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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Implementing ‘Multiple Career Pathways to Engage All Learners’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 10, 2021 13 min read
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(This is the final post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.)

The question-of-the-week is:

Some research suggests that as students get older, their engagement with school tends to decrease. How can schools combat this trend?

Part One‘s contributors were Janice Wyatt-Ross, Dr. PJ Caposey, Michelle Shory, Irina McGrath, and Matt Renwick. Janice was also a guest on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Scott Bayer, Amanda Lescas, Ryan Huels, and Joy Hamm shared their thoughts.

In Part Three, Tonia Gibson, Katie Shenk, Libby Woodfin, Jayson W. Richardson, and Luiza Mureseanu, offered their observations.

This four-part series is wrapped up today by Dustin Goldie, Cathy Seeley, Keisha Rembert, and Jeremy Bletterman.

Non college options

Dustin Goldie has taught at Kings High School in southwest Ohio for 17 years. Follow him on Twitter page at @KingsEmployabili1:

In the 1990s and 2000s, schools began to promote a “one-size-fits-all model” for students. College, College, College, and more College was the motto. As state funding began to run dry in many states, programs like wood shop and metals classes were eliminated. College prep was the new trend.

Students who spent time walking around the shop class suddenly were forced to sit in “college prep” classrooms where they were told they must go to college. The logical placement for these noncollege students would be career technical centers. However, ugly stigmas, such as “only dumb, troublemakers” went to vocational schools, kept many students from enrolling. We have unintentionally failed a segment of our student population because we have forced them into a college track that doesn’t fit their learning needs.

I propose high schools implement multiple career pathways to engage ALL learners. As educators, we must start a new motto, “College is not for everyone, and those students who pursue other career pathways will be successful.”

Schools must begin an aggressive campaign to promote multiple career pathways for students. Promotion of career centers and technical sshould be priority number one. However, if students don’t want to go to the career centers, bring the career centers to them. Implement workforce partnerships with local businesses. Set up company tours for students who are not sure what career pathways they would like to partake in. These workforce initiatives can enhance student engagement by getting students excited about manufacturing, skilled trades, health care and other forms of career technical education. Guest speakers from the private and public sectors, skilled trades, and other professions can expose students to other careers that do not require a four-year traditional degree.

As engagement increases, schools can implement job-shadowing experiences, flexible scheduling, and internships/apprenticeships during the school day. Students who were once stuck in a 50-minute lecture during a college-prep course would now find themselves in control of their own time with customized schedules and “learn and earn” opportunities outside of the school.

Online learning is another option school leaders can use to enhance noncollege student engagement. Students can take customized, online curriculum to help gain credits sooner by demonstrating pretest knowledge and abbreviated curriculum. This allows students more opportunity and flexibility to be engaged in real-world-learning programs to help advance their careers.


‘Build in relevance’

Dr. Cathy Seeley has been a teacher, mathematics coordinator, state mathematics director, and senior fellow at the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas, as well as a Peace Corps mathematics teacher in Burkina Faso from 1999-2001. Cathy was president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics from 2004-2006 and has written several books:

It may be tempting to describe some students as “unmotivated” and to attribute their diminished engagement to their lack of motivation. But motivation is something teachers can influence. By the time they reach high school, many students have become accustomed to an expectation that in many of their classes they will sit still and listen, as receptors for information shared by the teacher (perhaps with input from a few eager students). It shouldn’t surprise us when students grow weary of being observers in school rather than being active participants in it.

Students may become less engaged over time when they become bored with what happens in their classes or when they feel disconnected from their academic experience. A few years back, a report titled “The Silent Epidemic” related experiences and perspectives of high school dropouts. Almost half of the students interviewed who had dropped out of high school reported finding their classes uninteresting (Bridgeland, Dilulio & Morison, 2006). Their comments reflected teaching that did not involve students in the learning but rather focused on the teacher presenting material via lecture or assigned reading. Many students said their classes did not seem likely to be useful in their lives.

Unfortunately, even with many reforms having been implemented over the past few decades, the primary mode of instruction in many classrooms continues to be the delivery of information. Students are excited and more engaged when they find themselves in a classroom with an enthusiastic teacher with a great personality. But all teachers, even such popular teachers, can engage more students if we find ways to tap into the students’ thinking, even more than if we find ways to jazz up the delivery of information.

More and more teachers are discovering that when we design lessons to build on students’ own thinking and ideas, many students who have felt disengaged can, over time, be drawn back into learning. And imagine the cumulative effect on students’ experience of school if we were able to build in relevance and an expectation of thinking and engagement from the primary grades all the way through high school.

Shifting our emphasis in school from imparting information to valuing every students’ thinking and experience can yield powerful results for students across all levels of achievement. Teachers who have made this kind of shift continue to discover new stars—students who might otherwise have become disengaged from their learning reveal more thinking than anyone might have expected.

My field of mathematics has, unfortunately, been guilty over the years of a characterization of classrooms where teachers base their lessons on telling students rules and procedures for students to memorize and then use in particular types of problems. Fortunately, in more and more mathematics classrooms today, we’re seeing teachers make better use of research-based effective teaching practices that focus on using rich, meaningful tasks that engage students in thinking. In this kind of student-focused classroom, the teacher’s role shifts from delivering information to orchestrating classroom discussions around that thinking (see Principles to Actions, NCTM, 2014). It takes considerable planning to create this kind of rich learning experience for students. But creating such teacher-structured classrooms produces far more learning than more traditional teacher-centered classrooms.

Stimulated by what we now know about the importance of a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006; Boaler, 2015), we have come to value students’ productive struggles on their way to solving problems that initially may seem beyond their reach. Even their mistakes can yield powerful learning when we create classroom environments focused on the journey to learning and not only the right answer. We have come to see that our students’ engagement in the learning process, valuing their own mistakes, and understanding that they can grow smarter by working through hard problems will not only engage them more but also will lead them to become powerful problem solvers who will end up producing far more right answers than students in more traditional classrooms.

References can be found here.


Students should be ‘co-teachers’

Keisha Rembert is a passionate learner and fierce equity advocate. She was an award-winning middle school ELA and United States history teacher who now instructs preservice teachers. Twitter ID: @klrembert:

We must change our conventional notions of schooling and what learning looks like. We need to consult our students early and often. They should be part of our curriculum committees, they should be our co-teachers, planning and delivering instruction alongside their teachers.

We must also consider the world they are entering. Our classrooms need to become think tanks, labs for experimentation (and I am not talking about just the science classrooms), and places to design and challenge themselves.

I also think this must lead to outside the walls of the school building. Students will be more engaged and better learners and thinkers if they can collaborate with experts in the field. Writing becomes more meaningful when you can see the process and talk to people doing the work of publishing every day. The decentralizing and deprivatizing of learning can ensure older students are engaged. By making student-learning opportunities public and centric to the student, learning becomes not a task for the classroom or the thing you do for a grade, it becomes important for living.


‘Motivated skills’

Jeremy Bletterman is the assistant division head of The Windward School’s Manhattan Middle School. He began his Windward career at Westchester, in West Harrison, N.Y., as a language arts and math teacher and athletics coach, before becoming the school’s first activities coordinator at the Manhattan campus:

Shortly after graduating from college, I worked with a career counselor who taught me an invaluable lesson about the importance of identifying one’s “motivated skills.” She had me complete a Venn diagram, with one circle representing the skills I am objectively good at, regardless of whether I enjoy employing them, and the other representing the skills I enjoy utilizing, regardless of whether I am any good at them. The overlap of these two distinct circles represented my motivated skills, those I am both good at and enjoy putting into practice.

One can argue that motivated skills are absolutely vital to sustained career satisfaction; if you enjoy your work and experience efficacy while doing it, chances are your interest and engagement will last, and you will be less likely to become stagnant or disinterested over time, as many people unfortunately do. After you’ve identified your motivated skills, identifying career paths that necessitate using those skills on a consistent basis becomes one challenge. Another challenge, of course, is finding the grit and resilience to see that career goal all the way through.

Two years ago, I gave a talk to a group of 7th graders about this very topic. They were interviewing various adults throughout our community for a bulletin board project, and this group selected me. At the time, I was in my second year as an administrator and missed the classroom terribly. I relished—and still relish—speaking directly with students, and when I mentioned that education represented a change of career for me and how I had gone through the process of identifying my motivated skills in order to find a career that better suited me, the class appeared not only interested but completely engaged, as they asked a litany of questions about how they could go about finding similar satisfaction in hypothetical careers they were just beginning to entertain.

Too often, I fear, educators underestimate students’ ability not only to understand, but also to take responsibility for, the long-term consequences of their actions and how the decisions they make now can and ultimately will impact their future selves. Like many kids, these students had hopes and dreams of their own and visions of future experiences that would not only shape their development but also have a meaningful impact on their lives and on the world around them. Hinting at the future and the weighty prospect of achieving one’s hopes and dreams—or at least starting to contemplate what those might be—can provide purpose and motivation for students that is both personal and real.

Of course, it’s completely age-appropriate for middle school students to pump the brakes academically, thinking they’ve conquered middle school and that they deserve a break before another eight-year slog through high school and college. And, it’s also developmentally appropriate for kids at this age to “try on” different personalities during the tumult of adolescent development. (I had an honors math teacher during my senior year of high school who can attest to the fact that even straight-A students can be tempted to take a semester off from time to time.) So, I remind students ever year that, in middle school, they are at roughly the halfway point of their academic careers. If they plan to go on to high school and college, they are at Mile 13 of a 26-mile, ultra-endurance marathon, a physical and mental endeavor that will test their will and may make all the difference in their lives.

While being mindful not to heap additional pressure or anxiety on our students, who are facing unprecedented challenges that few, if any, of us have experienced firsthand, I feel it is absolutely critical to help students understand the work they are putting in now will open the doors they hope to pass through in the future. At the very least, developing positive and productive work habits and a growth mindset will certainly benefit them, regardless of the paths they ultimately choose.


Thanks to Dustin, Cathy, Keisha, and Jeremy for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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