Career & Technical Education

Creating Authentic Assignments and a Sense of Community in CTE

Setting up community partnerships and tasks that simulate real jobs creates a solid foundation for a career and technical education program.

January 18, 2024
FG Trade / iStock

My morning started with the fire department arriving, sirens blaring. Students were shouting and teachers were trying to calm them down. It was fire prevention week, and the local fire department was visiting our on-site preschool. Our school is unique in that my high school students have the opportunity to teach at the preschool each week. As the students, preschool and high school aged alike, learned about fire safety, I reflected on how lucky I was to be a career technical education (CTE) teacher.

CTE programs create meaningful work-based experiences for students in high school. Some CTE programs include biotechnology, education, engineering, multimedia, law, and public safety, as well as traditional vocational programs like cosmetology, auto technician, and construction trades. And those are opportunities that students are looking for—in a recent Gallup poll, middle and high school students gave their schools a C+ in providing opportunities to explore careers.

CTE programs provide students with an opportunity to deepen their understanding of a potential career. My specific program prepares students to enter the field of education. Students have multiple experiences working with preschool- through high school–age students. Students will graduate with college credits and a comprehensive experience, which includes writing lesson plans, creating professional development, and doing a 120-hour internship.

Many high schools across the country are now including CTE in their curriculum to provide students with the experience they need to be successful after high school. Students are gaining real-world experience while earning their diploma. 

Provide Authentic Assignments and Learning Experiences

CTE programs create meaningful learning projects for their students. In my class, I follow a problem-based project for each unit and provide students with a model they can refer back to while they work. I usually find examples from the field so that students are modeling high-quality work. Students receive a rubric that outlines the criteria. Lastly, I use these questions when thinking about my units—the following are some examples: 

  • What experiences can my students engage with now? 
  • How can students partner with the community, industry professionals, and peers to complete the work? 
  • What skills will my students need in five years, 10 years, and beyond to be successful? 

Each unit should include a driving question. The driving questions allow students to make the content their own. Students can pinpoint exact ideas or concepts they want to explore more. Here are some examples of driving questions: 

  • How can we use technology to enhance student learning?
  • What points in the history of education impact student learning today?
  • How can we create equitable learning plans for students? 

Each unit includes an authentic learning experience for students. I have my students complete about five units each year. The following are examples of authentic learning experiences that can be used in any program. 

Podcasting: Students have the opportunity to research current issues and trends, interview industry professionals, and teach the community about that profession. Students can create, record, and publicize a podcast that is based on their CTE program. My students have created podcasts around homework being graded, why certain teachers are student favorites, and how schools can help students’ mental health since my students are studying the field of education. Teachers could have their students brainstorm topics relevant to their career field. 

Museum Exhibit: Exposing students to the history and future of the industry is critical for them to immerse themselves in that field and dive deeper into the content. In this authentic learning project, students curate a collection of artifacts. Teachers should use this as a way for students to practice telling a story.

My students flipped this experience and went to a local museum and provided feedback on their current education programming. They learned about a different career field and also what goes into creating education programming that directly relates to their CTE program. My students were also able to attend a local museum and get the on-site professional development it offered to teachers. 

Career Fair: My students researched careers outside of teaching and hosted a career fair. Some of the jobs included child play therapist, curriculum developer, occupational therapist, and social worker. Students were tasked with finding out what further education and certifications were needed, as well as essential skills for that profession, and created an activity for the audience to engage in. Teachers can extend this project by inviting other students, administrators, and professionals to the fair. Students can also shadow real career fairs hosted in the community. 

Shark Tank: As job responsibilities and expectations change, students need to have a sense of entrepreneurship and business knowledge. The Shark Tank assignment is modeled after the show, and students have the opportunity to create a product or service that can benefit their industry. Students extensively research their industry to understand its needs and create innovative solutions. My students focused on creating technology that would help students with learning disabilities, an app that would detect learning disabilities based on student writing, and a service that would provide tutoring for students. 

Connecting Students to Their Community

Creating community partnerships and inviting in guest speakers can be a daunting task. However, these partnerships are essential to students’ success. My goal is to provide students with professional experience and bring content to life. When creating a partnership, the guest speaker will work with students as they create their podcast, portfolio, or letter. One example is the student presenting to the guest speaker various ideas for improving reading strategies. 

This is a list of people I contact for partnerships and guest speakers: 

  • Professional organizations associated with the specific career field 
  • Local businesses 
  • Parents 
  • Advisory council 

I have a template that I use to email these organizations; I include goals for the partnership, the number of students, potential dates, and my contact information. 

My first contact is with professional organizations. For instance, the Association for Career & Technical Education provides teachers with resources, but I also find organizations associated with my specific field, like the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the National Association of Special Education, and the American Psychological Association, to name a few. Attending professional development and local networking events also creates connections. I have my students attend future educator workshops to also learn networking skills.

Programs like DECA, SkillsUSA, and Virtual Enterprises are also opportunities for students to engage with industry professionals. This year, I had a local music teacher speak to my students about music and brain development. After her lecture, she did a sample class with our on-site preschool. After the class, she debriefed her lesson with the high school students. The experience provided students with an opportunity to engage meaningfully with the content and engage firsthand with a professional. 

For new CTE teachers, it can be difficult to navigate the expectations of creating an excellent program. When I give my students authentic learning experiences that are embedded in the community, they get the opportunity to learn about future careers, and I find new excitement each time I’m with them.

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  • Career & Technical Education
  • 9-12 High School

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