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Be Who You Really Want to Be In The World of Work

Ronnie and Yamilett2
Ronnie on his last day at Nazareth Child Care Center

I recently read an article titled “What Young Men of Color Can Teach Us About the Achievement Gap” on NPR. The author interviewed Harvard education researcher Ron Ferguson on his latest report commissioned by the Urban Institute. Ferguson’s report centers on strategizing better educational outcomes for boys and young men of color.

Ferguson talks about the school environment as a “sociological predicament” for young men of color. They may enter school already several years behind grade level, and in school encounter challenging behaviors from peers; their racial and gender identities are shaped in part by these experiences. What results is that these young men may succumb to stereotype threat[1], where they subscribe to behaviors and attitudes that do not necessarily fit with their identity, but seem to be a requirement to fit in.

Ferguson’s insights caught my attention. I started thinking: how can Apprentice Learning collaborate with educators in our partner schools to combat this “sociological predicament”? And what strategies can we use so that our students do not feel “othered” in the world of work?

Our hope for Apprentice Learning is that all of our students, including young men of color, have an opportunity to reinvent themselves at their apprenticeship if they want to. We strive to match students with site partners based on their interests and abilities, so that they may “be who they really want to be” and not feel constrained by their position in the social structure.

Nazareth Child Care in Jamaica Plain has been a devoted site partner to Apprentice Learning. As one might expect, the majority of the students we send are female. This year we had two male students of color participate in the apprenticeship at Nazareth. What we witnessed in this new environment is that these young men were tender and nurturing; they broke from their school personas to show another side of themselves.

Students who struggle in school academically or behaviorally can find success at their apprenticeship. And they may encounter a space in which they can see themselves differently. Our goal is for students to begin to think about and plan for their future. This exploration begins with an understanding of who they are, perhaps outside of this sociological predicament, and where they want to go.

As Ferguson says, we have to be aware that there is a complex web of conditions that has gotten us where we are. We are by no means presenting Apprentice Learning as a silver bullet, nor are we trying to bash public education. Our hope is that through open dialogue and collaboration we can provide a better education of life to all of our students.

[1] Steele, C. (1997). A threat in the air: how stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, 52(6), pp. 613–629.

 

Letter to our worksite partners

Yanisa designing a window display The Thrift Shop of Boston.
Yanisa designing a window display The Thrift Shop of Boston.

Thanks for your participation in the spring apprenticeships. Our students benefit tremendously from the time you spend mentoring and teaching them. Many of our alums return with vivid recollections of their experience so we know it has an impact on a young person’s outlook on the world. We appreciate you!

Partners hosting this spring’s 21 apprentices are:

Ace Hardware in Roslindale
Birth Street Home & Garden
Boing Toy Shop
Caramelo (Thursday)
Fresh Hair (Thursday)
Horizons for Homeless Children
Game Engagement Lab at Emerson CollegePet Cabaret
Microsoft Store (7)
Nazareth Childcare Center
Polka Dog Bakery
Rédgine’s Botanical Spirits
The Thrift Hop of Boston
Station8 Hair Salon

Week one is always the Week of Nerves for the apprentices. For most, it is the first time for independent interactions with adults who are neither families nor teachers. Our preparation emphasizes the importance of introducing oneself with a great smile, handshake and a clearly spoken name. On your part, if you can provide a clear overview of your business, a spot for backpacks and put them right to work! Please remind the apprentices to take off their coats.

Our staff will make brief workplace visits over the next six weeks. These check-ins are an opportunity for you to share any questions or observations with us and for us to convey any questions that have come up via the apprentice. Our aim is to make the most of both your and the students’ time.

Also, we’d like to arrange some time to interview you about your experience as a site partner. As our program grows to serving over 100 students in schools in Brighton and Jamaica Plain, you can help us attract new business partners. Please let us know if you would be willing to speak about your worksite partner experience.

The Opportunity Gap Begins Early

The term “opportunity gap” refers to the ways in which race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, English proficiency, community wealth, familial situations, or other factors contribute to or perpetuate lower educational aspirations, achievement, and attainment for certain groups of students[1].


1]
http://edglossary.org/opportunity-gap/.

In September 2015, the New York Times published a piece titled, “Education Gap Between Rich and Poor is Growing Wider”, in which the author, Eduardo Porter, explains how improvement in educational outcomes must be taken with a grain of salt.  Educational outcomes for African-American children improved in the decades followingdesegregation, yet these gains have been undermined by another gap, one between rich and poor, which has opened wider than ever.

In the United States, race is tied to class. During 2007-2011, 25 percent of Black or African American people experienced poverty, in contrast with the national rate of 14 percent, and 11 percent of white people[2]. In other words, the same population of students continue to experience unequal outcomes, despite the various labels used to describe this inequality.

Low socioeconomic status means that children experience a myriad of disadvantages that go far beyond education. Beginning in kindergarten they are already more than a year behind,  are less likely to matriculate to college, and are less likely to afford enrichment opportunities beyond school. They are more likely to have been born to a teenage mother and live with one parent only: they suffer from higher obesity rates, and have more social and emotional problems. Over time, these disadvantages perpetuate a cycle of poverty and disadvantage. One statistic that Porter does not mention is that African American men who drop out of high school face a nearly 70 percent cumulative risk of imprisonment[3].

We know that the opportunity gap impacts Apprentice Learning students. Across the three schools with which we currently work, 71 percent of students are low income. Apprenticeships inspire career dreams, expose students to professional, caring adults who are not their family or teachers, and provide access to professional settings. As a result, our students gain self-confidence and prepare for the future.

In the early 19th century, famed education reformer (and Massachusetts native) Horace Mann fought hard for education to be the great equalizer. Disparities indicate that education alone will not close the opportunity gap. Apprentice Learning represents one comprehensive strategy to help Boston students succeed.

The link to the full New York Times article can be found here.

[2] https://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/acsbr11-
7.pdf.

[3] http://www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2014/05/10-crime-facts.

Teach to the demands of real life

Jonalis working at Kitchen Central.
Jonalis working at Kitchen Central.
Front and center in our curriculum and practice is the idea of teaching ‘content and skills related to the demands of real life,’ a phrase from Donald Kagan. We use the experience of the workplace to bring this into clear focus and create opportunities to practice these skills:

  • Use self-presentation skills and non-verbal messages like eye contact, listening clues, posture, clothing to communicate with adults.
  • Understand one’s skills, interests, strengths and learning style to process information and advocate effectively.
  • Observe and understand a workplace culture’s expectations for success.

Apprentice Learning starts with explicit teaching and modeling in the classroom. Then students practice by videoing each other and offering critiques. Lastly, the workplace becomes the real world test where students have ample opportunities to practice in conscious and unconscious ways. To build learning, reflection is important. Watch one apprentice’s video here

4 Simple Signs: I am Listening.

Ready for work: are you listening?

listening

Our eighth graders are truly excited to go to their first workplace but it may not always be immediately evident. Adolescent brains process information in wholly different ways than adults. Teachers know this but workplace supervisors may not. We teach our students a simple, effective strategy for interactions in the workplace to help them gain confidence speaking with adults they do not know.

Jeanny and Carylina listening carefully to Ron's directions on the set at WGBH.
Ron coaching Jeanny and Carylina on the set at WGBH. 

Apprentices, show adults you are listening.

You are in school all day. Listening. It is crucial to learning. Throughout the day in the classroom, as you listen to the teacher, you look out the window, turn around in your seat or even close your eyes.

Still listening? Likely you are. Except when you switch to the workplace where communication is usually among adults, you want to be sure to give off a few signals. At work, unlike at school, communication typically occurs among one to four people. Showing them you are listening is especially important.

In a professional setting, when an adult gives you instructions, he or she will look for signals from you that you are listening and that you understand what is being said. That’s what adults expect of each other. Here’s how to Here are a few tips you can use:

Four simple signals.

  1. Eye contact. Look at the person speaking.
  2. Turn your body toward the person speaking. Imagine you are a putting a spotlight on them.
  3. Nod your head. It means you are taking it all in. It could also mean you agree with what’s being said.
  4. Ask questions! It means you get it. It’s the best way to make the conversation more than a one-way presentation. It shows you are listening and learning.

Try it.

Use these signals every 10-20 seconds with adult professionals. Take turns using each one. It will help the adults understand you better. And it helps you learn, too.

Skills That Matter

It goes without saying that the last few years have seen some of the greatest economic growth since the 2008 downturn. Just last week, it was announced that close to 295,000 new jobs were created in the month of February. But with the growing economy has come a growing problem.

New attention is now being paid to what has been coined the skills gap in our country. The skills gap is growing disconnect between the skills that employers deem important to the workplace and the skills that new workers bring with them.

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A January 2015 article in the Washington Post entitled, “Why so many college students are failing to gain job skills before graduation” pointed out that employers find recent college graduates are “severely lacking in some basic skills, particularly problem solving, decision making, and the ability to prioritize tasks.” Research done into the skills gap shows that while many college students believe they are prepared with these skills, their employers disagree.

We’ve reached a point where many of the newly created jobs are going unfilled. Even with years of technical training and specialized education, workers are lacking some of the most foundational skills required to be successful in the workplace.

Here in Jamaica Plain we are taking the skills gap head on. Skills are at the core of what we do at Apprentice Learning. Last week I observed our Apprentices at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University learn more about nano-materials and DNA then most of the people in my college graduating class, and that was only the orientation. An apprenticeship at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering is a parallel work experience, meaning that the apprenticeship is designed to mimic the work experience of professionals in the field. After their orientation, the Apprentices get right to designing. With just a set of bottle caps and magnetic chips, the Apprentices lived through a typical Wyss project. With far less formal education or training, the 8th graders used excellent communication skills and teamwork to accomplish their goal, the same kind of work skills that the highly trained scientists and engineers in the room use on a daily basis.

Apprentices from the BTU Pilot School and the Mission Hill School discuss genetics project.   Photo credit: The Wyss Institute at Harvard
Apprentices discuss genetics project.  Photo Credit: The Wyss Institute at Harvard University. 

This kind of skills practice is true across all of our sites. An Apprentice at First Literacy practices organization while at the Game Engagement Lab at Emerson College they practice attention to detail. Helping customers at Boing Toy Shop entails good communication; while attentiveness and kindness is essential in the care of young children at Horizons for Homeless Children.

Employers in all fields believe these kinds of skills are essential employee success. I am proud to say that our 8th grade Apprentices are getting a head start. When they are at work, the experience they gain may not be specialized training in game development or bioengineering. Instead, they practice skills most valuable to the workplace, communication, punctuality, teamwork, and reliability, skills that will matter for life.

What is a Pot of Gold, Exactly?

I wanted to share a recent blog post by my dear friend and mentor Deborah Meier. Deborah offers an enthusiastic review of a book by Susan Engel, “The End of the Rainbow.” In it. Ms. Engel asks, “What if we made the implicit goal of education happiness rather than monetary attainment?” It’s a fascinating viewpoint that gives all of us on the right and the left, pause for thought. Here’s my thought…

Apprentice Learning is not teaching career education just to help kids make money. We do want Apprentices to have options other than a low wage, low skill job. The skills we teach help young people navigate a complex adult world–one that inevitably includes working–and feel confident in many workplace cultures. These professional skills such as communication, self-advocacy, cultural sensitivity, etc. are valuable in many settings, including those outside of work. Academic skills alone are not adequate.

Our students are motivated to practice and learn because they are eager to work. They want to join the adult world. Most so they can make money. That’s their starting point.

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Kids believe happiness and money are related. What they don’t fully understand is the strange ways they are. Beyond the lifelong pursuit of these skills, we hope our participants grow to understand that attaining happiness is more than just making money.

Taking Things Seriously? Please Do!

The popular press has reams of articles about how not to take things too seriously. In our business working with middle school students, sometimes, we have the opposite problem.

This is the midpoint of the school year—and the time when students edge up to the point of no return. Their toes are on the precipice of failing 8th grade. Warning notices go home this week that say ‘If the student cannot improve, completion of summer school will be required before the student may advance to high school. Staying back in 8th grade. That’s not good.

At home and at school, conversations with the student might go something like this, ”Why aren’t you taking this seriously?” At this point, not taking school—and their academic future—seriously what can we do to disrupt this downward spiral? All too often, the adults are puzzled and frustrated by this disengagement.

Cassidy gives Bryan a lesson on the register
Cassidy gives Bryan a lesson on the register

What does it take to create a seriousness of purpose for a student who is off track? What would spark their engagement? Many students have stellar qualities: they are organized, have strong interpersonal skills, many are punctual and reliable. But without the engagement engine these attributes are sleepers.

For a student relegated to spend five weeks from 8 am to 2 pm in a summer school classroom, what could make the experience worthwhile and valuable?
We see Apprentices who are engaged in their preparation for work and have a very high degree of seriousness. What’s the secret sauce?

Kurt Hahn, founder of the Outward Bound movement once said,
” …There are three ways of trying to win the young. There is persuasion. There is compulsion and there is attraction. You can preach at them; that is a hook without a worm. You can say, “you must volunteer.” That is the devil. And you can tell them, “you are needed” that hardly ever fails.”

Apprenticeships create a place in the world for students to feel needed. They are an invitation to work alongside and join an effort to be of service. Here’s what the Apprentices have to say,

“When my boss taught me how to check people out, I was so excited. I had really wanted to do it. It taught me how to operate a cash register and give people the correct amount of change. It was fun and helped me use my math skills in the ‘Real World’.” – Kaya, Apprentice at Boing! Toy Shop

This prepares us (8th graders) for high school life, not just high school but life itself. I came in here scared is worried—would anyone like me? Is everything gonna go by fast? Slow? It’s worth it because you have a good time and learn skills. I don’t think there was a single dull moment. We have a good time and I learned lots of useful skills. —Yanisa, Apprentice at Thrift Shop of Boston.

As educators, our charge is to create authentic learning experiences that provide a compelling reason for students to take their learning seriously. It’s high stakes learning with clear purpose: to be needed. Ideally, students understand that learning math can mean they will be useful in the world.

What Was Your First Job?

“What was your first job?” This is one of the most common questions we ask at Apprentice Learning. Jobs are always on our mind. It’s what we do for middle school students. And as our fall process of apprenticeships comes full circle, I realize that the question is less about one’s first actual “job” and is instead about the first time you realized that your role in the working world mattered.

My first official job was working in a foster care office when I was about 14. I spent my shifts making copies and… well that’s pretty much it. But when asked about my first job, I always return to when I was 11 and selling frozen Capris Suns and Oreos out of a second book bag I would carry to school. It was a pretty nice setup for an 11-year old. I dragged that heavy second book bag to school filled with frozen Capri Sun juices and packs of Oreo cookies. The only thing I ever worried about was whether or not the juices in my bag would crush the cookies. It may not have been an official job. But I always go back to that as my first real working experience. That’s because it was one of the first “jobs” that actually needed me.

Your first work experience is more than just something to throw on a resume. It’s a way to instill a sense of worth and a feeling of being counted on. This newly support sense of worth changes the way you see yourself and shows you that you belong in working world. You have something to offer and that there are people ready and waiting to see it. This is the moment we are looking for when asking about someone’s first job; the moment when you see the connection between what you can do and what needs to be done.

Our apprenticeships for the fall are complete. I cannot express enough how proud I am of this group of Apprentices. Over the last 2 months we have had 21 Apprentices work at 12 different sites all over the city the Boston. As 8th graders they have cared for infants, managed stocks, edited cartoons, built bikes, organized weights, sold comics, greeted customers, prepared meals, and so much more. They have matured into productive and more self-assured young people. One of them mentioned in his exit interview how special it was to work somewhere that “valued his input.” These Apprentices have all learned some incredible life lessons and are leaving work with new collection of skills that will matter for their entire lives. But along with all of that they are leaving with higher sense of purpose, a deeper understanding of all that they have to offer to the world, and most importantly a belief that the working world is somewhere they belong. Congratulations to the Fall 2014 class of Apprentices. We are so excited for your continued growth and can’t wait to see what other inspiring contributions you will make to the world through your work.

 

I Belong Here

I dropped by the Apple Genius Bar, a help desk where Apple employees known as “Geniuses” fix just about any computer issue you bring them.  I was called for my appointment by a young woman who introduced herself with a joke highlighting the fact that she was the only woman Genius at the Bar. I didn’t even notice until she made the joke.  But in fact, of the 15 Geniuses there that evening, she was the only woman working behind the counter.  In 2012, women made up only 26% of the labor force in computer and mathematics related fields. Unfortunately, until she mentioned it, I barely paid any attention.

There are a variety of reasons why there is a shortage of women in STEM related fields. I won’t pretend to understand them all.  But one barrier for young women is a lack of motivation to even pursue STEM related professions. Many young women in school right now aren’t motivated because they struggle to even imagine themselves as engineers, businesswomen, or computer scientists.  For many girls, without positive first hand experiences in those fields, this very idea never even crosses their mind.  The solution then doesn’t end with solely creating equal spaces for women in those fields.  It goes further to make sure that our girls are exposed to those careers as early and frequently as possible.  By providing opportunities for girls to not only see these careers but to learn them through experience instills a mindset that they too can do STEM related work.  The sense of competency and belonging that is created through these experiences provides girls the chance to fully imagine themselves in those careers and thus pursue STEM professions.

Apprentice Amurah at Northstar Asset Management Fall 2014
Apprentice Amurah at Northstar Asset Management Fall 2014

Fall apprenticeships are halfway complete and young women comprise more than half of our Apprentices. It important to recognize that at this point, they are thinking about their futures in some new ways. At New England Baptist Hospital, Apprentices are getting hands-on experience in medicine, learning about knee replacements with a biotech company while Apprentices at WGBH are exploring the future television production working on digital billboards. Our Apprentice at NorthStar Asset Management, an all-women organization, is learning about the stock market by competing with her mentors and co-workers in an online trading game, and winning!

We are watching the imaginations of our female Apprentices expand in remarkable ways as each of these young women begins to see themselves in professions they never considered before.  This is the next step for the young women in our society:  It’s about allowing them to step through the door of any profession and say, “I belong here.”

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