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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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There's a lot of talk about college and career readiness. There should be. That is the target we aim for in K-12 education. Industries, policymakers, and politicians tell us what being college and career ready is, and how to do it. Often, the way this goal is communicated makes it seem as if there are only a finite number of ways to get there: Graduate high school. Go to college. Get an internship. Get a job. But there's a missing piece that we don't talk about -- each student's unique combination of interests and aspirations.

What Do Your Students Care About?

I returned to the classroom last year after an eight-year hiatus that included site administration and two county office jobs. I'd never taught at the high-school level, and knew relatively little about the paleontology course that I was creating. After struggling to get to know students, I finished the first semester exhausted, unsure that I could make it to June. The next semester, I taught the Roadtrip Nation Experience, a blended project-based learning curriculum. But it was more than that. It grew my role as a teacher and transformed how my students thought about the future.

I teach at Delta School, an independent charter high school for 10th-12th grade. Founded in 1995 by local business owners and community members, Delta was designed to serve students who were not successful in larger comprehensive high schools. They've struggled for a variety of reasons: anxiety, depression, ADHD, drug abuse, gang relations, and family challenges. Many have experienced gaps in their education caused by moving from one school to another. Some simply struggle around groups of people. Almost all have been burned by adults and aren't about to let that happen again, so they're very cautious about who they let in. They all have a story.

The Roadtrip Nation Experience is designed to reflect these individual narratives. Through PBL and blended learning, it helps students discover careers aligned with their interests. They interview leaders in their own communities, people who share their interests, and from these conversations get answers to their questions about life -- such as how to handle family pressure or what kind of education they should pursue.

As a teacher, this program let me -- no, required me -- to really know every student. I asked questions about their interests, family, past school experiences, hobbies, and dreams. And as I listened to their hopes and fears, I began to feel more like a mentor or coach than a teacher. I wasn't just hoping that they'd understand and remember. I wanted them to imagine and plan. I wanted them to connect who they are now with something out there in the world around them and, through that connection, envision how they might get from here to there. I learned more about my students in those three weeks than during that entire first semester of my paleontology class.

Pivotal Conversations

Instead of studying other people and ideas, the Roadtrip Nation Experience asks students to study themselves. They look inside at what gets them up in the morning, how they like to spend their time, and who inspires them. They dream about making a career out of their hobbies. For some students, this was the first time that anyone had ever shown an interest in helping them imagine a life after high school.

Because these students have had so much difficulty making it through the education system, they assume that they're the only ones dealing with this problem. But by exploring Roadtrip Nation’s Interview Archive -- a video collection of over 400 interviews with people from all walks of life discussing how they built fulfilling careers -- students realize that not every person had it easy or figured it out right away. Students listen to the stories of individuals who found themselves in college studying something that they had no interest in, only to start over again with something that they love. These innovators and industry giants may have been admitted to college, but they weren't ready.

Students aren't just passively ingesting these lessons in the classroom. The program also guides them to interview a leader in their community who works in a field that interests them. This was my students' favorite part. They interviewed restaurant owners, video game designers, skateboard manufacturers, cosmetologists, fashion designers, and law enforcement. The range of subjects was impressive.

As they set off for their interviews (mostly scheduled on site during class), students were surprised to learn that I would not be with them, watching them as they interviewed. Nervous but excited, they headed out the door to find a spot where they could sit with their leader. The conversations that unfolded were unstructured and unpredictable -- just as most things are in the world outside classroom walls -- but they belonged entirely to the students. For many, this was the moment they realized that the intent of this class was not simply to get everyone to the same point. It was to deliver each of them to a unique and personalized place along a path that they were defining with every step.

We can give students all the tools, resources, and knowledge that we think they might need to be college and career ready. But if they can't see their future, how are they expected to build it for themselves? The real meaning of college and career readiness is that moment when your choice of college and/or career aligns with and supports who you are as an individual. No student should choose a college or career without putting themselves -- who they are as a person -- first.

In the comments section below, please share your own stories about preparing students for college or career readiness -- especially that "aha!" moment when you could tell that they'd just really connected with their future.

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Deborah Grandinetti's picture
Deborah Grandinetti
Mentor of teen inner city scholarship students

I mentor inner city teens who go to a private college prep school on scholarships provided by a local philanthropist. Most of the members of our first class had no clue what they wanted to major in, in college. So I created a program for the classes behind that one, "Find Your Purpose, Rock This Planet." We did it over the summer, then worked to get relevant internships. Once students had a vision for their future, they were turned on in a way they hadn't been before. The group I taught first were sophomores. They just graduated last summer. Of the six, three got full rides to college (one of them the daughter of a mom who gave birth to her at 15), and the other three got partial merit-based scholarships. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM knew what they wanted to get out of their college experience, because they had tested possibilities and had a solid vision for their future. They were college ready. It mystifies me why this isn't a routine part of high school education, especially since some 80 percent of college freshman are not clear on what major would be best for them.

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Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

I love this!! I think this type of program should be available for all students and begin even younger (middle school). I think kids (including me) waste time doing stuff in school they definitely know will not benefit or help them find/maintain a career.

Here's my "aha" story.

I graduated with a degree in Psychology with the plan of continuing to graduate school to become a school psychologist. While taking night graduate classes towards a degree in school psychology, I landed a job at an elementary school as a basic skills instructional aide. I never thought that I could pinpoint the exact moment when my life shifted, but that's exactly what happened.
Let's call him Joe for legal reasons: terrible home life, struggling academically, and a behavior problem. The teacher exhausted her efforts on him. She was rightfully frustrated. She looked at me and said, "Can you help him with his spelling words? He's failing." I said, "Sure." I lied. I wasn't sure if I could help him, but it was my job, right? I met with Joe for about ten minutes a day for a week. We just talked and colored pictures for the first two meetings. He loved coloring. While we colored and bonded, I noticed he knew his colors and he also could spell the names. Lightbulb! I ended up writing his spelling words on tiny pieces of paper and taping them to his crayons. "Every time you pick up a color, make sure you say the word, close your eyes and spell it," I told him. It worked. He passed. And it felt good for both of us. Joe taught me that personal relationships, innovation, creativity, and hard work is a great combination for success. I found something I loved and I was good at it (aha). The rest, as they say, is history.
I hoped I changed Joe's view of education, maybe even changed his life. What I accomplished with Joe shifted my career path to teaching, where I've professionally and personally grown over the years.

Peter Paccone's picture
Peter Paccone
9-12th Grade Social Studies Teacher - San Marino High School

Great read. Thank you Jason. Over spring break will take a closer look at the RoadTrip Nation link. From what you've described I'm sure to find it fascinating.

Tyronne McEuen's picture
Tyronne McEuen
distinguished mathematics teacher

To prepare students for college - That is clearly understood. By all accounts, a student is prepared for college if they never experience a remedial course at any university, college, junior college, technical school, etc..
To prepare students for career - not as clearly understood. Many questions arise when attempting to clarify what is required to be "career ready." Perhaps someone has a comprehensive response that Educators can use to evaluate if our current graduates have the skills to become successful in a career?

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