Forget “21st Century Learning:” Make it “Real World Learning”

It’s July.  It’s the month where my mind slowly starts moving again.  I turned off all aspects of my educational brain during June, but now I only have a month left of summer vacation.  Don’t get me wrong, my thinking is done while I’m relaxing, but it doesn’t turn off again for another eleven months.  It’s the time when I start picking up my teaching magazines again, cruise through the tweets of my PD people on Twitter, and start reading teacher resource books.

Here is what I have noticed, though.  Everyone is still talking about “21st century learning” like it is something new.  I teach thirteen/fourteen-year olds; they were BORN in the 21st century.  That’s right, we have been in the 21st century for a while now.  So when I start planning my lessons for the 2014-15 school year, I want to make sure I am teaching "Real World Learning." 

The real world…this is what matters to kids.  Yes, they like technology; yes, they like games, but what do they really want?  They want to know that what they are learning is important to their world and their future, and they want to be able to show what they have learned to the real world. 

Having kids ask how they are going to use this in their life isn’t new; I remember that I asked that of my Geometry teacher.  Any good teacher better be prepared with an answer for this question for every lesson that they teach.  If you can’t, then ditch the lesson.  More importantly, however, teachers should be asking how the students are going to show their learning to the real world.  When teachers ask me to help them plan a lesson, or a teammate asks if I will do some cross-curricular lessons with him/her, the first question that pops into my mind is, “How is it real-world learning?"  How can I make sure that this lesson will apply outside of my classroom, and how can I make sure that I am not their only audience?

I admit, my teaching hasn’t always followed this philosophy.  In fact, I ditched two projects this past year because I couldn’t fully answer those two questions.  I now apologize to my past students.  However, teaching is an ongoing-learning process, and it’s okay to recognize that.

I realize that my teaching evaluation asks how I am using 21st Century Skills in my classroom.  The question I prefer to be asked is how am I making it “real-world learning” for my students.  That is what my students care about in today’s world.  Hopefully, one of my students will never be the guy in this comic:


A Letter to My Students Before They Go to High School

Since I only have 1 1/2 days left with my students, I’ve been thinking about what I have taught them this year. I’m proud of how far they have come in their reading and writing skills; their final writing assessment has actually been a pleasure to grade.

But now, I feel like I will be chasing them as they go out the door yelling, “Wait, there are still things I want you learn.” No, it’s not about commas or reading strategies, it’s about life. So, my students, here is my last lesson for you.

Dear Students,

As you head into high school, you will learn many life lessons on your own. Chances are…your heart will be broken at least once, you’ll wonder how someone trusted you enough to put you behind the wheel in a car, and you’ll learn what the outside world is like when you get your first job. Since I won’t be next to you to hold your hand through those times, here is my list of lessons for you.

10. Don’t be afraid to fail. No, I don’t mean your classes. In high school, take risks and try new things. My biggest regret from high school is that I never tried out for a high school play. I was too scared. I didn’t want to fail. During my senior year, I saw how close the people had become in the play…and I was jealous.

9. Ask questions. Question your friends if they are heading in the “wrong direction” in life; in fact, you might even question if you should stay friends with them. Question what is in your drink that someone handed you at a party. Question your teachers if you feel something isn’t right; if you think of a project that you would like to try, ask your teacher if they will support your new idea.

8. Keep reading and writing. Well, of course, this has to be in my list of advice. In fact, reread what you have written before it becomes public. I don’t care what anyone else says, if your writing is filled with mistakes, people automatically assume you aren’t intelligent. Read all sorts of genres…who knows you might discover a new author that becomes your favorite. Better yet, write a book (or two) of your own.

7. Be kind. Be kind to each other in high school. What do you want people to remember about you at your 25th reunion? If you pass away, what will people say at your funeral? (Okay, morbid, I know.) Become friends with people from all different cliques and all different cultures. You get invited to more parties that way. :)

6. Get to know your teachers. Yes, we actually like when students share their private lives with us. Most of us also like to share our lives with you. It is those people that come in to talk with me because they want to, not because they have to, that I will stay close to for the rest of our lives.

5. If you have a problem, find an adult to help you. I know that as teenagers, you will always turn to your friends first. But don’t forget, most teenagers haven’t already lived through the problem you are experiencing. There is always an adult that will be able to relate to what you are going through. Even if it seems like we have forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager, trust me, we haven’t. Those times are ingrained in our minds. Also, as teachers, sometimes it helps to be reminded that our students have problems outside of our little classroom. I tended to be more understanding if a student shared a problem they were having because of the outside-world circumstances.

4. Work to become financially independent. I know that sounds like strange advice now, but getting a job might teach you more lessons than you will ever get in a classroom. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to school. I’m saying that you should find a part-time job, even if it’s only during the summer. I’m saying that you need to learn how to treat other people, how to save your money, and how to take care of yourself BEFORE you graduate college.

3. Read and Write. Wait, I already said that one.

2. Trust yourself. Trust your instincts. If it seems like it’s a sheep in wolves’ clothing….run! :) Don’t wait to find out if it’s a sheep or a wolf. Okay, that was random. My point is that you are a great group of people. I trusted you to not steal candy out of my room; I trusted you in a classroom with my purse sitting right there; I trusted you to walk around the school, as long as I knew where you were. I did all of this because my instincts told me that you are a great group of people. Yes, we had some rough patches along the way, but in the end, I trusted that you would make the correct decisions in the long run.

1. Believe. This has been my theme for you this year. During our “This I Believe” unit, you wrote about a belief that was important to you. Go into high school keeping your same belief. BELIEVE YOU MATTER…all of you learned that even a thirteen or fourteen-year old can make a difference in the world. During our “Pay it Forward” community service project, you learned that even a little act of kindness can make someone’s day. During our “Project Bliss” unit, you learned how powerful it can be to try to make a change in the world. Personally, I believe that all kids can make a difference in a world…someone just has to guide them on how to start.

So, my students, it is time. Time to let you go. Time to let you fly. Time to share you with the high school teachers. I keep telling them how much they are going to love the freshman next year…don’t let me down. As much as I would like to have you return as my student next year, I know you must move on. As I always say, “Once my kid, always my kid.” Remember to come visit me next year. And don’t forget….show respect, own it, and be kind! You R.O.K!


Ms. Holst


Okay, I couldn’t resist!

Separation Anxiety?

Is it wrong to want to keep your students back with you for another year?  Do you think that they would mind NOT moving on to high school?

Can we start something new and start looping with them into 9th grade?

I must be having separation anxiety…

I don’t want them to leave.

Okay, I want them to leave for the summer, but then, I want them to come back.

Trust me, this doesn’t happen every year as a teacher.  I was just lucky this year.

I need to get rid of my “Worry Dragon.”

Teaching Tip: Focus on the positive…even when your day stinks!

Not all days can be great days in teaching.  In fact, some days just downright stink!  Have you ever had one of those days when you just didn’t want to be around your students?  Something happens, and you wonder why you even went into teaching in the first place? 

The good news is that this feeling never sticks around for very long.  There are always those students that actually do remind you why you went into this profession, and once again, you are able to focus on the positive.

Recently, I learned that I was being impersonated on my Twitter account.  The person used my picture, my name, and even my profile (with one or two changes) and made two different accounts.  Then, they started tweeting as if they were me, and retweeting sites that are not appropriate for an educator.  I felt violated and powerless!  One can only assume that it was one of my current students, especially since they have been using Twitter as one of their project choices in my class.

Yesterday, I was crabby…times twelve!  I tried reflecting with a colleague of mine as to why I was so hurt and sad.  I am not the first person that has been impersonated on Twitter, so why didn’t I just turn the other cheek?  She made me realize that it was because of the time we put into our teaching.  All of my days and most of my nights are spent trying to make the lives of my 8th graders more meaningful.  I want them to walk away from my classroom with positive memories, while learning how to be wonderful adults someday.  She made me realize that I was feeling betrayed…and she was right.  Since I didn’t know who the culprit was, I reported the incident to the police, and I also had Twitter suspend the two accounts.  (That gave me back some of my power.)

I went home that night, and I actually played some videos on youtube about the teaching profession.  It was like I had to find my “mojo” again for teaching.  It helped somewhat, but it still wasn’t enough.  What did help?  My colleague who brought me a plant this morning to cheer me up and then talked with her classes about how much this affected me.  It was the student who wrote me a long letter that she was sorry that I was going through this.  It was another student who took the time to email me about how much she enjoys my teaching, and it was the other students who tweeted about my teaching, just to cheer me up.

As teachers, (well, in any profession), you will have those days that downright stink; it’s guaranteed.  When that happens, dig deep, reach out, and share with others how you are feeling.  Don’t always try to be the “bigger” or “tougher” person.  If I hadn’t shared what was happening with my teammates or students, if I wasn’t honest with them about how much I was hurting, then my days would have just kept stinking up a storm.  It’s important to find some way, or find someone, who will help you focus on the positive.  Hopefully, your positivity will reflect on others. 

I want to thank those people who made a positive difference in my life this past week.


How did you set up the actual exercise? Were students told to give out all three cards and then monitor the feedback?

Asked by


Yes, the students created at least three cards.  One card had to be used at our school but off our team.  The other two cards needed to be used outside of our school.  The students will track the cards throughout the month of April, and then a parent is coming in to help them analyze their results.  On April 24th, Pay It Forward Day, we are having a celebration.  The great part is that the cards will be out in the world for as long as possible.  One card has already made it to a different state.  Since they each set up their own Google form, they will be able to track the results for as long as they want.

Teaching Tip: Pay It Forward

At times, life can be overwhelming.  (Thank you, Captain Obvious.)  We get overwhelmed with teaching, taxes, bills, family, etc.  This week, I had one of those days.  It felt like my entire life was being spent doing things for others, and I was downright feeling sorry for myself.  I was hoping that tomorrow would be a better day.

Then, came “tomorrow.”  It seemed as if someone was telling me that I needed to appreciate the great people and opportunities in my life.  My morning started with a trip to Starbucks.  Starbucks is a Friday necessity, okay, new tradition, for me.  When I pulled up to the drive-thru window to pay for my breakfast and tea, the cashier told me that the person in the car in front of me had already paid for my order.  I started crying.  (Emotional, much?)  I’m sure the cashier thought I was insane and was happy when I continued on my way.

You see, our team is participating in a “Pay It Forward” community service project.  I thought for sure that one of my students was in the car in front of me, but no, that wasn’t the case.  My students created Pay It Forward cards to pass on when they do an act of kindness for others.  When I didn’t receive a card, I knew it was just a stranger doing an act of kindness for me.  (For more about how to create Pay It Forward cards, here is a link to the directions I created with my students.  The cards have a QR code, along with a website address that takes the person who received an act of kindness to a Google form with two questions.  This way, the students can track where their Pay It Forward cards end up.  Feel free to use them with your own students or to create your own.) I have to give credit to my teammate, Mrs. S, for coming up with this idea. I also got the logo from the Pay It Forward Day website.

When I arrived at school, many students had shown up early to continue with their “acts of kindness.”  Our team had created little cards, with nice messages in them, to pass out to students, along with a chocolate hug, to everyone before they came into the building.  What a fun way to start the day!  Even though it was 27 degrees, they roughed the cold weather in order to spread some cheer at our school. They also held signs with motivational messages or Pay It Forward signs.  Here are just a few kids that participated.

This girl was covered in goose bumps, but refused to go back inside.

The funny part was the look that some students gave our students.  They weren’t quite sure why they were given a free piece of chocolate on the way into school.

Later that morning, I had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Lambrecht.  Her son, Dalton, had passed away at the end of December, 2013, in a four-wheeler accident.  Dalton was a student at our school two years ago, and he affected people’s lives in many positive ways.  Here is an article about Dalton. 

At Dalton’s funeral, his mom said that she wanted people to “pay it forward” in honor of Dalton.  When Mrs. S, my teammate, contacted Mrs. Lambrecht about our project and that we wanted to do it in honor of Dalton, she had plastic bracelets made for our students that have “Pay It Forward” on one side, and DIFDL on the other (Do It For Dalton Lambrecht).  She also brought in stickers, buttons, etc.  I know that it wasn’t easy for her to come in to our school; it took a lot of courage.  Our student aides were in there also, and all of us were mesmerized with Mrs. Lambrecht’s stories about Dalton.  It is obvious that Dalton was a very special person, not only after meeting his mom, but by the friends that he chose and the acts he did for others.  It humbled me to think about how Mrs. Lambrecht is making sure that Dalton’s legacy lives on by encouraging others to pay it forward.

Needless to say, it was an incredibly emotional day.  It took two strangers and a bunch of students to show me that there is always tomorrow.  And because of them, I plan to make “pay it forward” or “acts of kindness” a part of not only my own life, but also a part of my curriculum each year.  What better way to have students become “productive citizens” than to teach them to “pay it forward.”  Next in my curriculum?  Students are completing projects in order to answer the questions:  1)  How will you matter in this world?  2)  What does the world expect of you?

Think about…how will YOU “pay it forward” today?

A Teacher’s Rant and an Apology to My Students

I’m at a loss. State testing is over…for now. Each year, I reflect on the testing process, and each year, I become frustrated. I know, I know…you are tired of hearing teachers rant about standardized testing. Here’s the thing…I’m not against giving students a test; I’m against HOW they are tested and what they are being tested on for our state standardized test.

In a society where we hear about 21st century skills and world-class education on a daily basis, why are we still testing like it’s 1999? Imagine spending the school year where you teach your students to be creative. I encourage them to use their critical thinking skills, collaborate with their partners, and don’t forget to communicate their thinking to others; it’s even better if they can communicate globally with other people across the world. Then imagine handing those same students a reading/writing booklet that is over 80 pages long, with a pencil, while making sure that they are sitting in rows, and don’t forget that their telephone (and yours) has to be a in a separate room. We also make sure that testing is completed in three days (9 tests), so that it doesn’t detract from their education, and don’t forget the time limit for each test. Oh wait, one more thing, the students are tested on information that the teacher has only had seven months to cover.

So, my students, I apologize. Agonizing over whether I will be evaluated on your results, but not changing my teaching philosophy, I apologize for not testing you on how I taught you to learn. Can you annotate the text while you read? No, sorry; you can’t write in the book, except “on the lines.” Can you talk through your thoughts with your partner first? No, sorry. Can you look up a great quote so that you have an interesting introduction? No, sorry. Can you use your phone to look up the word on the test that you don’t understand? No, sorry, and I’m sorry, but I can’t answer any of your questions either.

Students, were you tested on how to write and give a great presentation proposal or to write a strong debate speech? I don’t think so, but I’m not allowed to see the test, nor am I allowed to see what you still need to work on for the rest of the year. Yes, you AND I will have to wait to see the results once you have left my classroom and your high school teacher has become your new “coach.”

So, as you can see, it’s not the fact that I have to give a test. I like knowing how my students are doing; I only wish that my students could be tested like they are the rest of the year…in a real-world setting.

My rant is over, and unfortunately, I don’t know what to do to change how our state tests are given.

I know, my students, I teach you to go out there and change the world, to be passionate, to believe in yourself, and to take risks. I only wish that I could follow my own advice.

Oh, and just for the record, my feelings do not reflect my employer’s feelings. They had nothing to do with my thoughts as a teacher. :)


Need a Book Recommendation?

Since two different adults asked me for book recommendations today, I thought I would post them here for everyone.  Most of the year, I am reading young adult novels; I like to be able to constantly recommend books for my 8th graders.  However, if you are heading out on vacation, you might enjoy some of these titles.  Warning:  there isn’t a lot of brainwork going on when I read during the summer, so don’t expect thought-provoking novels.


1)  Ice Cold by Tess Gerritsen
2)  The Kinsey Millhone Series by Sue Grafton (A is for…, B is for…)  Love this series!
Regular Fiction:
1)  The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
2)  Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah
3)  She’s Come Undone (kind of weird, but one of my favorite books) by Wally Lamb
4)  Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (one of my top 5 books)

1)  Home Front by Kristin Hannah
2)  My Sister’s Keeper  or The Pact by Jodi Piccoult
3)  Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts
4)  Fault in our Stars by John Green
Hard to put down:
1)  Divergent by Veronica Roth

Chick Lit:
1)  I’ve Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella
Historical Fiction:
1)  The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
2)  Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
3)  Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
4)  Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
What books would you recommend for a vacation-read?