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
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.
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!