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An Awesome Q&A with Laryssa Kramarchuk

In this Q&A with Laryssa Kramarchuk, the word “Awesome” is being used to represent the multitude of skills students have developed through receiving 21st century skills instruction. Therefore, the term “awesome” can be understood to mean, “more adept at practicing 21st  century skills.”

Laryssa Kramarchuk from Frank McCourt High School teaches Integrated Math and Science to 10th graders. The 21st century skill she focuses on is Personal Mindset, with an emphasis on “seeking assistance by asking questions.”

Question: Educators often build these 21st century skills implicitly into their work or curriculum with their students. Why is it important to be transparent to the students as they work to develop these skills?

Students need to see how the skills they use help them become more successful at acquiring, and more importantly better understanding the content.

Question: How does integrating 21st century skills into the classroom make their entire learning experience more “awesome”?

It allows students to feel recognized for their academic achievements, which creates a more authentic learning environment.

Question: What is the most rewarding aspect of integrating 21st century skills in your classroom?

It has been rewarding to hear students say they leave my class asking more questions and have to “google” it to determine the answers, because they cannot wait until we have time in the next class.

Question: How has the practice of these skills made your students more “awesome”?

Students have been able to conduct inquiry activities with more confidence and more successfully, without getting frustrated and giving up.

Question: What has been your most successful project with skills integration? What happened? What did the students do? What did the student achieve?

Students recently completed a socratic seminar about environmental awareness, and there was a noticeable change in the student’s ability to ask questions in real time as a way to challenge their peers thinking, in addition to their own thinking.

Creating a 21st Century Classroom Environment

Classrooms across the world have made strides in teaching life skills. Educators are creating classroom environments that not only teach students what those skills are, but also encourage the daily use and practice of them. These skills have become an important pairing to the basic skills students need to succeed, such as reading and numerical literacy. Skills such as collaboration, verbal communication and planning for success are not purely technical and have a social component that make them necessary for college and workforce readiness. With automation, rapid technological developments and the elimination of manufacturing jobs, one area of focus that will maintain its relevance is the use of 21st century skills.These skills ensure that no matter the situation, students will have a relevant skill set needed to achieve success across multiple industries.

Vince Joralemon, a biology teacher at Frank McCourt high school and Skills Fellow is intentional about creating a classroom environment in which skills practice is just as important as learning science. As an adult who uses 21st century skills in his day to day life, Mr. Joralemon works to give students a fair chance at the future by teaching them verbal communication within the context of science. He said, “21st Century Skills are a highly intentional aspect of my unit and lesson planning. With help from my planning sessions with my Skills Coach, the gradual release of skills is as much a part of my unit plan as content outcomes are.”

Putting It All Together by the Aspen Institute walks us through some models of instruction that can help teachers incorporate life skills into their lessons in addition to giving students the content knowledge needed to excel in class. Students gain theoretical and practical uses for their knowledge when the curriculum is intentionally structured with 21st century skills alongside course content. Furthermore, being encouraged to engage with their peers in the classroom setting as they will in the outside world, will give them flexibility in adapting once the content gets more difficult or overwhelming.

Preparing students for the work world is an old challenge. According to Aspen Institute, “What’s new is the explicit and growing recognition that students need to develop skills not traditionally considered a part of the academic curriculum that is taught and tested. These include the ability to think critically and solve problems, communicate effectively, collaborate and resolve conflict, and become lifelong learners.” Teachers who struggle to incorporate the learning of life skills in class risk losing the interest of their students, and more devastatingly, they risk leaving their students unprepared for the future.

Mr. Joralemon frames the necessary skills as “Life Skills” and ensures that they are deeply integrated in his curriculum. Teachers are understanding that learning 21st century skills only takes place if students can practice the skills in a safe space with constant reflection and feedback. Mr. Joralemon creates every part of the curriculum with the targeted verbal communication skills in one form or other to give students consistent practice. It is a great deal of work, but the results and impact are important, as they extend much further than the classroom walls.  

One assignment with a focus on 21st century skills is helpful to give students a framework, but it does not bring about the type of transformation a 21st century classroom needs. Mr. Joralemon creates a 21st century classroom environment by giving students ample opportunities to engage in verbal communication and reflect on how well they are developing that skill. Mr. Joralemon states, “Because skills work is such an integral part of my classroom…. I also continually ask students to reflect on their skills development – often with graphic organizers, group discussions, fish bowls, or socratic seminars.”

A strategic set up that prioritizes life skills as much as content gives Mr. Joralemon’s student an edge.. He said, “It is often the case that students will spend so much time and energy focusing on the minutiae of skills that they have to sacrifice some of the time that they would otherwise be mastering content. However, my test scores have not suffered – the reason being that 1) Inherent within the mastery of 21st Century skills is an ability to engage with all materials in an effective manner… and 2) Mastering skills, in the long run, allows students to be better learners.”

Regardless of how content-heavy a class is, integration of 21st century skills can provide immense value for students – particularly those close to the end of their high school careers. Because 21st century skills are life skills, students will use and rely on verbal communication, collaboration and other skills for much longer than the specific content of their high school classes. Classrooms need to be shifted slightly to accommodate teaching students the value of developing 21st century skills. The introduction of these skills can strengthen students to be the best version of themselves when the big opportunities for learning and success come their way.