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

Every Child Succeeds Act: Changing the Policy of Standardization

Image captured by G. McGough
Image captured by G. McGough

As of December 10, 2015, President Obama signed the Every Child Succeeds Act into legislation thus replacing the No Child Left Behind Act, President George W. Bush’s spin on President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965). After several decades of legislation, the federal government is finally retreating from educational policy management and is looking to States to take a more active role in the governance process of public education.

Education Week (January 4, 2016) published a wonderful article titled, Will States Swap Standards-Based Tests for SAT, ACT? One of the benefits of having a blog is the ability to take one’s musings publish them to start a virtual conversation. Take a moment to click the hyperlink and go read the article. I will wait…

Please feel free to leave comments at the end of the blog so that the conversation can continue.

The article claims that seven states are looking to abandon their current, high school standardized testing practices and sub-contract the process out to SAT or ACT, to determine college readiness. As a strong advocate for college and CAREER readiness, I wondered why states didn’t include other possible CAREER assessment measures like the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute. If states are truly been given the freedom to redefine what high-school testing looks like, why not begin to give credibility to CAREER readiness. Career assessments demonstrate student competency in the areas of job and task-based analysis.

In the hierarchy of academic disciplines, the label “career prep” has a connotation as being lesser than “college prep.” It is time to elevate “career readiness” at this critical change in educational policy.

Schools could be designed to have students demonstrate their college and/or career competencies in one of two tracks, SAT/ACT or NOCTI. This type of differentiation might trigger the type of education reform that allows all students to truly find success in the training of their vocational track.

Please leave comments, so that we can clarify our thinking about this groundbreaking topic and possibly push for reform.

Yours in Education,

Dr. Gregory M. McGough, Blogger & Podcaster

A GPS for College and Career Readiness

GPSHiking a nature trail is a great experience for exercise and enjoyment. When hiking familiar trails, we know the route  and we can just enjoy the experience and not have to worry about getting lost or have need for a map. This comfortable experience of hiking can be compared to the conditions in many schools, where a culture of focusing on preparing students for the next grade level, hopefully moving on to college, is familiar territory for educators and we continue to exercise and enjoy the experience. However, when we introduce college AND career readiness to the equation, our comfortable hike takes on a very different experience and we uncomfortably find ourselves in uncharted territory. The area around us is different and we’re unsure of our destination. We are in desperate need of a map.

Finding our way in the world has become much easier and we have added a new term to our navigation vocabulary — GPS (Global Positioning System). Maps and compasses are old technology and today we have the added benefit of GPS. A GPS has the convenience of a well marked map, often in electronic form on a smart phone. But, it also has the exact positioning of where we are in relation to the trail, our environment and can automatically map out a route for us to find our destination. This convenient technology has made it much easier to find our way in a new neighborhood, or a new trail.

In schools, as we negotiate the new terrain of college AND career readiness, leaders often wish we had a similar GPS that would give us greater detail about the unfamiliar terrain, show us exactly where we are and automatically map our route to the destination. We are no where near a smartphone app that would give us a very clear indication of how to improve schools, but recently developed tools give us many of the elements of a GPS to map our way towards this important student goal of college and career readiness.

The Career Readiness Institute (CRI) hosted by the Successful Practices Network (SPN) has created a Career Readiness Self-Assessment. Building upon over a decade of cataloging the best practices in America’s most rapidly improving schools, SPN has developed a series of checklists which serve as the equivalent of a GPS to guide schools toward its destination of college and career readiness. This self-assessment includes a series of checklists which enable schools to more precisely identify where their school community is in relationship to this changing terrain. Since schools have a very comfortable experience in mapping their programs towards college readiness, these checklists primarily focus on career readiness. However, many aspects of school relate to both college and career readiness as partially overlapping goals and several checklists relate to both.

The checklists include school characteristics in three areas. First, Results encourages leadership teams to reflect on their overall student learning results and look beyond the minimum measures of state academic assessments. The checklists encourage schools to examine achievement in stretching students beyond the minimum and also including measures on student performances and developing Life/Career Abilities or “soft skills.” The second area of checklists focus on school Culture. Often the existing culture of the school either enables or hinders a school improvement or change initiative. Examining these current behaviors related to school culture gives leadership teams a more precise identification of aspects of culture that need to be changed over time. Finally, the third area of checklists focuses on Practices — those unique instructional planning, instruction and student support services that are necessary to develop career readiness.

The Career Readiness Self-Assessment is a powerful new resource to guide schools in their planning. You can learn more about the self-assessment by going to the Career Readiness Institute website or viewing this podcast overview .  School leaders and staff should not feel overwhelmed when hiking through new territory of college and career readiness.  There are tools and experience, equivalent of a GPS, that can guide us to this destination.

The Challenge of Grading Student Performance

Grading has historically implied the determination of whether a grades2student response is correct or incorrect. Averaging correct response often determines an overall grade.  To evaluate  student work on performance assessments—where student skills and capabilities can be directly observed—teachers often use rubrics. These rubrics are much better in giving detailed feedback on the level of performance to students, teachers, and parents. Further, rubrics are much more appropriate where the application of knowledge and skills serves as the focus of the assessment. A challenge for teachers is how to give feedback on performance and still record some student grade.

As opposed to dichotomous scoring, rubrics allow for the “classification” of student performance (e.g., skill mastery, comprehension, competence, etc.) along some sort of well-defined continuum. These various continua might be based quality of performance, frequency of performance, depth of understanding, or numerous other types of performance descriptors. Regardless of whether analytic, holistic, or mini-rubrics are being used, these continua allow teachers to communicate about specific student strengths and deficiencies—something that the typical pencil-and-paper assessments simply cannot do.

However, that being said, care should be taken when developing rubrics. The language must be clear and the descriptions of adjacent levels of specific performance indicators should not “overlap” in any way. This will undoubtedly lead to confusion on the part of the student (or parent) when reviewing the results of a performance assessment rubric completed by the teacher. Honestly, this can also result in confusion in the mind of the teacher, if clarity is not built into the rubric.

Rubrics are fabulous tools that enable teachers to provide substantive and meaningful feedback to students. However, they must be carefully designed in order to accomplish this goal. For more information about designing and using scoring rubrics, and to read the entire chapter titled, How Do You “Grade” Student Work On Performance Assessments?.

Crowdsourcing Learning

Original design by G. McGough using
Original design by G. McGough using

The students sat in relative silence and completed the online pre-quiz using Edmodo, a free social media and 1:1 learning platform. The moment the students submitted their responses the program provided immediate feedback on their current level of  knowledge and awareness in the area of subject/verb agreement. As I made my way around the room, students analyzed their incorrect responses and asked me to interpret the assessment data.  If the class average was 90% or higher, the students could skip this particular lesson. Less than 30 seconds after the last quiz submission, I explained that the class fell short of expectations and would be crowdsourcing the learning of subject/verb agreement. The pre-quiz provided the students with individual data as to their current academic level in this small grammar lesson. Now they were aware of their learning deficiencies.

It is easier to fill the gaps in a student’s understanding when s/he has the ability to stand on the edge of misunderstanding and peer into the darkness. The decision to alter the focus and direction of my students’ learning was a direct result of a specific in-service.

A diverse panel of employers from our local Chamber of Commerce came to Penn Manor High School to speak with the faculty and staff. The panel was formed to speak with the school faculty and staff to share what they are currently looking for in future employees. After expressing gratitude and some general niceties, their remarks echoed three common themes on the qualities of a successful 21st Century employee: initiative, ingenuity, integrated thinking. These employers are looking for workers who show initiative to meet problems head on, demonstrate ingenuity to locate unique solutions, and collaborate with others to develop complex integrated thinking models. The “sit-and-git” method of lecture and 20th Century assessment will not prepare students in the type of career readiness skills that employers are now requiring.

Back to the grammar lesson in my ELA classroom…once an individual learning goal was established, the students were encouraged to leverage the Internet for unique learning resources for subject/verb agreement. The assignment encouraged students to seek out answers using their school-issued laptops. Some listened to teachers from all over the nation/world lecture on TeacherTube and SchoolTube, while others played interactive video games that covered key concepts and ideas. The heightened level of engagement and quality of resources allowed for students to seek out their own differentiation in learning. Although the lesson was labeled grammar, the hidden curriculum demonstrated the type of individual ownership that students must develop if they are going to exist in the 21st Century world of careers.The post-quiz data showed an average of a 4% gain in the average class score.

In an era where teachers are suffering “initiative fatigue,” a condition caused by requiring a staff to implement too many reform initiatives in a short period of time, the Career Readiness Institute is attempting to spread the word for a small scale reform measure. Instructional leaders and teachers must redesign the very focus of instruction to help students develop important career-ready soft skills while learning the content contained in rigorous academic standards.

Please share stories from your classroom where students have to take initiative, to develop ingenuity, or to integrate complex ideas while solving real world problems.

Please follow us on Twitter @CareerRI

Gregory M. McGough, blogger & social media strategist

The “Soft Skills” Gap

Harvested from the CRI Website
Harvested from the CRI Website

As she exited the room, she smiled and spoke sincerely, “Thank You, Mr. McGough.” This display of positive social interaction appeared to be as natural for her as kneeling to tie a pair of noisy shoelaces that tap out a tickling beat on the school floor. As the only student who thanks me on a daily basis for my teaching efforts, she certainly stands out from the rest of her technology-infused classmates who exit the room connected to some type of electronic music device.

Her gratitude and kindness is rare and exceptional, but should it be?

In the second decade of the 21st Century, public schools are evolving to meet the economic, social, and political demands of a new technologically-connected era by adopting higher academic standards and infusing technology into classroom practices. At the end of the schooling experience, the ultimate goal for any parent or guardian is that their children find a career pathway that is challenging and allows them to be financially independent. Although I am an advocate for these reform initiatives, there is a hidden sociocultural force threatening the equitable nature of schooling. As students begin to navigate a more rigorous and technologically-connected school experience, they are losing a host of “soft skills” that place their future employability in peril.

As a high school English teacher, I work from the simple premise that ALL students have the capacity to learn. As a result of this foundational belief, I find myself helping students who truly do not ask for…nor do they appreciate my efforts. A negative attitude does not stop me from trying to help a student to understand a concept or develop an appropriate skill, but do the surly or complacent receive the very best I have to offer? The simple answer is, “No.”

What can be done to address the inequality that is developing between those students with “soft skills” and those who are left wanting?

First, a little background is necessary to understand how this new “soft skills” gap is beginning to emerge. The very programs that are trying to reform education may be contributing to this new form of inequality. Let’s look at a small example. The Common Core State Standards(CCSS) in English Language Arts (ELA) were developed to standardize curricula across the nation at the state-level. The marketing strategy of the CCSS promotes the message that all students who meet the rigorous demands of these standards will be “college and career ready.” English language arts instruction has been divided into four pillars of instruction: reading, writing, language, and speaking & listening. The inequality is not in the standards themselves but in the overemphasis emphasis placed on some of them.

The current, high-stakes, standardized testing regiment places more value on three of the CCSS pillars (reading, writing, and language), and it appears to devalue the fourth (speaking & listening).  It is difficult to develop an objective assessment for the type of “soft skills” that are required in Pillar 4: speaking and listening.  Those standards that have assessment items on the state test are receiving a larger amount of attention while “soft skills” development is once again skipped as a non-tested skill. Let’s be honest…expressing genuine gratitude and developing positive relationships is a career readiness “soft skill” that will be more useful to the learner than the knowledge of the proper use of the semicolon.

The Career Readiness Institute is built on the belief that technology innovation and increased academic expectations are necessary for the advancement of the American education system, but it is equally important that our students never lose the capacity for those career ready  “soft skills” such as kindness and the ability to communicate in a positive manner.

Please follow us on Twitter @CareerRI

Gregory M. McGough, blogger & social media strategist

Four Dead Fish

Caity & FishMy eight-year-old daughter Caity had been expressing interest in studying sharks for a week or two when I came upon a small water quality testing kit in our cluttered basement. We dusted it off, and she quickly went to work reading and filling test tubes with water and chemicals. She took her findings and recorded them in her notebook. Satisfied that she had prepared the water for her new charges, she cleaned up her research area and scampered off to get her brother. When we returned from running a few household errands, the four fish were dead in the crystal clear water and a real world problem was presented to an eight-year-old mind. What happened next surprised this veteran teacher and father of two. Caity held her tears, set her face, and went directly to her notebook. She poured over her baseline and cleaning #1 findings. She then disappeared for forty-five minutes and returned with more questions than answers. This third grader had been in her room reading the aquarium manuals and small fish books that were included in her testing kits. These readings were written several Lexile levels above her current reading level. Realizing that I was not going to be able to answer her questions, we quickly grabbed my son Gabe and drove to That Fish Place, a local pet store specializing in aquariums and aquatic wonders. One of the employees studied my daughter’s notes and identified the invisible killer to be unsafe chlorine levels within our drinking water.

The nonfiction documents and manuals that my daughter read on her own were of interest to her because they were going to help her solve a real-world problem that she cared about. Her rigorous research efforts were driven by an internal need to find a solution to her problem. In the end, she may not win a Nobel Prize as an ichthyologist, but she did learn the power of problem solving and perseverance in seeking answers to problems. These soft skills are very important in the early development of her becoming college & career ready.

Sometimes schools need to let students explore their passions and view the problems they face as triggers of “teachable moments.” Career readiness skills can be cultivated in the early grades during creative role-playing. How do you inspire young people to problem-solve and persevere during creative play?

Please follow the Career Readiness Institute on Twitter @CareerRI

Gregg McGough, CRI Blogger & Social Media Strategist