5 Ways to Bring Career Education into Your Classroom

When I was a high school student, I knew that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. Why? Because I liked to write in my

A picture of Salinger's Catcher in the Rye
I wanted to be just as rich as J.D. Salinger, but much less world avoidant.

journal, I got a kick out of writing and reading poetry (in English and in Spanish in the style of Lorca, thankyouverymuch), I enjoyed writing letters (remember those?) to friends and to (gasp!) prisoners, I had fun writing (admittedly terrible) essays for English and History classes, and because I thought it was a great way to become wealthy and famous when I was older.

No one told me that I could publish a book if I put my mind to it but that I was unlikely to grow rich from it. Frankly, I’m not sure that I would have appreciated it very much if someone had shared that important wisdom with me. I was too young to hear it (though hear it I did, in a wonderful book by Anne Lamott called Bird by Bird that I read when I was 23), and it didn’t really matter anyway. Because my belief that I could and would become the most wealthy of professional writers pushed me to try very hard in my English classes in high school, college, and for a few beloved years after college when I still pursued a writing career. I was encouraged at every turn to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. I was encouraged to write for the school newspaper, for the school literary magazine, for the alumni magazine, to visiting poets.

For students who have IEPs and who may or may not pursue college education because of (unfortunately) long-term self-esteem and resilience damage from lots of school failure, such encouragement in the job skills that are also academic skills is SO important. Here are some ways to use students’ desires for future occupations (even very unlikely ones) to help them engage in academic work:

1. Ask them what they want to do for a living, and if they have an IEP, incorporate that desire into both their transition plan and in all of their yearly goals. For instance, if little Jessica wants to be a professional singer when she grows up, make sure to mention in her math goal something about the importance of understanding fractions for reading musical notations and understanding rhythm to help her pursue her goal of become a musician.

2. Whenever possible, connect what you are doing in class to the occupation that the student is interested in clearly and directly. Don’t just show dance videos that are interesting in your study of a piece of literature on dance, but specifically say to the students, “Hey, I know some of you want to be professional dancers. Here are some dances that you might not know the names of and that you might consider learning a little bit about for your future careers.” Or something less awkwardly worded than that, haha.

Encouragement in the job skills that are also academic skills is SO important for students who have struggled a lot in school.

3. If you know someone in the industry your student is interested in, see if you can connect the two of them via email or phone or Voxer or Skype (with parental permission, of course) or Twitter. Make sure to have the person talk (or write) to the student about how academics connects directly to the occupation SEVERAL TIMES. And if you don’t know someone in that industry, meet someone using the power of the internet. Often times a nice letter from a high school kid will get a response from a professor, an author, a (not incredibly famous) singer, a government official. Reach out! And ask parents/guardians to help you reach out, too!

4. Set up a work study opportunity or internship for the student or help them actually apply for jobs after school or during the summer. I teach in Brooklyn, NY, so there are loads and loads of free and paid opportunities for students to pursue all sorts of interests. I like to let students know about opportunities I hear about through the weekly school announcements.

Youth Rules! DoJ screenshot
Youth Rules! is a Dept. of Labor initiative to get young workers informed about laws and expectations for working teens. http://www.youthrules.dol.gov/index.htm


5. For kids who really aren’t on track to graduate, try to get them involved in a career training program so that they have something in pocket if it turns out that coming back for a fifth or sixth year of high school is too stressful or embarrassing. Here in NYC, there are plenty of job training programs for kids from low-income families. Then there is also Job Corps, which is a federally funded program.

And that’s all she wrote! What other suggestions do you have to get school-wary teens engaged with academics? Let me know in the comments so I can steal your ideas and give my students all the tools they need to take over the world mwa ha ha ha ha!

The Most Important Part of Teaching Is…

I’m 38 years old (ssssh), and I’m a little heavier than I was at age 28. I’ve known my doctor for a long time, and for years I’ve been going to see him every summer for my annual checkup. I know he’s a competent doctor. I know he cares for my well being. But this year, I’ve been dragging my heels. Can you guess why (hint: it’s in the first sentence)?

Because last summer, when I went to see him, he commented on me gaining weight, told me that I should hurry up and have a child because menopause comes as early as 40 for some women, and then asked if I’m engaged to anyone. (The answer is no.)

A picture of Captain Kirk from Star Trek, being mean.
Oh, Captain Kirk, you can be so cruel.

He was joking around, but it sounded a whole lot like, “You are a failure.” And this, despite my knowledge that he’s a great doctor for me, he sees me at a moment’s notice if I’m really ill, and he genuinely cares for my well-being.

But choosing to not engage with my doctor this summer isn’t about logic; it’s about emotions. It’s about me wanting to avoid possible negative emotions. The funny thing is that if he knew I felt this way, he probably wouldn’t have said those things. How was he supposed to know that those are hot button issues for me? I don’t actually look overweight, and I actually enjoy my lovely, child-free life in many ways. Despite all appearances to the contrary, unfortunately, what he said really hurt.

Of course, students are the same way. If you speak sternly to a students on Monday, he will walk in Tuesday with that bad interaction at the top of his mind. And either he’ll act super sweet because of it, or he’ll tune you out. He may avoid or skip your class. Your job, as an educator of CHILDREN, is to let that kid know that yesterday was yesterday, and today is today. Your job is also to let your student know that even when you make a social mistake (and let’s face it, sometimes teachers make mistakes!), it’s not from a dark place in your heart.

I know this is easier said than done. That’s why I’m really excited to see a rebranding being touted by the folks over at the National Center for Learning Disabilities called Understood. Apparently the new site will have some new, innovative features to help families manage learning disabilities that can make schooling difficult. Here’s the part that really interests me, though:

Through Your Child’s Eyes: Experience the world as your child does. Simply select your child’s issue and grade. From there you’ll be guided through a simulation of what it’s like for a child with dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, ADHD or executive functioning issues.”

I’m SO EXCITED for this feature. If the Through Your Child’s Eyes feature works as well as it could, it could open up teachers’ and parents’ eyes to the understanding that despite the way things seem to be, sometimes the things we say to students and others we care for can hurt them deeply. Empathy is the way of the future (and the past, and of all time).

reference.com definition of Empathy
Empathy makes the Special Education world go ’round.

And that’s a message for you too, DOCTOR!

A NEW Way to Reach “Unreachable” Parents!

Teachers in high-poverty schools all share a problem: it is difficult to reach a large percentage of parents/guardians to update them on their child’s progress in school. There can be multiple reasons why. Families move, phone service gets cut off, phone numbers change, emails aren’t read regularly, family tragedy, etc. Life happens.

This year, I’m going to try a new approach to reach parents: VOXER.

Screenshot of Voxer Homepage
Voxer is a free messaging service that is taking the #edtech community by storm!


Voxer is a FREE instant messaging service that allows users to send text messages or voice messages to other users. It works on iPhones, Android phones, and Windows-powered phones. It’s not connected to your phone number, but to an ID. What does this mean? It means that a parent can get their mobile phone turned off, can get a new phone with a new phone#, and then STILL, using a Voxer ID, get messages on the new phone. I don’t need to know their new number. They don’t need to know mine.

I’m going to try this out and let you know how it goes!

Is it really the least restrictive environment? Special education vs Mainstream

“Holding to rigorous standards” doesn’t always mean what it seems to mean for students with severe disabilities, especially when it comes to standardized testing. See below for why.

The Qwiet Muse

*The following is based on personal experience and observation both with my own children and those I have advocated for in the past. I realize there are indeed success stories involving a smooth and beneficial transition from a special education setting to a general education one. Unfortunately, there are many more examples of the system failing.

The methodology behind mainstreaming special needs students into the general education classroom is too often poorly thought out and implemented. It takes too broad of an approach to the special educational needs of many students, and in doing so, only serves to hinder, not help.

Special education was created for a reason. For a population of students with different needs than many of their peers, different abilities which sometimes require a separate and unique forum in which they can learn, an environment better suited to meet their needs. The school system has been caught…

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Teachers: Stop Going Crazy Trying to Connect with Parents.

Did you catch that incendiary headline? Of course you did; that’s why you’re here.

I don’t, of course, mean it literally. But this isn’t a bait and switch. I DO want you (and me!)  to stop pulling your hair out trying to get parents to come to parents’ nights and to answer your calls and to give you updated phone and address information so that you can work together with parents and guardians for student success.

I want to share with you some tips that I learned while attending the TACD Summer Institute earlier this summer.

So, the name of the workshop was “The Power of School-Community-University Partnership,” and it was led by some really inspiring folks who are running what appears to be a strong parent-partnership committee in Upstate New York.

Since you can click the link above and look at their presentation, I’m not going to go over everything I learned. But I’ll give you my top 3 big takeaways.

1. If Your Parent Outreach Efforts Are Not Working, It’s Time To Try Something New. At my school, we have tried raffles for big ticket items, making food available to parents to eat, email blasts, phone blasts, individualized calls home, and postal mail reminders on a regular basis. Parent involvement at school still remains low.

2. If The Parents Aren’t Coming to the School, We Have To Ask Them Why. I think that for some parents, simply walking into a school building feels decidedly unpleasant, particularly if the student has a history of discipline problems or doing poorly at school. The key might just be making the school a more hospitable place. At  The Power of School-Community-University Partnership workshop, the presenters suggested engaging families through The Parent Cafe. Do this by

  • Identifying parent leaders who can invite friends and neighbors to the school
  • Encouraging parents to work together to solve some of the schools problems
  • Community partners (local politicians, mental health services, physical health services) help recruit other parents and community members to participate
  • During meetings, be there to LISTEN, not to TEACH. Ask: What’s it like to raise a child in this community? Can you give an example of a positive experience with the school? Can you give an example of a difficult experience with the school? If you could talk to the superintendent or principal, and you knew they would really listen and not judge you, what would you want to say?

3. When Parents See They Have a Voice, Help Them Take It To The Big Dogs and Affect Education Policy. At my school, we acknowledge really helpful and active senior parents with an award at graduation. We all appreciate them, and I think they enjoy being appreciated. But what about those active parents whose kids are younger? How can we give them some real world payoff? Well, the folks who gave the presentation suggested giving them the power to suggest political, educational issues to rally around, or leading outreach efforts to less involved parents to keep them aware of school programs.

Clearly, this is a lot of work. But building a community partnership is not about getting frustrated at low parent involvement. It’s about finding ways to truly build a community around the school. And that, my friends, is a great feeling. I know that when my school has events and talent shows to allow students to show how great they are at the arts, or dancing, or singing, entire families show up. We can fill an auditorium!

With the right outreach, parent contact needn’t be a painful chore.

Here are some other great tips for working with parents: 12 Conversation Starters on What Parents Want You to Know