The 21st Century High School English Classroom

by Deb Erdmann, Director of Instruction, Delavan-Darien School District

Think of your high school English class. What comes to mind? Romeo and Juliet? The five paragraph essay? Edgar Allan Poe? Today’s high school students need far more than required readings. Being a digital citizen means being able to collaborate on different technology platforms, connect readings to real-life scenarios, and do critical problem solving while developing analysis skills. Meet Kristin Parker, who continues to transform the vision of high school English class.

Like many high school teachers, Ms. Parker teaches multiple classes - English 11, English 9, and Latino Literature. In each class, she has transformed her instruction from the standard read-the-book-write-an-essay format to real life applications leveraging technology to both increase engagement and develop her students into savvy technology users. One or more projects will be highlighted in this article.

Ms. Parker was very aware of the school’s low ACT scores. Although she valued the explicit essay instruction and knew it was important to the ACT writing score, she also felt that other critical thinking skills were not being tapped into. With the district’s emphasis on non-fiction, as well as the Common Core’s guidance that text be a 70/30 split non-fiction to fiction in secondary, she worked on a project with her instructional coaches that would increase engagement, critical thinking skills, and demand a product high on Webb’s Depth of Knowledge chart.

Enter the food project. Here students had to research on food issues. They read articles. They watched parts of Food, Inc. They read research. They watched TED talks. Once the research component was done, students were told that their summative assessment was to design a supermarket, using all the research they had done, for the community. Ms. Parker represented the community board and would hear their proposal presentations and decide on which person would receive the contract to build the supermarket. Students used Lucid hart to create their supermarket layout.

Not to abandon fiction, students also read the Crucible. Ms. Parker uses the text to stress characterization. In the past, students would read and then write an essay about the different characters, their relationships with each other, and make inferences about each of them. Students this time around read the book and then posted all their inferences about the characters on Fakebook. Ms. Parker created the page for the students. Students then had a minimum amount of posts they had to make to show proficiency in characterization and inference. Ms. Parker watched as students make incredible connections and responded to classmates’ posts.

In English 9, students are still getting used to their eight period day and knowing where their locker is in relation to all of their classes. Ms. Parker likes to emphasize some of the basic literary elements, like plot. Through the years, she has seen that students struggle to see how the chronological order of events helps shape the story. So using short stories and Pixar films as a model, students created a visual storyboard using to present to a Pixar executive for possible distribution. It created a fun and telling assessment for Ms. Parker, who not only could easily assess their understanding of plot, but could also see her students’ creative sides.

The school district where Ms. Parker works is 48% Hispanic. Not being Hispanic herself, Ms. Parker has found it a challenge to get some of her students, even in Latino Literature, to open up and share their feelings and beliefs. To combat this, Ms. Parker created a blogging platform and asked the students to blog to her in response to readings and topics discussed in class. Students knew from the beginning that the blog was only between them and Ms. Parker. She was amazed at how students opened up in their blogs. Not only did they test the boundaries of written expression, but they were transparent in their thinking. One student came to Ms. Parker towards the end of the semester and asked her if the blog could be opened up to her family. She explained that she can’t talk to her parents about some of her feelings, but would like them to read what she wrote. What an honor to know that a structure you set up in your classroom is helping your students communicate with their family.

Two of Ms. Parker’s mantras in teaching are: What’s next and Would I want to be in my class? When I had the opportunity to meet with Ms. Parker, we talked about some of her newest initiatives. She then asked me, “What’s next? What else can/should I be doing to meet the needs of my students?” We then spent a good deal of time talking about how to teach some specific skills, either in written expression or reading skills, to small groups of students during her classes. She is currently looking into a modified workshop model.

As a teacher, I think one of the most selfless questions you can ask is “Would I want to be in my class?” It speaks to Ms. Parker’s level of self-reflection. She is constantly assessing her own practice, as much, if not more, than assessing her students. Ms. Parker fully realizes that not every student in her class wants to be an English professor or a novelist, but strives to create instructional units that develop 21st century skills - creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. All of her summative assessments are graded on rubrics so students know exactly what is required for the grade they want to achieve.

In a 21st century world, we must be willing to create instructional opportunities to prepare students for a workplace that has not yet been created. By leveraging technology, being self-reflective, and not having sacred structures in her classroom, Kristin Parker has redefined the vision of high school English class.

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