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Real Life 101: How Do We Make Students Aware of the Working World?

As an introduction to literature units that I teach, I like to give "thematic surveys" to the kids. The surveys usually contain 10-12 statements that in some way connect to the book we're about to read--statements like "At the core, we are all evil" (Lord of the Flies) or "People who have power will always become corrupt" (Julius Caesar). The students then rank the statements 1-5: 1 means "I totally disagree or have no experience with this," and 5 means "I agree and often have this experience." Then I go through each statement, have the students put their fingers up to show their responses, and call on a couple of students per statement to explain.

In today's survey, for Sherman Alexei's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, one of the statements I offered was, "I worry that my school doesn't have the resources to support my educational or career goals." (Spoiler alert: One of the pivotal events of Sherman Alexei's novel occurs when the protagonist, Junior, realizes that he is using a textbook that is over 30 years old, and becomes so enraged by his school's insufficient resources that he throws the book at his teacher.) That statement, as I anticipated, sparked some controversy, but not for the reasons that I expected. Instead of complaining about outdated history books (which don't mention the events of 9/11), run down gyms, auditoriums, and other facilities, or the lack of foreign language options other than Spanish, the kids complained that their core courses were "pointless."

"Really? Which ones are pointless?" I asked.

"All of them," several kids responded. "When am I ever going to need Shakespeare? Or Geometry?"

"Well, what do you want to be when you grow up?" my patient co-teacher inquired.

"Astronaut," said two of them, in unison. "Actress," volunteered a third.

I was incredulous. "You want to be astronauts, and you think you're not going to need math?" I turned to the actress. "Or English?"

No, they told me. They were certain that most of what they were learning in high school was totally irrelevant to their future career choices. Except for a few kids who muttered "Yo, these naive people are making me tight!" and rolled their eyes, my 10th graders seemed confident in their position.

Beyond the inherent frustration, this conversation showed me something I hadn't realized before. I've long advocated for alternatives to the traditional "college for all" academic path, such as trade and career-tech programs (welding, auto mechanics, carpentry, cosmetics, etc.) But I've realized the students also need a crash course in career awareness--specifically, letting them know what careers are even out there (many careers such as IT, accounting, engineering, or hospitality management, because of their lack of intrinsic visibility in the kids' daily lives or in TV, are often off their radar), and what these careers require, both in skills and in day-to-day activities. The fact that my 10th graders do not realize that being an astronaut requires math is, I think, almost as serious a problem as whatever deficits they may have in the subject to begin with.

In recent weeks, this blog has focused a lot on issues of engagement with boys, and I can't help thinking that all students' lack of awareness of what skills they actually need for life (such as basic math or literacy), and how they would use these skills, leads them to take school less seriously and goof around more often. Whether their lack of career awareness should be addressed in subject-specific areas, or in a dedicated "life-skills" class of some sort, I'm not sure--but it's yet another area where our students need guidance.

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