The most important 21st century skill

I just received an email from my school system’s staff development representative letting me know that my proposal for an upcoming conference session has been rejected. My workshop, entitled “Race and Equity” did not meet the criteria to be included because it does not directly relate to a 21st century skill.

I am a little confused. As a teacher in a public high school, I would like to assure everyone that racism is alive and well in 21st century learning. In fact addressing this complex issue will take all of the 21st century skills that my county has deemed essential for all teachers to include in our classrooms:

  1. Research and Information Fluency

The research is clear. Looking at the Civil Rights Data Collection from 2011 (the latest published survey), 69.8% of all out-of-school suspensions were given to African American children compared to only 18.7% to White students. 68.4% of all identified gifted children in my county are White while only 10% are African American. There are many more statistics to browse through: go here to look for yourself. The more you research, the more inequity you can see. Research will be an essential component to defining the racism that occurs on a daily basis in our school systems. We need to look at student discipline inequities, inequities in programs for gifted students, for special needs students, sports and activities participation, family involvement and so much more. Doing the right kind of research will help us understand where we stand and how much more we need to fix.

2. Communication and Collaboration

How do we address racism and equity in a large school system? Perhaps through communication; by bringing teachers together to talk about classroom experiences and creating avenues for students to express how they feel. A group of 30 students came to a meeting at my school in which they were able to voice their opinions and experiences that they have had with inequality and racism. 29 students listened while one student talked about racial slurs she heard in the hallway. Another talked about how her friends told her she was “acting white” because she was enrolled in an honors class. There were many, many students who shared their stories of feeling left out, of being teased, of being called names, and of being unfairly blamed for wrong-doings. Students spent a great deal of time listening and learning. Students backed each other up. They talked to teach other. They learned perspectives and opinions that they had never heard before. They left the meeting ready to collaborate to create allies. Its not that difficult to model empathy for students, and although empathy is not just a 21st century skill, it helps to create the collaboration necessary to fix 21st century problems.

  1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

We need committed, brave people at every level, from kindergarteners to our governor, to find ways to fix inequities. Our public school system is lacking in so many ways and problems are vast and seemingly insurmountable. There are thousands of critical thinkers and problem solvers among the many teachers and students that populate our schools. Giving voices a chance to be heard and accepted? This is our challenge. It is not as simple as developing standardized tests. It is not as simple as looking at and analyzing data. It is not as simple as weighing graduation rates with discipline data. My student group came up with the following 5 ideas in 15 minutes. To equalize education among all races in our school, the following must be done:

  1. find ways for students of color to take more honors and AP classes through teacher and counselor recommendations and through early elementary intervention.
  2. create a more inclusive student section at sporting events by inviting EVERYONE to be a part of it
  3. ask the county for activity buses so that all students can participate in sports and after school activities.
  4. make sure that teachers and administrators are trained to recognize cultural differences rather than make assumptions when disciplining students.
  5. make it a priority to be nice to EVERYONE.

Critical thinking: recognizing where and when and how theses students have witnessed racism, and Problem Solving: coming up with ideas to change the school environment. If 30 teenagers can spend 15 minutes thinking and problem solving, just think what could be done at every school.

  1. Creativity and Innovation

Give us the space and the time to create programs for our schools that will help students who are underserved and underrepresented. Let us fix antiquated traditions and unequal systems so we can teach everyone. Teachers and students can create new ways of solving old problems. Just give us a forum, a network, a chance to innovate, to make changes, and to ask hard questions that will lead us to answers you haven’t even thought of!



Teacher, student, writer

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