of humor. Use it.

AH: There is no “I can’t” . You are the teacher. They need you to teach. Pick up your confidence and face the day. Your first year will bring tears. Get over it. Go teach. (Said the first semester of my career. Never forgot).

TB: Always have a dish of chocolate on the desk. Sometimes that’s all someone needs. A good snickers can solve many problems. Sometimes answers are found in the simple things.

LR: Don’t always rely on email. Some conversations are better had in person.

BG: Years ago, I tried to clear my plate of all the extra things. I now realize, the extra things are what make the biggest difference.

RSP: Ask others what they need from you. Write it down.  Then do it to the best of your ability.

These mentors are each very unique. In fact, some are total opposites. But in their own ways they have helped me and continue to help me grow in my journey. I think that my students are better people because of the impact these leaders have had on me as a teacher and person.

So here is a shout-out to all the great leaders. I can never truly repay them; but I can pay it forward by striving each day to make the same kind of difference to others.

Finally, here are some words of wisdom from my personal life coach (though he never knew it), Mr.  Zig Ziglar:

Thank you, fearless leaders. You matter.


Mr. Myagi-An Ode To Student And Mentor Teachers

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamiejohn/4615886607/ & Edited by me on 1/11/14

I often wish I could have a do-over with my first class. I’m afraid they didn’t learn much from me. My mentor teacher was somewhat disengaged, and the student teaching experience was of such unremarkable value that I barely remember it. Next week, I’m hosting a student teacher. Even though I have taught for 15 years, I still always think, “why me?” when this comes up. I don’t see myself as any kind of expert in this. But I do see this as a significant opportunity to have a strong, lasting impact on a future teacher and thus hundreds of students. I will also get to learn some things from my student teacher (I always do!). Collaborating with enthusiastic and excited soon-to-be teachers is always a great joy! So for that, it is a privilege for me to do this.

With this comes great responsibility. I’ve been thinking a lot about what things I want to leave her with -what type of impact I will strive to have- because whether good or bad,  at the end of this experience, I will have had one.

One of the best mentoring experiences I’ve witnessed was portrayed in the movie Karate Kid. Now, I am  nowhere near the mentor Mr. Myagi was. The best I can hope for is to try and have a positive impact and share some things I’ve learned that have helped me be an effective teacher (most days). So what can mentor teachers, and student teachers, learn from Mr. Myagi and Daniel-san? Here are five things that I think are important, and what I’m going to try and incorporate as we go through this experience together.

Mr. Miyagi: “No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher. Teacher say, student do.”

Be prepared every day. Come to class with a knock-out lesson. Plan experiences that keep students engaged, leverage their curiosity, and allow them opportunity to actively engage in their own learning.  One thing I’ve learned is that when the lesson doesn’t include plenty of opportunity for active learning, students will disengage. At that point,  classroom management issues will appear.  By contrast, planning lessons (experiences) that captivate, challenge, and motivate will keep most – if not all-students on task.

Mr. Miyagi: “Daniel san, karate here (he points to his forehead). Karate here (he points to his heart). Karate not here (he points to his gut). You understand?”

Know your students. Build relationships with them in such a way that you know what they like, how they learn, and what motivates them. Teach from your heart. If you are passionate about the topic, show that! It will rub off on them. Love your kids and love what you do every day, even on the bad days (which will happen). Always remember that you are not teaching a content–you are teaching kids. Your love for students and teaching will carry you through even the worst days–those days when your stomach is tied up in knots due to failed attempts, piled up paperwork, and worry over tests and such. Keep the focus on your kids and your passion as much as possible.

Daniel: “Hey, what kind of belt do you have?” 
Mr. Miyagi: “Canvas, you like? J.C. Penney, $3.98!”

What makes you, YOU? A good piece of advise is to take risks, grab ahold of initiatives and trends that come along, and always be willing to learn from others. Observe what works for veteran teachers. But at the end of the day, you must develop your own style and what works for you. There are fundamental things that make you who you are, and those will work to your advantage in the classroom. Own your strengths-know when to adopt something and when to discard it. Just because it looks good on the teacher next door, doesn’t always mean it’s going to look good on you! Take the good things and tailor them so that they build upon your strengths.

Mr. Miyagi: “Win, lose, no matter. You make good fight and respect. Then nobody bother.” 
Daniel: “Ya, they’ll bury me where I fall.’ 
Mr. Miyagi: “Either way, problem solved.”

Standardized tests cause every teacher a little stress. There exists a common divide as to whether to teach content or teach to the test. My philosophy is this: If we teach the standards in such a way that we help develop critical thinking and reasoning, and build in successes so that they believe in themselves,  students will do fine with whatever opponent they face. I keep the focus on the day to day learning. I know what content is covered and I know how it is typically presented on the test. I try to mirror that with such things as “question stems”  and level of rigor. But at the end of the day, my belief is that as long as my students are prepared through daily trainings, the final match will take care of itself.

Daniel: “Wouldn’t a flyswatter be easier?” 
Mr. Miyagi: “Man who catch fly with chopstick, accomplish anything.”

There are many times when we as teachers think, wouldn’t it be easier to just _____ (fill in with whatever). Easy is easy, but shortcuts are rarely effective long term. I’ll use math as an example.  Yes, it’s much easier to teach a formula for solving a problem. Students can memorize the formula, practice it enough to become proficient at it. But will they understand the “why” behind what they are doing? Will they have built conceptual knowledge? Doubtful. This may be fine short term-to get them through the unit, the test, the grade. But down the road, problems will emerge because they failed to learn and understand what is happening behind and within those mathematical processes. This goes back to the earlier idea of not teaching content, but teaching kids. Easy isn’t always the best choice. Be wary of shortcuts.

As I get ready to host a student teacher, I want to make sure that I focus on not only the specific tasks, but also pay attention to her as a person. I hope to fuel her love of teaching so that when she enters years 1-5, she doesn’t become on of the all-too-common victims of teacher burnout. I’m not the expert by any means, but I do want to have a positive impact and help her cultivate her own unique gifts and talents. So I will also focus on this:

Mr. Miyagi: “Just remember; license never replace eye, ear, and brain.”

I’m looking forward to not only teaching, but learning from her. So here’s to not getting too caught up in the brittle and cold analysis of our craft, and focusing instead on individual reward for both of us.

I am honored to serve in this capacity! I will return to update as we go through the journey together. How many of you have had the privilege of hosting a student teacher? What insights can you share about the experiences you’ve had?


Through My Students’ Eyes

Google stock images

We are all becoming more and more aware of the importance of feedback. A look at this article by John Hattie and Helen Temperley reveals just how effective quality feedback is in moving students toward mastery. But what about students giving feedback? Isn’t what our student’s say just as important as what we say?

I thought about that as we were nearing winter break. My students already have a voice in my classroom (as do yours, I’m sure).  I think I do a pretty good job of offering choice, setting up opportunities for collaboration, and encouraging/supporting them as they identify goals and track progress.  I also know there are times  we as teachers think we  “always do this” or “never do that”,  but our student’s perceptions can be very different. And perception is reality. So in an effort to refine my own practice I decided to add another dimension to the voice I am giving students in my classroom. This year, they evaluated me.  In the spirit of transparency, I am going to share my evaluation here!


Walking The Walk

We all like to say we are ego free, that we are lifelong learners, that we grow and learn from one another…I feel pretty confident that those statements are true about me. But I can say it was very scary to actually have my students evaluate me.  I had no idea what might be written. Was I prepared to receive less-than-glowing reviews? Am I truly seeking growth-enough that I am willing to read the less-than-tactful responses that may come from a 9 year old? In honesty, my answer is yes. So, I acknowledged the lack of control I have in this process, the commitment I have to being the best teacher I can be, and the power I see in feedback and it’s ability to move one forward toward growth. I then turned to my PLN to help find, revise, and create my own evaluation. After looking at a few documents shared by my PLN (thanks everyone!) I saw one that I thought was pretty authentic and brief but powerful.  Just what I was looking for!  I tweaked it a little bit to make it my own. I like that it isn’t slanted toward positive supposition. I also made it anonymous to eliminate fears about “hurting my feelings”. You can view my evaluation here. On the day of my evaluation, I took time to really discuss a few key points with my fourth graders.

The Power of Feedback

We talked about how powerful feedback is for them (this has been a focus all year) and I explained how the same thing is true for me. I told them that one way I get better at teaching is by hearing back from my students on what works, what doesn’t, and what I can do to improve. I told them I welcome and seek feedback -as I expect them to -because it leads to growth.


I told them to leave their names off the document. I explained that I wanted them to feel completely comfortable saying what they wanted, and not worrying about what I might think or hurting my feelings. I reminded them how I “can’t tell who is who from handwriting” (I say this daily as I quiz the class on the paper with no-name -again). I tried to make them understand how much I want them to feel free to say anything that might improve my lessons, teaching style, and how I relate in general with them. Scary isn’t it? With that, I passed out the documents. They seemed very excited to do this. I had noticed a few who smiled as I was explaining this task, and one student remarked, “This is different” when I gave him the evaluation. I could tell they were not used to doing this!

I think they felt as if, at that moment, the only voice in the room that mattered was theirs.

Results Are In

I brought my evaluations home to review (but purposely did this after Christmas so as not to put a damper on my holiday)! I looked for common responses/themes/patterns in these.  I know there’s a difference between one or two comments here and there versus five or more of my students making the same reference. Five would be more than 25% of my class! So I needed to pay attention to common responses and similar thoughts. Below are some common themes I pulled out of their responses.


14 of 20 students mentioned Genius Hour as being something that they really enjoy and are learning a lot from.  You can read a prior blog entry and look at our Genius Hour website here.

8 of 20 students identified Hour of Code as being an activity they really enjoyed and learned a lot from.  (Below is a quick video of a student explaining her code)

15 of 20 students identified our Kinder Crash as a memorable lesson. This was a really cool experience for us; unfortunately, I’ve misplaced the pictures and have never blogged about it. FAIL!!  Perhaps I will!

11 of 20 students mentioned our Maya Mystery Experience as being a positive learning experience. You can read about that experience here.

Areas of Need

12 of 20 students referred to math being either too hard or frustrating.

9 of 20 students suggested I do more explaining during math as an area to improve.

6 of 20 students suggested we do more partner reading during Reading Workshop.

How They See Me

Most common attributes checked to describe me included: Funny, exciting, interesting, and fair. There were no negatives checked, although one did write out next to the option “unfair”: “There are times I don’t agree with things, but not enough to check this box”.  I’m okay with that. 🙂

Things I Found Interesting

On both the celebrations and needs there were several  open-ended question, such as “If you could change anything about my lessons, what would it be” and “One lesson you really enjoyed so far this year”. I purposely left it this way because I wanted to see where it would lead. I think it’s important to note the number of students who referenced the same things, without any direction or specifics.

Here are some images of a few of their comments :

What did we do that you really enjoyed/learned from. Hour of Code, Plant Project (Kinder Crash), Genius Hour
Activities that you really enjoyed/learned from: Genius Hour
Keep doing Genius Hour-Kids love to pick their own topics.
Activities really enjoyed/Learned From: The Maya Experience
Our math lessons were: too hard.
Teach things we’re new to a bit more, explaining.
Comments- Maybe we could do more partner reading.
Comments: I love the way you are different from other teachers
Comments: I don’t really have anything for you, but you could let us sit by our best friends.
I think you should be a teacher every year.

Now What?

Genius Hour – This seems to be a valuable activity; not only is it improving their 21st Century Learning Skills-it’s highly motivating and engaging for them (based on these responses and my observations). A much treasured activity that is new to our classroom – I will continue!

Kinder Crash- This is also a program that will continue. They seem to value the opportunity to learn and then teach others. We loved this!

The Maya Experience – This was my first pirate lesson (Teach Like A Pirate) and I am thrilled about two things. 1-they listed it as a favorite, and 2-most referred to it by the name I gave it (specifically-the word ‘experience’) instead of The Maya lesson. I like this because Dave Burgess, author of the book Teach Like A Pirate, says “Don’t teach lessons, design experiences!” and encourages us to give our experiences a name, which I did. I love that they used it!  I look forward to planning my next pirate lesson: The Remember The Alamo Experience!

Hour of Code – This was a one time experience, but what I can take away from it is:  My PLN is a great resource for finding innovative ideas that impact students as individuals and as learners, and I will continue to seek out these opportunities and take advantage of them! Also will include technology as much as possible.

Math – I need to adjust my method of instruction here.  We are a very inquiry-based classroom using Investigations math. While they do well and enjoy the activities, they are identifying a need for a bit more explicit instruction in this area. Data from last year supports the idea that this group as a whole seems to struggle a bit in Math. I think more direct teaching in the mini lesson-and stronger closings- will help them feel more confident in this area. I will also “go slower” when we begin something new…allow more time for examples, modeling, and them getting comfortable with the content before sending them off to explore, investigate, and produce.

Reading – I can include more opportunity for partner reading in our workshop. We are beginning book clubs so this will be a great chance for them to explore books together.


I think by having my students evaluate me, it added to the climate of authenticity and trust in the room. I think it served to strengthen our classroom community, and I think it helped my students take even more ownership of the class and their learning. Simple Activity – High Impact. That’s an activity that is valuable and worth doing.  I did this at the end of the first semester. I plan to adjust based on the feedback received and have them evaluate me again in May.  I think December and May are pretty good times to do this, as both allow for opportunity to reflect, implement ideas, and measure progress.

I would love to hear your ideas about students evaluating their teachers!  How might this add to the student voice factor in your classroom? How might the responses help you refine your craft?