Public Relations Today
Jayne Miller By Jayne Miller • June 22, 2015

A New Hampshire Classroom That is Building Skills for the 21st Century

Katie Henderson isn’t about playing by the rules, sitting up straight, and taking notes from a book. She’s about getting her students endlessly curious in economics, civics, current events, and history.


One of the first things Katie told me was that she aimed to create authentic experiences for her class while making the content relevant to their lives. (And we’re thrilled that this year she used Chalkup for students to publish work and share resources!)

From Hollis-Brookline High School in New Hampshire, Katie was kind enough to talk with me about her classroom philosophies and how she’s used technology to arm her students with skills for the 21st century.

Our interview was edited for length and clarity.

Give us the overview of what your classroom is like and what role technology plays.

I am a social studies teacher and this is my third year teaching. This year I teach economics and civics. I've also taught geography and next year I'm teaching U.S. history.

Within social studies, I think my big philosophy is to make everything meaningful, relevant, and authentic. I love designing assessments that are innovative and creative, that use technology, and that address 21st century skills. Especially within the world of social studies, kids come into my class thinking "econ – it's scary, I'm gonna hate it. Or U.S. history – so boring, it's about old dead guys." And hopefully they end up leaving my class realizing how relevant it all is to their own lives.

Meaningful, relevant learning

As much as I can, I try to have the work that they produce have a real audience. For example, if they're writing a paper for their teacher – maybe some kids would be motivated by that, while other kids would think ”Ms. Pine is gonna read it and that's it.” So I do a lot of publishing of work online or using discussion boards through Chalkup so students can have their work published and seen by their peers, or creating blogs that their peers can see and comment on. We have people come in to hear presentations, so I might have them actually present to people in the field. That's the kind of stuff that I get really passionate about and I think technology is so critical to this. There is no way I could do any of this without technology.

You mentioned that you sometimes must convince or coax students into getting onboard with using technology in your class the way you do. What’s your strategy? What’s been successful?

I think once the students realize the potential in [classroom technology], they get into it. And the fact is this is where we're headed with all this 21st century kind of stuff. So they need to be able to write a blog and incorporate links because it enhances online writing. To me, that may be even more important than "can you write a five paragraph essay?” No one writes a five paragraph essay. That's not what authentic writing is anymore. I'm always trying to get innovative and make it more creative and more engaging in that way, including writing with a purpose.

I think I probably stole this notion from another teacher, but I believe that compliance is not engagement. Kids who look like they're being compliant and polite are not necessarily engaged in their learning. So that's really where the disconnect is.

Some of my students are very content to play the game of school because, let's be honest, it's easy. It's easy to take notes from a book. Well, we don't do that very often in my classroom. And I often have a little bit of a period at the beginning of the semester where I'm coaxing students out of their shells and then they get it and they buy in.

At the end of class, I conduct a survey and post the results on Chalkup or my website and overwhelmingly students say "I can't believe this was so interesting. You made it so relevant and meaningful. Thank you for using technology." They buy in. But it takes a little bit of time. There is some resistance in the beginning.

What would you love to see in the future as far as edtech goes?

In the next ten or five years, I think something's gotta give. There will be either a push for teachers being able to really interact with their students in a meaningful way through social media or there will be some new social media type place where kids really want to go, but where teachers can also go.

To me the dream technology scenario would be similar to the way kids interact now on social media. For example, they see a friend post something and they say "I'm gonna respond," they post something back, or they make a meme and they post it in response. That would be the ideal, but within the academic realm. Having students constantly make connections between their lives and the academic world, then sharing that with others, would be ideal. For example: "I just heard this on NPR, this connects to the mind map we just did in class." The ideal would be getting kids to open their eyes to what they see and hear online, through media, then post that stuff for their peers, and then have their peers interact with it.

In my economics class we learn about incentives. Economists study and use incentives to manipulate behavior. If you get married, you get a financial incentive through tax breaks, for example. So they learn about financial, extrinsic, intrinsic, and social incentives. School right now is very based on extrinsic motivators. You get a grade. You get a prize. You get a disciplinary action. I'm taking points away. Whether it's the “carrot” or the “stick,” those are all extrinsic motivators that come from outside. Intrinsic motivation, inherent curiosity, that spark in you is what leads to real learning. And that is what I'm trying to inspire in my students. If they have the intrinsic motivation, then they'll want to post online, share with their peers, and talk about academics outside of class.

What sort of projects have you done this last year with class tech that have been successful/engaging/fun?

One of my first projects in economics uses the book/movie/blog/radio show Freakonomics. The whole idea behind the Freakonomics way of thinking is looking at the hidden side of everything – finding economics in everything and thinking like an economist. So one of the major essential questions throughout my course is “What does it mean to think like an economist?” For this project, my students create their own research question that connects anything they care about back to Economics. That in and of itself is quite a challenge and is often the hardest part.

Then the students investigate their economic question using original research. Some questions they've developed have ranged from “Are bilingual people more economically successful?” to “Why do soldiers and teachers get paid less than professional athletes?” Students go about answering this question using all the tools and tricks of a real-life economist. Some of them create surveys using Google Forms. I had one student who got over 150 responses because she posted the survey on Facebook. Some find and collect their own data while others look at articles and research that's already out there. Whatever the approach, they go about trying to forge an answer to their economic question.

The research component of this project can pose a challenge too. Often students use Google to find an answer to a distinct question: What is two plus two? What is the Treaty of Versailles? But I tell my students that they have to use Google as a tool to get what they're looking for. Believe it or not, Google doesn't have all the answers; they have to use 21st century skills to figure out how to get the information they're looking for. When they have original research questions, there are no easy answers that pop up in the first Google hit. That's the point. They're doing the work of a real economist, not just looking up facts. To help my students navigate the infinite online resources available to them, I create an assignment and curate a long list of resources that I post to Chalkup. I list research suggestions, links, videos, and upload the project rubric.

The students have the option to write a blog post, create a podcast, or make a video and then all their pieces are posted to our class blog. The kids were very into it. They uploaded their posts there, then commented on each other's writing. And they really get into the commenting. By the end of the semester, it’s one of the projects they're talking about most.

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