Assignments Designed to Inspire Career Readiness Skills

The 11/3/42 Image recaptured digitally by Dr. G. McGough
The 11/3/42 Image recaptured digitally by Dr. G. McGough

“Relevance makes rigor possible.” Dr. Bill Daggett

As an ELA (English Language Arts) teacher, I am sometimes asked about how I design rigorous, standards-based lessons that are also relevant enough to inspire relevant career readiness skills. I have decided to blog about a recent lesson that I designed and implemented with my tenth graders/seniors at Penn Manor High School, a 1:1 laptop school.

At the beginning of the Spring semester, I welcomed my students with a unique Internet-based challenge. Back in the mid 1990s, my father and I along with my cousin were granted permission to explore an abandoned mansion on the outskirts of my town in Biglerville, PA. We entered the property and began looking around the empty rooms. It was obvious that at one point this was an place of opulence and the love of a family. Now, the hollow rooms played host to anything or anyone who wandered in through the cracks.

On the second floor, I found a series of random black & white photos and other various artifacts in a dusty closet. After our day of wandering and wondering, we returned to the Marion Thomas Harbaugh and thanked her for granting us permission. It was then that we showed her the small items that we found, and she was grateful to have the World War II medals back. The rest of the dust covered items were of no interest to her, so I neatly organized the items and packed them away in my attic. This small treasure chest of memories survived a move and various Spring cleanings.

For some reason, this semester I digitally archived the items using Padlet and designed a small hyperdoc lesson around the various artifacts. The students were given the simple, real world challenge of trying to determine the identity and one fact about the man pictured above. The only other piece of information that I provided was the name of the lady who granted us permission. In less than three class periods, the class had narrowed in on his identity, Charles William Harbaugh, and were able to locate various glimpses of his life that were archived on the Internet. Sadly, my students discovered that “Willy” died at the age of young age of 46, but not before dancing at the Inaugural Ball of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. This lesson allowed me to assess my students’ critical thinking skills, research skills, technology skills, reading skills, and writing skills. It was wonderful to see them hit dead ends and work around them by collaborating with others.

When I design a lesson, I try to forget that I am an ELA teacher and attempt to look beyond the classroom walls to the real world problems that build careers. I find that when a lesson is situated in a problem faced by career-focused individuals the students are actively engaged and develop valued career-ready skills.

Yours in Education,

Dr. Gregg McGough, Blogger & Podcaster

Don’t Try to “Teach” Soft Skills

not-teachingEfforts to teach soft skills frequently lead to teacher frustration and disappointment. This is not because these critical aptitudes can’t be developed, but because the “teaching” approach used often mimics teaching content knowledge.

Soft skills – or as I prefer to call them, Life/Career abilities are the behaviors, mindsets and character traits that contribute to students’ life readiness. Life/Career abilities is a positive label to identify this important domain of student learning. Regardless, of what you call this domain, it is an integral part of learning along with acquiring knowledge and developing skills. Educators must emphasize Life/Career abilities, but embrace a different mindset and not attempt to “teach” these in a traditional sense.

This is because a traditional approach implies that “teaching” is simply imparting new knowledge with expectations that students will retain and recall that knowledge – Present-Practice-Test. This simplistic model may work well when teaching basic vocabulary or other forms of rote learning. However, as learning becomes more complex, experienced teachers understand that more enhanced teaching strategies are required, including developing the context for students, providing applications of knowledge, and using engaging approaches such as inquiry and discovery. While there is some knowledge that is essential to the domain of Life/Career abilities, this domain is primarily focused on behaviors, for which even an enhanced teaching approach will not necessarily result in desired student behavior.

A model for describing and practicing the teaching mindset required for developing Life/Career abilities is that of the parent. Any experienced teacher, who has also been a parent, (or, uncle, aunt, grandparent or other caregiver) recognizes the overlap in skills between effective parenting and quality teaching. This is particularly important when focusing on the behaviors of Life/Career abilities. A better term to apply to this type of instructional mindset is perhaps nurturing: just as a parent nurtures a child’s development, teachers need to nurture the development of Life/Career abilities.

There are five elements that are critical to nurturing; relationships, expectations, providing experiences, modeling and feedback. Any attempt to influence behavior is deeply influenced by human emotions and frequent, positive interaction builds relationships essential for nurturing behaviors. Another essential beginning element is establishing expectations. Using such “presets” – i.e. having students think about a behavior before being in the situation to exhibit that behavior – greatly influences a student’s decision-making and therefore his or her response. A parent also nurtures developing behaviors by providing experiences and opportunities for children to practice those behaviors. Providing richer experiences can take many forms, such as creating play dates with other children, enrolling children in arts or sports activities, traveling as a family, or even assigning appropriate work chores around the home. Throughout our own development, we regularly – consciously or unconsciously – imitate some of the behaviors that we observe in others. Consequently an essential way for teachers (or parents) to nurture Life/Career abilities is to model the expected behaviors. The final element of nurturing is providing feedback, not in the form of a grade, but as constructive and consistent reminders when learners’ behaviors do not meet expectations.

Soft skills can be taught, but not in the traditional or stereotypical sense of teaching facts. Begin to use a nurturer mindset to evoke the parenting role in developing a child’s behavior. Using such an approach better defines teaching practices to develop students’ soft skills or Life/Career abilities.

Making a Case for the Emoticon :)

Emoticons Screen Captured by Dr. Gregg McGough



Many of our daily digital correspondences, both personal and professional, slip silently across virtual pathways shedding much of the human touch of the sender. In the name of efficiency, we allow our virtual selves to conduct business through quick text/email responses rather than getting tied up in face-to-face or phone conversations.

Who has time for that? 😉

Sean Convey’s text 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens dedicates an entire chapter to explaining how successful people “Seek First to Understand Before Being Understood.” He explains that when a person encodes a face-to-face message, s/he blends it using three essential elements: “words,” tone of voice, and body language. Not all of these elements carry the same importance in the successful delivery of the message. The actual words that someone selects is of minor importance…only 7% of the message. A full 93% of the message is comprised of the non-verbal cues that the sender displays during the conversation. That is why many disagreements feature the comment, “That is not what I said! 🙁 ” Maybe not in so many words…

Here is Covey’s mathematical breakdown of communication:

“words” – 7%

tone of voice – 13%

body language – 80%

Using these percentages, it is easy to see how so much of a digital message is lost when we text/email friends or colleagues. Nearly 93% of the message! When someone texts or sends an email, s/he is only sending 7% of the message, and this could ultimately cause confusion in the mind of the receiver.

Enter the emoticon :)… (a portmanteau of emotion and icon) . In an age of digital communication, this little symbol allSmiling emoticon captured by Dr. Gregg McGoughows for the quick display of the sender’s emotional state when composing the message. Although it is an artificial replacement for actual face-to-face talking, the widespread use of emoticons may help clarify digital messages.

In preparation for 21st Century careers, should schools begin teaching a new form of digital writing that infuses emoticons into a text to pick up the subtle tones and body language of the writer?

Dr. Gregg McGough, CRI Blogger & Podcaster


Labeling Career Readiness Behaviors, Mindsets and Character Traits

The reality of today’s workplace requires an individual possess the skills that will allow him/her to: work effectively on cross-functional teams and across disciplines; persist and persevere in the face of setbacks and challenges; analyze complex data and make sound decisions; react swiftly and thoughtfully to dynamic circumstances. There is no doubt that readiness for todays and future workplaces require strong academic foundation and technical expertise. But more and more educators are acknowledging that true readiness requires a third domain of learning that involves behaviors, mindsets and character traits.

This third domain of intangible readiness traits is often titled in research as non-cognitive, soft, employability or social-emotional skills. No matter the nomenclature, they are the abilities that make one resilient, tenacious, sociable, personable, trustworthy, reliable, nimble, confident, self-aware, self-regulating and armed with the grit necessary to navigate life and career in a rapidly changing world.

We at SPN prefer to call this domain Life/Career Abilities; we find it a misnomer to suggest these skills are devoid of cognition when using the term non-cognitive. In fact, to gain, evolve and adeptly and flexibly apply these skills in a nuanced fashion to a variety of scenarios takes high-level cognition. Further, soft skills seems to imply they are soft and not hard to teach, in reality they are hard to teach and even harder to assess. When using employability skills with school audiences, there is a tendency to only consider these the responsibility of Career and Technical Education rather than the entire school. Many academic teachers do not consider their work as readying students for employment.

We consider social-emotional, non-cognitive, employability and soft skills overlapping categories and synonyms, in our work in this domain — collectively referring to them as Life/Career Abilities. Life/Career Abilities is a positive term that also implies focusing student learning with a relevancy beyond school – life and career. Life skills might be too broad as a single label. The combined term also denotes that many of these essential behaviors apply to personal lives and the workplace.

To further clarify and also follow “begin with the end in mind” approach, we are including in the list Life/Career Abilities those behaviors that can be observed. It is behaviors that teachers can most easily give student feedback on. As for teaching, there are knowledge topics that teachers can introduce and skills that students can practice. However, most facilitation of Life/Career Abilities will be through giving students feedback in student projects and performances of their academic and technical skills.

We must thoughtfully move forward with curriculum, instruction and assessment approaches to incorporate this Life/Career domain. It cannot and should not be taught and tested in the same manner we handle basic reading or math. Neither should we ignore it, because it is hard to test with our current tools.

Do you have any “sleepers” in your Fantasy Classroom Draft?

Original photo taken by Dr. G. McGough
Original photo taken by Dr. G. McGough

At this time of year, my attention drifts to one of my favorite past times, Fantasy Football. For those who do not participate in this pigskin rivalry between family and friends, here is a small tutorial…for those of you who do participate in this annual Fall event, you may skip ahead to the third paragraph.

Football fans join fantasy leagues and draft players at the beginning of the season. Players are selected from the different NFL organizations at the various positions: quarterback, running back, wide receivers, etc. One tries to select a team of players that will accrue the most points during the weekly match-ups. Players score points for their fantasy owner with the sum total of their weekly performance. Much of the selection process at the beginning of the season is made based upon a complex rating system that takes into account a player’s past performance. Each week of the regular season, two individuals put their “fantasy roster” teams against each other in a head-to-head competition. The winner is determined after the Monday Football game is over and all the players’ points from both teams are tallied.

At the beginning of this school year, I participated in my district’s “data day” in an effort to establish new curricular goals that will help my student’s find academic success. It was during this data event that I made the rather obvious connection between my ELA class rosters and my fantasy draft. The competition of high stakes assessments is looming at the end of the semester, and just like my Fantasy Football Team, my class/team is a combination of individuals projected to be winners and losers.

In the early stages of most Fantasy drafts, the franchise players and premier players go quickly because they are predicted to earn big points week after week and carry their fantasy owner into the playoffs at the end of the season. This year I took another strategy and began looking through my fantasy magazines for those players who qualify as “sleepers.” A “sleeper” is a poorly rated player who is underestimated at the beginning of the season and through hard work and determination in the off season scores more points than was predicted.

During my extensive research, I began to wonder what factors cause a player to exceed expectations? The variables are too immense to truly predict. Sometimes a trade to a new football club is all it takes to transform a mediocre player into a star. This type of player fascinates me, so I spent my summer looking for the best “sleeper.” I took my experiment to the next level this season and drafted my “sleeper” in the first round…much to the dismay and ridicule of my league. Call it my teacher instinct, but I think my “underdog” pick might prove the numbers wrong!

As school districts look at data to determine college readiness and future success on standardized assessments, I wonder how many of our poor performing students are actually  “sleepers” who will break out one year and demonstrate the type of performance that exceeds low expectations.

Many of my former tenth grade students leave the traditional classroom setting their junior year and go to the Career and Technology Centers to learn a skilled trade. In this new learning environment, they understand the relevancy of their learning and find academic success. Sometimes it takes a different team and the right coach to take an underperforming individual and help them to achieve greatness.

How will you look for those “sleepers” in your classroom who just need the right coaching and support to wake up and have a great year? What would happen if core subject teachers infused career readiness skills into their courses?

Post Script: For those who are wondering, my “Round 1 Sleeper” in my Fantasy Football League was projected to score 7.35 in the first week of the NFL season, and he ended the game with 17.30! Sometimes the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Yours in Education,

Dr. Gregg McGough, CRI Blogger

“We Got This!”

Original photo taken by Dr. G. McGough
Original photo taken by Dr. G. McGough

At the start of a new school year, I tend to become very reflective on my past practices and the perceived impact on student achievement. As a member of the Career Readiness Institute (CRI), I am constantly analyzing my learning plans to make sure that they stress college & CAREER readiness skills. In an era where standardized assessments drive teachers to push students to be college ready…it is important to help students develop those career readiness skills that are so respected in the workplace.

As I begin to plan my learning experiences this year, there was one moment that stands out from all the rest that will inspire my future thinking.

I was in the middle of my problem-based unit concerning at-risk teens, so I was planning on showing an old VCR video about the Lords of Chaos(LOC) that I captured many years ago. The students laughed at my old timey teaching tools. No sooner did I place the VCR tape in the machine…pop…the tape tore, and the screen went blue.

My students were obviously upset, and I was out of luck. I had a reading about the LOC as a back-up plan, but the students wanted to witness the in-depth interviews first hand.

As I was figuring out what to do, I heard a voice exclaim from the back of the classroom, “We got this”! I walked back and handed the tape to three boys and asked if they had ever seen a VHS tape before. They laughed and said that they had seen them, but they never had the chance to take one apart. They assured me that they take stuff apart and rebuild it all the time on their farms. Their confidence at tackling a new problem was based upon years of tinkering and problem solving.

Before I had a chance to respond, the three had produced tools from their pockets and were busy slowly taking the tape apart. In less than three minutes, they asked for some Scotch tape. They rebuilt the cassette and walked it up to me. I slipped the tape in the machine, and it worked! They appeared to be slightly offended when I was surprised at their success at tinkering.

These senior boys were the three hardest working students both in and out my class. They went to high school full time and then worked 40-hour-a-week jobs in various agricultural industries. They also enjoyed full membership and leadership in the Future Farmers of America (FFA). The ability to collaborate, problem-solve, and tinker was developed over years of on-the-job training.

They wanted to fix the VCR tape because of their personal commitment to our classroom community of learners.  They took their past experiences with tinkering and focused their collective energies to figuring out how this device worked and fix it.

Students need repeated, real-world experiences in problem solving to develop the type of confidence in problem solving and tinkering that my three young men demonstrated so well.

How do you promote real world problem solving and tinkering in your classroom?

Yours in Education,

Dr. Gregg McGough, CRI Blogger