Archived — Letting students help themselves and their school
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Austin O'Brien High School
"Can I go straight to work?" That is a common question in Garry Kroy's Career and Technology Studies (CTS) class, which gives students experience in a variety of career areas. His students are eager to get started because many of the things they do in class are real-life jobs that help their school and community. Mr. Kroy has taken advantage of the equipment he uses to allow students to put their newly acquired skills in electronics, computer-assisted design, desktop publishing, radio, video, silkscreening, sign making, animation, robotics, welding, construction and the Internet to work.
He has also made effective use of the new CTS curriculum in Alberta to create a facility and a program that introduces his students to a wide range of workplace skills. Since arriving at Austin O'Brien High in the early 1990s, he has turned everything from minor crises to extracurricular activities into learning opportunities for his students.
Here he tells us a little bit about the situation he found himself in at the beginning of the decade and how he built an inspiring new program out of the opportunities he saw.
I was lucky enough to arrive at my school at a time when there was a tremendous opportunity for growth; however, it did not initially seem that way. In the early 1990s, enrolment was declining and the board was considering closing the school. What I found when I got here was not a staff in despair, however, but a dedicated team of educators keen to save the school. Being a part of the team that helped turn around Austin O'Brien High was very inspiring and had a powerful effect on the way I work.
I was able to add to the spirit of cooperation and teamwork by having my students help out with school and community projects. Because the practical skills and the equipment we use in CTS are useful for many of these projects, I was able to have the students contribute and perfect their skills at the same time. Also, a number of local organizations and businesses have given financial and staff support to our programs. Our partnership with the Edmonton Sun has helped our school newspaper immensely. A local Knights of Columbus club has helped us purchase major pieces of equipment that keep us on the cutting edge of new technology.
The academic basis that made it possible to integrate these projects into the curriculum was the new CTS curriculum in Alberta, which allows students to work on individual modules that develop specific knowledge, skills and attitudes. With this curriculum, I work with my students at the beginning of the year on problem solving, team building, and design skills before turning to the modules — which students can work on individually or in groups — that will help them discover their interests and abilities.
The modules are well designed and motivate students to progress to intermediate and advanced skill levels in many career areas. We have been able to add to the benefits provided by the new curriculum by putting together a great facility here. Our students have access to a large number of the approximately 620 modules available in the Alberta CTS curriculum.
The curriculum made it possible for me to include a series of additional projects that allow students to integrate the skills they learn. These projects carry on the team spirit that has made such a difference at Austin O'Brien. Some examples of the work my students do are photography, word processing and desktop publishing for our school newspaper, producing videos for the school or community, designing and printing T-shirts for a sports team, welding a broken part on a piece of gym equipment, producing a short radio program to promote a school activity, growing plants at the hydroponics station and using computer-assisted design tools to design community building projects.
Most schools should be able to do similar integrations of career and technology studies curricula because of something all schools have in common: there is always a whole raft of things that need to be done and not enough people with the time to do them. Technology teachers are particularly well placed to take advantage of this situation because we typically have the facilities to do so many things. It also presents a great opportunity for our students to work on something applied rather than another prepackaged project.
Students respond to the challenge that real-life projects present. They do a better job when they can see that what they are working on matters to them and to the rest of the school. The whole experience is also much closer to what they will find when they join the working world.
Finding opportunities for students to help is not hard. Just off the top of my head, I can imagine a whole slew of situations that could be integrated into my curriculum. For example,
- a school sports team wins the provincial finals and members would like a T-shirt to commemorate the occasion
- the drama department is doing a play that could use some impressive special effects
- students from a design class would like a video to show off their achievements
- a community project needs a web page.
In fact, if you get a reputation for helping out, you don't need to make an effort to think of opportunities any more. They will come to you.
What you do need is to be organized enough to match up students and projects. You also have to let other teachers in on the logistical problems and challenges you face so that they will know to come to you in enough time to get the project done.
When I first started my program, I focussed on one type of project. I picked a particular area of expertise and developed it from there. A teacher could begin with just video, audio or small construction projects. Once you have the logistics down pat, you can branch out.
When considering a new project, the first thing I do is go through the list of students and the modules they have completed. The most important thing is to match students with appropriate skills to the job so they won't find it too challenging or too simplistic. A team halfway through the sign module, for example, is the ideal group to create a banner for graduation.
In addition to the skills from the modules, the problem solving, teamwork and design skills we covered at the beginning of the year get integrated into the projects. I outline the proposed job to group members to make sure they buy in. They usually do because they have considerable incentives for doing so. For starters, I have made room in my evaluation for additional marks for this kind of work. Many times, the school or community group will add their own incentives, whether that be a dinner, a small payment or even an interview for a future job. Finally, the students get to contribute to their school and community.
The students then go through a problem-solving process. They talk to the clients to find out what they need, have a brainstorming session and then develop a proposed design. Once everybody approves the design the students carry out the actual work. Afterwards, the students critique their work and talk about how it might be done better. If it is a recurring project, the feedback will be documented so that next year's team can take advantage of past experience. The other major benefit is that the client will pay for all materials and many times provide extra funding for our program.
There is a lot of enthusiasm among students for client projects. Sometimes students who have already finished the program will help. Unlike other work we do in the class, I do not have to make this stuff seem like a real-life situation — the students already know it is. If they are making a banner for their graduation, for example, you can be sure the students will do it professionally because all their friends are going to see it. In addition, each student leaves the class with a portfolio highlighting the knowledge and skills that he or she has developed.
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