What Works Career Choices
Go with What Works: Career Choices & the 10-yearPlan - Classroom Ideas

Give and Take: A Key to Successful Integration

For the last few weeks before school got out, students at rural Lakeview High School in Columbus, Nebraska, saw posters in the hallways announcing: BECI IS COMING! Have You Met BECI? Perplexed, they asked teachers who was this BECI, and when was she coming to Lakeview High? But the teachers were silent. They wanted anticipation to build, so when students returned in the fall they would be eager for something new and different.

It worked. When classes started in the fall, everyone was excited to find out more about BECI. The mystery was solved when students arrived at their English class: BECI, they were surprised to learn, was an acronym for a newly developed class, the Business and English Curriculum Integration program, which combined language arts skills with practical "world of work" skills and career exploration.

Students were to spend one-quarter semester in the computer lab, acquiring business and job skills, and the remainder of the year in the English classroom, studying grammar, reading and writing. All students in grades 9-12 would have a chance to get to know BECI better, as the program was implemented over the course of the school year.

Integration a Part of Educational Reform

Like many high schools across the country, Lakeview had been feeling the rumble of educational reform. Teachers were interested in trying new approaches to make learning more relevant for students, such as "curriculum integration" which involves the infusion of vocational and technical subjects, such as business or agriculture, into core academic classes. A guidance component, focusing on career development, is often included to round out the program.

Integration proponents argue that this approach prepares young people for an increasingly complex world, one which requires greater amounts of technical knowledge and skill than are ordinarily provided by today's curriculum. Integration also increases relevance, they believe, as even academic subjects are seen to have practical applications in the real world, motivating students towards more success.

In spite of these promises, most schools have discovered that the road to integration is a bumpy one, full of potholes that can easily derail the best laid plans. What it took to succeed at Lakeview was a team of extremely dedicated and persevering teachers willing to go the extra mile and not give up until they found solutions. What the teachers didn't expect was that the process would touch the very foundations of their teaching beliefs, and bring about a dramatic change in the way they taught-and their students learned.

Teachers Undergo Change

Business teacher Barbara Larson, who was part of the original team, described how the idea evolved when teachers from both departments realized their needs could be met by working together. English teachers wanted access to the computer lab for student writing projects, but couldn't get it because business classes used the lab exclusively. Business teachers were concerned about declining enrollment in their elective classes and wanted more students to have exposure to "real-life" skills. By combining the two disciplines, it was surmised, both departments could get their needs met: access to computers for English teachers, and wider exposure to students for business teachers.

As a group, teachers representing both departments approached school administrators with a plan to integrate the two disciplines. They requested a planning retreat, to take place off-campus, over an extended three-day weekend. Permission and funding was granted by a supportive administration, and the group began their journey.

Acting as the group's facilitator, Barbara recalled how the many different personality types threatened a major breakdown in communication, as each dealt with getting his or her voice heard. "The very first thing we had to do was agree to a `give and take' process. We made an agenda that gave each person a chance to say what they wanted to include and what they couldn't give up," she told us. This cleared the way for progress, as no one felt overlooked and all could contribute equally.

Over the next few days, the group confronted some even deeper issues. "What came out of our discussion was the chance to re-evaluate our purpose for being teachers," Barbara said. "We realized that even though we'd been teaching the same way for ten years, it didn't mean that our students were actually learning something. We had to ask ourselves: What can we do to improve the learning experience, make it more useful, more `hands-on'?"

Out of this discussion, the teachers realized they were going to have to undergo a shift in their perspective. "We had to give up our old paradigm of what we thought teaching was," Barbara reported. "This was only possible," she explained, "when we agreed that we were primarily committed to how students would benefit from this program, rather than what we got individually."

What began as a search for a convenient solution to teachers' practical problems had become an inquiry into the very nature of teaching, and brought up some very compelling questions: What exactly do we want our students to learn - and to be capable of accomplishing when they leave school - and how can we give it to them?

"Give and Take" Essential

One team member, English teacher Peg Slusarski, told of her initial reaction when the group got down to the "give and take" process of designing the program: "When things started getting moved around, I thought to myself, I can't even cover everything I need to with the time I have now. How am I ever going to do it with less?" It came as a relief to find that certain subjects, such as business vocabulary, letter writing and resume writing, would no longer be the responsibility of the English class, but would be transferred out into the business part of the program, where they more rightfully belonged.

The business teachers also faced some trade-offs. Elective classes such as business law, personal finance, business math, and business communication would be dropped, but would reappear in condensed versions throughout the curriculum. In-depth study would be sacrificed for a wider exposure for more students.

Once agreement was reached within the group, their next task was to convince administrators of the new arrangement's value. "Our strongest selling point," Barbara reported, "was that with an integrated program, 100% of the students would be getting some real-world skills, rather than the 20% getting them before." Administrators saw the sense and readily agreed "that no matter what students do in their lives, they were all going to need some basic business knowledge," Barbara told us.

Scheduling classes to make it all come together was the last major hurdle the group had to overcome. Teachers would be teaching in pairs, frequently crossing over into each others' classrooms to provide assistance, which required one to be free when the other was teaching. The group approached their administrators one more time, and were received by a now, very committed and supportive arm. Their principal simplified things immensely when he blocked off time from the main schedule and allowed the teachers to decide among themselves how to arrange their shared responsibilities. Within this timeframe, it was also possible to stagger the one-quarter semester business sections throughout the year to permit full use of the computer lab.

Comprehensive Guidance as a Component

A finishing task was to select a comprehensive guidance curriculum for the career development component of the BECI program. Career Choices was chosen because it addressed students' all-important needs for personal planning and decision-making, career exploration and job skills acquisition.

Units from the book which teachers felt were developmentally appropriate were assigned to different grade levels. Ninth graders worked on identity and self-exploration in defining self-concept (Chapter 2), which included a "work/behavioral style" survey to help them see what kinds of jobs they would best be suited for. Tenth graders focused on decision making, goal setting and problem solving (Chapters 7 & 8), while 11th graders explored career opportunities (Chapter 5 & 6), developed work maturity skills (Chapter 10), and wrote a ten year plan for the future (Chapter 12). Seniors took on issues of more immediate concern, projecting themselves into the future to figure the costs of maintaining a family and a lifestyle of their choice (Chapter 4).

In retrospect, Barbara evaluated the choice of curriculum and commented, "It went over very well. Students were now seeing a bigger picture of what work and real life were all about, and how they might fit into it."

Benefits Carry Over

Was all the hard work of integration really worth it? Barbara and Peg resounded with a unanimous "yes." They believe that there is a clear transfer of benefits between the two disciplines, and that the new arrangement has increased both motivation and performance of their students.

"My students now see the practicality of English," Peg told us. "It's not just theory anymore, which is so much more motivating for them. Our goal was to show students how these skills transfer to the real world, and now they're seeing it for themselves."

Peg also reports that learning business communication improved her English students' writing skills: "So often, English students will write a short paragraph and turn it in without bothering to correct the obvious mistakes. But now, since BECI reinforces how important it is to proofread, students correct their own mistakes and really learn how to write," she told us.

"My business students are seeing the relevance and importance of being sound in English, knowing correct grammar and how to spell," Barbara told us. "They understand that in the business world, no one is going to be successful unless they can do these things. Even those who go on to a four-year college still need the business skills because they'll be in the world of work eventually."

All of the original team of teachers are now excited about working cooperatively and teaching the subject they know best. A unexpected benefit has been that they are able to spend more one-on-one time with their students and, if not needed in their counterpart's classroom, can use their free time to catch up on paperwork and prepare lesson plans. "It gives you a breath," Peg commented.

Some Unique Features

"We can all tell that students are seeing the real-life connection between what we're doing in BECI and what goes on in the outside world," Barbara told us.

Some of the features of the program that enable students to have this advantage are:

  • Beginning in the freshman year, students prepare a resume that is updated every year. When they leave school, they have an active resume with references to use for scholarship applications, a summer job, or to go directly into the workforce. "We like it because we can keep track of details they may forget by their senior year," Barbara said. Writing resumes as a group process works best because "when you get a whole class thinking and talking about what skills they have, it's easier than for each one to think them up on their own."
  • Students also start a portfolio during their freshman year, which goes with them on a computer disk at graduation. In it are references and research papers, creative writing from English, even poetry. As a non-graded portfolio, it becomes a general resource they can use to get a job or chose further training. "The kids make certain they get that portfolio, because it has a very real value to them," Peg told us.
  • Seniors do mock interviews at a business of their choice, make their own contacts and get themselves to the interview. Employers fill out an evaluation sheet which is sent back to the school and graded. Some students even obtained summer internships with the companies they visited.
Some Words of Advice

Barbara Larson views the integrated model as an approach that's definitely here to stay. At Lakeview, where Tech Prep pathways are starting to emerge in such subjects as industrial technology, math, science and agriculture, the emphasis is increasingly on preparing students with skills and practical know-how to succeed in life.

We asked Barbara if she had any advice for other schools wanting to develop a successful integration program. She told us: "It's essential in the planning stages to take time away from the school, go to a different setting. That allowed us to get focused, despite our many differences, and helped motivate us, too."

She also emphasized that when teachers take the time to get a solid, carefully thought-out plan in place before presenting it to administrators for approval, they are more likely to find acceptance and support for their ideas.

And on a final note, Barbara expressed the perseverance and tenacity her team clearly demonstrated in bringing BECI to life for the students at Lakeview High: "Don't give up! If you can dream, no matter how big, you will find a way to make it happen."

Facebook Twitter