Wondering, Connecting, Curating, Digital Inking & More

Unleashing Student Superpowers: Practical Teaching Strategies for 21st Century Students
By Kristen Swanson and Hadley J. Ferguson
(Corwin, 2014 – Learn more)

LauraVonStadenReviewed by Laura Von Staden

Kristen Swanson and Hadley Ferguson give us a different look at the skills students will need in the 21st Century. They identify six skills they call “Superpowers.” These superpowers are Wondering, Curating, Connecting, Digital Inking, Designing and Gaming.

There are three basic sections to the book (although not divided that way by the authors). The first two chapters introduce 21st Century skills and the superpowers. This is followed by 6 chapters, one that addresses each superpower, and finally there are three short chapters suggesting next steps.

A focus on grades 3-5

unleashing student powerEach of the chapters in the main section of the book addresses one superpower and is basically a detailed lesson plan. These plans, called instructional journeys, are focused on benchmarks for grades 3-5, although with some teacher creativity and rewriting they could be adapted to higher grades. This particular grade focus is not indicated anywhere in the publishers’ description of the book – either online or on the book jacket.

Additionally, almost all of the materials (handouts, worksheets, etc.) that are referred to, and are part of the “instructional journey,” are not in the book, but available on the authors’ Pinterest page. Based on the reading, there are a lot of resources available on this Pinterest page, so you may have to do some searching to find the specific item that you want. (You’ll also need to join Pinterest if you haven’t – it’s free.)

Swanson and Hadley do recognize what they call the implementation gap, where a teacher learns about something but then doesn’t implement it right away. For this there is a virtual support group just for implementation of the superpowers.

A reader-friendly book

The book provides some creative ideas and good tech resources. One idea that I particularly liked, although definitely on the elementary side, was the idea of the student self-evaluating on a continuum line in yellow and the teacher assessing on this same line in blue. Thus where the two lines overlap, where teacher and student agree, the color is green. I think that this provides a good visual to help students learn to self-evaluate accurately.

Chapters are laid out in an easy-to-read format and information is easy to find. Essentially the same formative assessment guide is used for all of the superpower formative assessment/progress tracking sheets, which is good for consistency, especially at the age group that the book is targeted toward.

My concerns

The main issue I have with this book (other than the vagueness about the grade range) is that the wonderful (and lengthy) journeys that it describes all seem to be in addition to the current curriculum. Perhaps this works out all right in a self-contained setting, where a few minutes might be carved out from each subject perhaps, to pursue these strategies, with the understanding that the new skills will help students with the other content. However, in middle school, where students go to different teachers for each of their content areas and spend an hour or less in each class, it would be nearly impossible to follow the authors’ plan.

A couple of other questions I had pertained to the age of the targeted students and the suggestions by the authors for students to be involved in “authentic collaboration” online through such sites as twitter. The authors give a paper and pencil alternative in this activity, but the superpower being addressed is digital inking and they admit that using the alternative causes the activity to no longer be digital inking.

Overall, Swanson and Ferguson give an interesting take on 21st century skills and how to teach them to students. Again, these activities are probably better suited to a self-contained, upper elementary setting rather than a middle school one. If that is your setting, it may be worth the read; otherwise you might skip this one.

Laura Von Staden is a Special Education Middle School Teacher in Tampa, Florida. She serves on numerous committees both at her school and within her district and works closely with the local university where she is a Professional Practice Partner and a master mentor.Dr. Von Staden also facilitates both online and face-to-face Professional Development within her district.


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