Teacher Innovation #1: “Week 19: Equipping Seniors to Leave Our Classroom Nests”

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The first entry in the Teacher Innovation Summer Series comes from my colleague and friend Bill Smith. Bill is veteran teacher having taught in an ELA classroom for 14 years. This past year, Bill worked closely with many of our seniors and as you will read, he faced a few interesting challenges. Today’s post focuses on developing authentic conversations with senior who are on the verge of leaving our familiar and prescriptive schoolhouses.

by Bill Smith

“But I haven’t done anything yet! I’m just a student…”

“How do I calculate my HOPE [scholarship] GPA…?”

“I don’t have any work experience….”

“What’s the passing score for the SAT?”

“My ACT score wasn’t good enough. Now what…?”

“Who am I supposed to get references from…?”

What is that smell? Fear? Exasperation? Is it coming from them or me? Why do I have to fight so hard against making assumptions about what my students are capable of, of how far they’ve progressed? Maybe I’ve just overlayed my own high school template on this situation: I think I saw my guidance counselor once in the four years I was there, and one of my English teachers kept a poster of SAT dates by her door. That was it; at no time did any of my classroom teachers connect me we resources, skills, practices, or people to help me get to college. And of course I was going to college, so I’d just wait for the conclusion of that chapter of my life for someone to wave their magic wand and make an English major ready to get out and land some interviews.

Okay…so I think that fear-smell is wafting off of me. In the opening days and weeks of the first semester, I’m terrified of letting my students think that I, not to mention the curriculum, might be useless. The educational landscape has certainly changed, and for the better in many ways. Our “academy” model emphasizes authenticity and practical, real-world instruction, but when I’m honest with myself, I’m not as comfortable practicing job interviews or searching for scholarships as, say, discussing the human condition in light of Beowulf or Paradise Lost. Sure, there will still be a budding novelist, screenwriter, or professor lurking and lingering in the Socratic seminar on Orwell’s 1984, but my students want to know how to get into college and how to land a job, with or without four more years of school. And so, with thanks to my supportive and brilliant course team teachers and coworkers, I pull lessons together that teach us all about accessing the latest resources in order to prepare for the next steps after graduation. This “Week 19” title is just how I’ve loosely labeled these “real world” portfolio projects. The first semester concludes with assembling a checklist of documents for college applications; second semesters wraps up with students having gathered materials needed for beginning a job search.

Again, these units are based almost completely on assembled plans from my stellar 12th Grade Course Team, and l’d like to quickly underscore a few classroom realities, just in case you’ve come this far only to question whether it’s worthwhile to read any further. Maybe you don’t yet “smell the fear.”

Assume the reality that many “College Prep” and even “Honors” level students will not be coming into the classroom in the fall having met test registration deadlines or scoring goals and will not be anywhere close to ready to apply to college. In the fall, even my “high flyers” are coming in with more questions than answers. They’ve taken the first steps: GPAs are respectably high and test scores may be on the way, but there is an essay requirement, an online recommendation deadline looming, or a pending interview.

Now think about spring semester: eighteen weeks of “Senior-itis,” with a healthy dose of interminable Prom discussion mixed in. Later, as we hurtle into the final stretch, there are desperate attempts and finalizing graduation plans (“Can I do a ‘GoFundMe’ for my senior dues”?). And while a few diligent ones may be juggling part-time work, the idea that someone on my roster may very well be dropping my name in a few months in an attempt to land a paying gig at the local mall is, at best, a cringe-worthy notion.

“Students – even these seniors – are all over the map of computer literacy, too. Some have already begun creating application profiles for college, while others are simply trying to recover forgotten passwords from email accounts with awkwardly juvenile monikers like ‘sweetbubbbbblygirl123456@obscuremail.com.”’

On our school’s EClass page, the resources are grouped under headings of “What’s Next?” and “The End.” My idea of the “19th Week” is that by the end of fall semester, seniors have made significant progress toward being ready and equipped to apply to college; the conclusion of spring semester will have them ready with the documents and soft skills for applying for jobs.

Both units rely intensively on computer access. Students access or create an email account for logins and correspondence. In addition to basic online research about schools and jobs, students should be saving their materials to the cloud and, for me, submitting electronic versions of “deliverable” pieces for feedback and assessment. Students – even these seniors – are all over the map of computer literacy, too. Some have already begun creating application profiles for college, while others are simply trying to recover forgotten passwords from email accounts with awkwardly juvenile monikers like “sweetbubbbbblygirl123456@obscuremail.com.” I’m on the lookout for anything, but find it helpful to work in some lessons about the best practices in professional writing and where and how to file it all. At the end of the day, it’s hard to beat the myriad assortment of tools available for those with a Google account.

During the first semester, the focus is on colleges and financial aid for the “19th Week.” I find our school guidance counselors are an invaluable resource for quickly bringing students up to date on the latest FAFSA deadlines. They maintain a page on our school’s site devoted solely to links and resources directing students to educational funding. This makes it easy for me to facilitate an online “scholarship discussion thread” with the students. Students access and update their Georgia Student Finance Commission [GAFutures] accounts, begin (or continue) online college applications, and reach out to teachers, coaches, and counselors to request recommendations. For students without a specific essay requirement already pending for an application, I still ask them to create a “base document” that addresses one of several of the more popular trends for college application essays. I even ask the “undecided” students, who are not even sure about going on to college at all, to fill out the Common App. After all, it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it ready to send out.

“While we are still keeping tabs on Shakespeare, Shelley, and Orwell, it’s time to begin transferring some of our literacies and skills over to the second 19th week goal, which is a portfolio of material for a prospective job search.”

While spring semester is still frenetic with managing college-entry tasks, we all feel more confident about knowing where to go and what to do for these types of needs. Be aware that by now, any plans for a timeline are virtually useless: some early acceptance letters have already started coming in; others are taking another SAT or ACT; still others have reflected upon everything they’ve gathered in the fall and are still in the finalization stages of applying to a school. While we are still keeping tabs on Shakespeare, Shelley, and Orwell, it’s time to begin transferring some of our literacies and skills over to the second 19th week goal, which is a portfolio of material for a prospective job search. Why bother with this? What about all the college readiness? Remember when I alluded to the “cringe-worthy” possibilities of some bright young mind dropping my name as a job reference?

[Practice Interview Question]: 35. What motivates you and gets you up

in the morning?

[Initial Student Response]: Usually coffee and cigarettes.

Clearly, we have work to do.

This work involves reflecting on goals, making lists of clubs, activities, and honors, digging up names, emails, and phone numbers for referrals. We browse and select résumé templates and draft cover letters. The reality begins to dawn: just one version of each of these will not suffice; revise, revise, revise. It goes without saying that I am not cool enough to be trusted with fashion tips, so we watch some videos about how to dress for an interview and what to expect. We discussed the importance of “doing your homework” about a company, and dressing appropriately, rather than over- or under-dressing for the position. Yes, students with little to no experience can provide several professional references; they come from teachers, coaches, counselors, and other non-family mentors. The hard part is just making sure to collect the most up-to-date contact information for these.

Finally, we culminate with mock job interviews, both sides of the table trying to step out of our respective roles as teacher and student and exchange them for employer and candidate. Even the classroom becomes the “waiting room,” and the quiet hallway outside is the forum for our one-on-one interviews.

These weren’t perfectly – executed plans. In the future, I would make sure to check in with the 11th grade teachers about their spring plans and discuss the requisite coordination of the “hand off” into the students’ final year. I’d also like to get further away from the walls of my own room and spread the interview responsibilities around to more of the staff, especially some of the experienced Career and Tech Ed. teachers. My students were deeply appreciative of each and every one of the few sessions led by our counselors, a division of our team that is always stretched thin. Moving forward, I’d try to plan early to arrange bi-weekly or monthly appointments for these team members to have time with my classes.

“I received many kind notes of thanks, and there was a common theme: thanks for ‘caring about real life,’ for ‘being real,” for ‘helping me prepare’ for the future.”

I reflected with my different classes once the dust had settled. We laughed about how awkward and stressful the mock interviews felt, and I commiserated. I had to fuss about how some of them had overlooked deadlines; they pointed out, and rightly so, that sometimes I’d been confusing when laying out directives. Ultimately, the most telling feedback came during Teacher Appreciation Week, when the bulk of these assignment pieces were already submitted and in the rearview mirror. I received many kind notes of thanks, and there was a common theme: thanks for “caring about real life,” for “being real,” for “helping me prepare” for the future.

I find it telling that no one thanked me for his or her newfound love of Milton or for a fresh perspective on our political environment because of how I’d masterfully guided them through Orwell’s dystopia. We gathered tools, equipped ourselves, and quelled some fears. That, it turns out, was as good for me as it was for my students.


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