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Schools for a modern world

SOLON– Students are often asked to study the world as it once was and learn to operate successfully within the world as it currently is. Now, they will be trained how to navigate the world that will be.
This year, the Solon Community School District made a concerted effort to make include “21st century skills” in the curriculum.
Unlike tested subjects such as math or language arts, 21st century skills are not typically tested– but they are an expectation of the Iowa Department of Education. In 2007, the Iowa Legislature named five of these 21st century skills: civic literacy, employability skills, financial literacy, health literacy and technological literacy.
From 2007 when Iowa Core topics were legislated, Solon schools have focused on math, science, social studies and English language arts, said Matt Townsley, Director of Instruction and Technology. Now that the district has some years of experience behind it in developing these tested subjects in the Iowa Core, Townsley said, the district is moving on to prioritize 21st century skills.
Concepts outlined in the state’s 21st century skills were often covered in lessons of other subjects: for instance, math skills naturally include some financial literacy skills, and social studies encompasses many aspects of civic literacy.
But this year, a committee of 16 teachers, instructional coaches and a few administrators came together for two half-day meetings in October and December. The committee’s objective was to pinpoint exactly how and when the specific concepts in each skill are being taught, and identify any gaps or overlaps, said instructional coach Amanda Stahle, who sits on the committee.
“The critical goal is to prepare our students for their future and be ready to compete globally for any career they wish to pursue in the future,” Stahle said.
To find trends, the committee used state data. Last year, each teacher completed an online survey through the Iowa Curriculum Alignment Toolkit. The state survey asks instructors to check “yes” or “no” on various concepts to indicate what they taught their students in lessons that school year. The state then provides the district with the results.
The 21st Century Skills Committee created a spreadsheet based on the state survey results. With concepts in the left column and grade levels in the top row, the committee identified gaps and overlaps. Then, for each grade, committee members picked one skill to focus on in the remainder of the school year, Townsley said.
“We didn’t want to overwhelm any specific grade level,” he said. Instead, the committee identified manageable additions based on priority. These additions will be implemented in this school year. At the end of this year or early in school year 2016-17, the committee will convene again to select new concepts for each grade to tackle.
In kindergarten through second grade, teachers will focus on developing students’ concept of technology literacy. In an age where the Internet can be used as both a tool and a weapon, young students will learn about cyber safety, starting with understanding why it may be unsafe to provide others with information about themselves.
In grades third through fifth, the focus will be on two skills: health literacy and technology literacy. In the subject of health, students will learn how to identify trusted adults or professionals to ask for help. Lakeview Elementary’s guidance counselor will integrate this concept into lessons, and fifth grade classrooms will cover the topic as well.
Students in the third through fifth grade will also learn how to use technology to engage in learning activities with peers in other countries or cultures. In fourth grade, students will video conference with students from another country and/or culture using Skype or Google Hangouts. Students may also get to virtually visit with someone across the globe in World Read Aloud Day.
Middle school students will widen their civic and health literacy skills. In civic literacy, teachers will guide students through a reflective exercise to understand current foreign policy issues and how the United States engages with those issues.
In health literacy, middle school students will demonstrate the skills necessary for proper prevention and management of health crises, like injury, depression or chronic illness. Part of this concept is already being addressed in Solon Middle School’s traumatic brain injury prevention program, which emphasizes All-Terrain Vehicle and bicycle incidents.
Solon High School will hone in on financial literacy. The committee members found financial literacy to be the skill with the most gaps in instruction, so they plan to continue to develop ways to increase this skill’s presence in schools. High school students are piloting a web-based financial literacy program called EverFi, which covers topics like banking and credit cards, taxes and insurance, and consumer protection. Right now, the program is being used in an elective business course. After the pilot period, a decision will be made on how to include EverFi, or a similar program, in a required course to ensure the concepts reach all students.
With an already full year of learning laid out, it can be a big undertaking for instructors to add more concepts. But most students in Solon schools were born in the 21st century and will need to learn how to navigate it successfully after graduation. These concepts are necessary to do that.
“Today we’re preparing our students for jobs that have yet to even be created,” Stahle said. “It’s a new challenge for teachers, parents, and students alike.”