Classroom Technology

Lessons for 21st-Century Learners

Three ideas for fostering collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity with easy-to-use apps and tools.

May 14, 2018
A teacher helping a high school student work on a project in a computer lab
©Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

Collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity are the 4 Cs of a 21st-century learner, according to the Partnership for 21st Century Learning. Given that technology use continues to expand in schools, it’s worthwhile to think of how that technology can function in assignments designed to develop the skills our students need.

Communication and Creativity: Personal Narrative Podcast

Stories are a powerful learning tool in the classroom. For an 11th-grade narrative unit, I asked students to analyze classic narrative essays such as George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” and Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” using the traditional plot diagram and paying attention to literary narrative devices. Next, they explored contemporary personal narratives from NPR’s This I Believe series and chose three essays to read based on their interests. Then I asked them to compose their own personal narratives to share an important event in their lives.

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Most of my students were not familiar with podcasts, so as a class we explored a few episodes from NPR’s This American Life series—listening to them together and then discussing oral storytelling techniques. Students then individually chose several This I Believe audio clips to further their knowledge of storytelling.

After becoming familiar with the world of podcasting, students used GarageBand to create their own podcasts, integrating elements such as sound effects and music. (I’ve given the names of the tools we used in my class, but there are a lot of others you can use with these kinds of assignments.) Some students chose to work together on interview-style podcasts, while others worked individually to create dramatic renderings of their personal events.

The stories students told were highly engaging and ranged from grieving over a lost grandmother to being surrounded by lions while in a tent on a safari to competing in a swim meet event for the first time. Through creativity and communication, students were able to share a personal event that enriched their lives, and that sharing further connected them as a classroom community.

Critical Thinking and Creativity: Visual Interpretation of Poetry

Like many teachers, I’ve found over the years that students are hesitant to explore poetry. However, doing so is an excellent way to develop critical thinking skills. For a 10th-grade poetry unit, I had students read traditional poems such as Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” and Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death,” and analyze the poetic devices in them.

To add a visual element, I had students watch selected contemporary poems from the Poetry Foundation’s Poem Videos series, which we then discussed as a class. I left some time at the end of the lesson for students to explore some of the videos on their own.

They then chose a poem to use in creating a visual interpretation using iMovie or other video-making platforms of their choice. They were elated to be able to choose their poems, selecting texts that were meaningful to them. The only requirement for the video was that it should include an explicit interpretation of the theme or message of the poem.

The videos the students created were representative of their personal interpretations and varied in format from live action to photographic images to personal drawings to stop motion. Giving students agency to choose and analyze a poem resulted in engaging videos that reflected their burgeoning critical thinking and creative skills.

Collaboration: Group Research Paper

While collaborative work is a necessary skill in the 21st century, students are often hesitant to work in groups, fearful of being stuck with all of work. I addressed that fear in an 11th-grade unit on The Merchant of Venice by having students divide an assigned research question into three or four subtopics depending on the number of people in the group—each individual had his or her own responsibility as the groups explored the cultural and contextual background of the play and then wrote a collaborative research paper.

Using NoodleTools, a virtual collaboration environment, groups created a shared project accessible through their individual student accounts. They shared their projects with me, so I was able to monitor group participation and answer any questions they had right there within the project.

Each individual was responsible for creating one virtual source card and three virtual note cards on his or her subtopic. The source and note cards are individually tracked, but are compiled together by groups online, so students were able to easily share and view each other’s work in the virtual environment.

Each group then created and shared a Google Doc through NoodleTools, and students wrote individual sections on one group document. Each group wrote an introduction together and created a reference page in MLA format together. The result for each group was a single research paper with both individual and collaborative input. My students found NoodleTools incredibly easy to use, and no one reported feeling frustrated at having to submit group work that was created by only one or two individuals.

These are just some of the ways the 4 Cs can be developed through technology in the secondary classroom. The beauty of technology nowadays is that there are many variations on how it can enhance student learning and motivation.