This Is “21st Century Learning”

Video of this presentation now posted on Aspen Valley’s Web Page. 

I had the opportunity yesterday to view –indeed, participate in – a culminating project with students at our district’s alternative high school, Aspen Valley High School. With a population near 100 students, this school serves students who have sometimes struggled in traditional high school environments.  They choose to attend this school for many different reasons.  Class sizes are small, but expectations are not.  It is a very diverse school where teachers have more than a passing chance to form real relationships with kids, and they really do.

With the full support of principal George Stone, three teachers are currently participating in the Academy District 20  21st Century Learning Cadre,  Gene Fisher (history), Simone Palmer (science)  and Jenny Stevenson (theatre/literacy).    A task for all of our 21st century cadre members is to help the staff at their school to understand what 21st century learning really means, what it looks like, and help them develop strategies to implement it in their own classrooms.  Gene, Simone, and Jenny started collaborating and planning this task several months ago, and came up with an idea that they thought would have maximum impact for not only their staff, but students.  Their plan was to collaborate and plan one unit with all of their students – history, science, and drama, and share the progress with the staff every step of the way as they collaborated to help students develop deep understanding of the impact of Hurricane Katrina.  The essential question for this unit: “How do people respond to crisis?”  Corresponding curricular driving questions were “What resources do people ‘need’ when natural disasters occur?” (history); “How should medical personnel prioritize patient care when resources are limited?” (science/health care) and “How can performance convey the human experience?” (theatre) They did this through a (student) collaborative project that involved  all of the students – not just their own – but the entire student body who would view, and participate in the culminating project, a dramatic, participatory presentation about the impact of Hurricane Katrina.

I visited the school just last week as students flowed between the 3 teachers classrooms and the computer lab working on the project. Students had taken charge.  Jenny, Gene & Simone gave some expectations for what would be completed in that class period, and the students got to work immediately. The stakes were high for them – performing for the entire student body and guests, sharing their knowledge –and creativity. It was risky – not only for the teachers, but for the students. They had a good handle on what needed to be done.   Some groups were engrossed in research about resource issues, and triage practices. Others wrote scripts, or searched for music that would present just the right tone to accompany videos they created that would be interspersed with the dramatic readings of first-hand accounts from survivors. Others puzzled over how to carry out the whole audience participatory section that involved the timed collection and disbursement of water and other essential resources.  At the time, I remember thinking that it was quite chaotic, and wondered if they would be able to pull this off with just one week to show time.  But my other observation was that these students owned the learning. They were totally engaged and committed to creating a quality project, which they would share with an authentic audience.  This put my doubts to rest.

I can honestly say I was stunned by the impact this participatory production had on me. I had goosebumps! Sure, there were some awkward moments, but what really impressed me was the response – especially during those moments – from the students in the audience. They were respectful and quiet if a student struggled with their lines – and enthusiastically applauded for their classmates in the end. We were all caught up in the drama and emotion these students conveyed in their original script, that flowed between the spirit of New Orleans, emergency preparations, comical skits that none-the-less showed the trouble with human denial, dramatic videos, the heart-wrenching decisions that sometimes must be made during triage of victims, and  finally the authentic voice of survivors and the aftermath they endured.  

This truly is what we mean by “21st Century Learning.”  Students collaborated. They created. They researched and used critical thinking to create a production that really did answer the questions about how people respond to crisis They exercised a good measure of self-direction and focus to get the job done in a timely manner, and technology was used as the appropriate tool when needed.  Multiple content areas were integrated to help students reach deep understanding, and the learning was relevant for every person in the room.  Congratulations to all!

Photo Credits:
1. “Fat Tuesday” by Don Leicht.
2. “Photograph by Jocelyn Augustino taken on 08-30-2005 in Louisiana.” Available:
3. “Photograph by Michael Rieger taken on 09-01-2005 in Louisiana” Available

Author: Nancy White

Learner, Curator, Innovator, Teacher, Librarian, and Collaborator. Passionate about designing learning that is engaging, relevant & sticks. 20+ years in education.

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