School Promotes 21st Century Learning Skills and Wins National Writing Contest

Contributed by James D. Nocco, principal of Anthony T. Lane Elementary School, Alexandria, Va.

Reading with kids
According to its mission statement – a vision embraced by principal Jay Nocco – Anthony T. Lane Elementary School is a place “where students communicate, collaborate, and care” – a culture that helped the school win grand prize in the Scholastic Book Fairs 2011 Kids Are Authors contest for their book The Perfect Place for an Elf Owl.

The book, written and illustrated by teacher Nicole Groeneweg’s first- and second-grade students, employs charming collages to tell the story of a wide-eyed elf owlet who haphazardly happens upon a host of habitats. The story manages to entertain and educate from one colorful page to the next. According to Jay, the enthusiasm throughout his school has been infectious.

One on one reading
“These students are now authors. If you ask them if they’re writers, they’ll say, ‘Of course we are,’” Jay shared. “It’s been inspiring for the rest of the school. They say, ‘We can do that too. We can be authors. We are authors.’ I think that the shift has been really contagious. This book has helped push forward in making that vision of communication really come to life.”

According to Jay, the school’s mission is promoted through 21st-century learning skills using relevant technology that has “increased student engagement exponentially,” he said.

“Twenty-first-century learners collaborate,” Nicole said. “The children worked together, deciding and voting on each detail of the book’s creation. At the time, we had just finished learning about the desert habitat, and one of the favorite animals we learned about was the elf owl.” So, the students chose to center their story around a baby elf owl.

The story evolved as the result of prewriting, drafting, revising, and editing in large-group “editorial meetings,” Nicole said. Everyone would sit in a large circle, and Nicole would record ideas and stories on chart paper. Students would discuss and vote about every sentence, idea, or even word included in the story.

“I would then type up the draft manuscript. Each child would take his own copy of the draft and make notes or put question marks where she thought the story didn’t make sense,” Nicole recalled. “Then we would gather as the a group again, usually the following day, and hash out the questions.” The process was repeated about 20 times, Nicole said, with targeted writing lessons interjected in between. Nicole also relied upon a rich supply of mentor texts – particularly books by Eric Carle – for inspiration on writing styles and concepts.

The book’s publication, in Jay’s eyes, demonstrates a realization of his vision, the success of which he attributes to teachers like Nicole who are experts in their crafts. “Nicole Groeneweg is a phenomenal teacher. She sees herself as an author and reader and writer,” Jay said. “The kids in her classroom don’t just read books. They examine them inside and out.”

Jay said his goal when he was hired as principal three years ago was to make his school known for communication and Language Arts in general. Toward that end, Language Arts is integrated into other areas of study – an emphasis that Jay said is critical in teaching 21st-century learning skills.

With its emphasis on 21st-century learning skills, Jay said the school helps prepare students for a morphing world where technology and job descriptions evolve but the necessity of communication and collaboration remain constant. “It’s not just about literacy. It’s about communication,” he explained. “The ultimate goal of being literate is being able to communicate.”

Nicole Groeneweg is the author of Teaching Writing With Mentor Texts in the Primary Classroom: 20 Lessons Based on Favorite Picture Books That Introduce Story Structure, Nonfiction Text Features & Author's Craft published by Scholastic Book Fairs.
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