Back in my small Minnesota high school, when all my attention was focused on books and tennis rackets, I had no idea of all the careers that existed.
If you had asked me to name what careers I had to choose from, I probably would have listed six: doctor, teacher, businessperson, minister, lawyer, scientist. I knew I loved to read, and I knew I enjoyed writing, debating, and speaking. Key ELA skills for sure. I was a shoe-in for the English major, but what then?
After a weirdly fun mock-trial of Gustave Flaubert in A.P. World Literature, law school began to appeal. But mostly I didn’t really know what I wanted to be, because I really didn’t know what any jobs would be like except for the ones my parents did. My mom was a chaplain and my dad was a professor.
So I went away to a sunny SoCal liberal arts college to study English and play tennis, thinking maybe I’d become a lawyer, minister, or teacher. After three blissful years reading Austen and Shakespeare, traveling the country with my tennis team, and eating late night brownie sundaes with my best friends, I still hadn’t really been exposed to any careers.
With senior year approaching, I realized I better go to some of the events at the “Careers Week” put on by the “after college” department. I headed for a teaching panel, talked my way into an internship for the next year, loved it, and ended up with a job that was a great fit for me.
But really, shouldn’t I have had more idea of what was waiting for me in the world before the age of 21?
Was your path like this?
Recently I’ve begun to think about this more, and think it would really help our students buy into the skills of ELA a bit more if they understood how relevant they are out in the world. Plus, it might help them feel more direction and focus as they attend school across the disciplines, thinking about how they might apply what they learn. It’s a pretty amazing world of options out there these days, but how many kids really understand that? It’s not enough for them to know what their family members and friends are doing.
So, though I know there’s already an awful lot to fit into the English year, I think it’s worth spending a few days or weeks on a careers unit. But not just the traditional unit, where you talk about resumes and interviews and letters of inquiry. Though these skills are wonderful, and relevant, I’m talking about activities and exploration of all that’s out there. Beyond the six careers I could name as a kid.
Let’s get students excited about the creative things they could do later on – whether or not those careers use ELA skills (but really, soooooooo many do at this point).
Build your own ELA Careers Unit (choose the ones you like!):
The Careers Scavenger Hunt
This is one of my favorites, and such an easy way to begin a careers unit. Just ask your students to begin noticing the careers they are interacting with, making a list of every career they can think of that relates to what they do for one day. Challenge them to come up with at least twenty-five.
For example, they wake up and check their phones (social media influencer, programmer, designer, app creation, phone sales), pick up coffee (coffee shop manager or owner, organic coffee farmer, pastry chef, interior designer, contractor, advertising agent), go to school (teacher, administrator, politician, secretary, department chair, electrician, engineer), head for the mall (clothing designer, clothing buyer, social media for clothing lines, marketer, photographer, restaurant manager, chef, furniture buyer, urban planner etc.).
I realize I’m only scratching the surface here, and that’s the point! As students begin to think about all the different jobs associated with their own daily routines, it’ll help open their eyes to the many careers out there.
Similarly, you can help students begin to think beyond the surface by having them write down a field they’re interested in and brainstorm and/or research twenty-five different jobs in that field. What jobs are connected to film director? SO many. To doctor? To teacher? To chef? This is a really fun activity to stretch student’s imaginations. Then have students walk around to see each other’s lists, jotting down the one career on each other list that most appeals to them.
Class Career Blog
One unique way of approaching a careers unit is to start a class careers blog, inviting each student to shadow someone whose line of work interests them and then make a contribution to the blog based on what they learn.
The contribution could be a video they make about the experience, a narrative profile they write about the person they shadow, a Q & A style written interview, a photo essay, or something else. Let students choose a multimedia option that best fits their experience.
If you’re going to publish the careers blog online so that all students can access the many wonderful resources they create for each other, and so that other students can add to it in the coming years, be sure to get the permission of those being shadowed to publish their image and story online.
Similarly, you could create a class podcast, having each student contribute by recording an interview with someone about their career. Students could learn to reach out with inquiries, write interview questions, and record sound clips.
To take it a step further, you could learn about sound editing in Garage Band and record an opener to go with all the podcasts, knitting them together into a career show for high school students. At that point you could put it online on a website of your own design or actually submit it to a podcast distributor.
Timeline of a Start-Up
I have become a huge fan of the NPR podcast, How I Built This, which dives deep into the details of how different businesses went from nothing to something. Whether you’re hearing Alice Waters talking about the origins of Chez Panisse, or the story of the start of Toms, DoorDash, or Airbnb, it’s always surprising and inspiring to hear how one person stuck to their passion and built it into something huge.
Let students choose an episode based on a company they’re actually interested in, and create timelines to show how the company grew (generally slowly, with lots of setbacks and lots of commitment and creativity from the creator!). Then share these timelines in a gallery walk or with mini-presentations so students get a taste of many different stories.
The Careers Flipbook
Once students have begun to think more broadly about the many careers out there, they can dive a bit deeper into some they’re interested in by creating a careers flipbook.
For this assignment, they choose a set number of jobs to dive a little deeper into, then do research to discover what it’s like to do the job, what the average salary is, what the work environment is like, and what kind of related jobs someone on that career path could move into as they improve or learn new and related skills.
Again, the careers flipbook project lends itself well to sharing, and once the flipbooks are done, you can have students gallery walk through and learn more about the jobs shared by their classmates.
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Hopefully after completing a few of these activities, your students will have a broader view of the working world and a little more motivation to care about the skills they’re learning in your classroom.
After all, restaurant owners need to be able to write e-mail newsletters these days. Business owners may draw clientele through podcasting and social media captions. App designers must be able to pitch their ideas through strong presentations to venture capitalists. You know what I’m getting at.
As you move through this mini-unit, help students think about how what they learn now will matter later. As a friend on Instagram recently mentioned to me, learning about careers in high school is like understanding why Mr. Miyogi was teaching Daniel to “wax on, wax off” in the Karate Kid. Once Daniel knew the point of these skills he was suffering to learn, he began to enjoy learning from Mr. Miyogi. And of course, (spoiler alert), we all know how he dominated that jerk in the tournament finals later on. For our students too, understanding the relevance of ELA and school in general can be a powerful motivation.