By Teachers, For Teachers
Brian Cook doesn’t remember how many tweets he sent out, but the response was impressive. Posters, pennants, water bottles, bumper stickers and key chains from colleges throughout the country began to pile up in his middle school classroom. “I think I got something from over 400 schools,” he says. “I asked them to send me anything they had, and they did.” Cook, a language arts teacher and tech specialist at Pokomoke Middle School, in Pokomoke City, Md., wanted to get kids at his school excited about college, and thought it would help if he had stuff to give to them and to display and use as part of his classroom activities that would make them more aware of the process, and excited about it. His classroom activities work to increase student interest in their futures is part of growing push to improve college and career readiness among students as early the elementary school level. Even federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) regulations have made it a priority throughout education.
“If you get them interested early, there is a better chance they’ll have a plan and follow through,” says Cook, who has written on the topic and also teaches at nearby Salisbury University, and often connects his student to that fast-growing campus. About 100 of his college pennants also now decorate a hall at the local high school from his collection, too.
Cook says that his school requires each student to have a plan for their future by the time they leave middle school, with steps along the way to provide them information and get them interested.
1) Start Early. Even elementary school students can begin to understand college and get excited about the options with something as easy as talking about the mascots for the schools and doing simple investigations of one campus. They can learn the basic vocabulary of colleges and the application process, too.
2) Encourage Parents. Tell parents to talk at home about their own career path and college, or their expectations for their students. Remind them whenever and wherever you get a chance. Tell them to visit college campuses when they travel, says Sue Luse, an independent college consultant in Eagan, Minn.
3) Get Them Thinking. “What this whole college and career selection process comes down to is raw and honest self-assessment. The better the student knows him or herself, the better the match will be in the end,” says Stacey Baker, an educational consultant in Winnetka, Ill. “And so as they explore options, you start with questions like: ‘Does this sound more like you or does this sound more like you?’ Then they get excited and empowered by the process – they own it instead of feeling like it owns them. That's key.” To allow them to explore interests, Naviance has an interest inventory, as does O-Net and Bridges.com (schools must have contract with Naviance and Bridges). And there are other options online where students can take a quick quiz and see what they might like to do, or even take a personality test that can give them some direction. And there are simple paper and pencil tests.
4) Sports Connection. The first exposure to colleges for many students is often from sports, says Cook, so use that interest and talk about big games and big stars, but remind students that those successful people had to get into school and perform, and often needed other careers. Several sports stars have videos online about their experience, including Michael Jordan and others who went back to get their degrees. Sports is often a hook for some students who otherwise aren’t inclined toward academics, so make them examine both.
5) Faculty Pride. Have the staff in the school display their colleges on their doors or wear college garb a few days during the year – and remind them to talk about their experience and why it was valuable (someone periodically can send out a brief email reminder: “It’s Talk-about-college Tuesday,” for example). Ask them to display college-related material in their classroom.
6) Morning Moment. Put a one-minute announcement on two days a week about a college. Assign a different student each time to do a bit of research and make the pitch.
7) Save a Spot. Have each student begin a college portfolio, where they can save things they might use for their application to college or in decisions about schools: One folder for information about them and one for information about potential options. Have them add one thing a week, even if it’s just a thought about some future plans or a new school they learned about (a new standard college application that some schools are using has a “locker” for this purpose). Have them include a list of potential schools, says Luse, and get in touch with one or two, which will mean they will be mailed information regularly, reminding them and their family that it’s a priority.
8) Career Days. They’ve been around for a long time, but they can be time consuming for everyone, and can be simplified by just having experts in a field come in briefly for a quick brown-bag chat – or even a Skype talk. But a school full of visiting adults also has an impact.
9) Take a Trip. At Cook’s school, every student has to have visited at least one post-secondary school before they move on to 9th grade, including trade schools, which he emphasizes as an option (Purdue even has a special page for middle school visitors). “Many events at local colleges and universities also are open to the public, so encourage students to check out art museums or attend a theater production, or attend other activities on campus,” says Cindy Allerman, an educational consultant near Houston.
10) Invite Them In. Ask students or student organizations at a college to come in and discuss their experience, says Allerman. Coach them a bit on points you’d like to make with the students.
11) Build a Connection. Explore a variety of joint activities with nearby post-secondary schools. They may have resources your school can use, and may want to build a bond that will help them recruit.
12) Paint a Picture. At any age, it will help to quell fears and build excitement if you can show students what college is really like – and that many people consider it the best time of their lives. There are sites online where you can design a dorm room and plenty of schools offer virtual tours of their campus, like Towson University, which has students show prospects around on YouTube. “Check out social media pages as many colleges are active on Twitter, Instagram, and even will do Facebook Live videos about what’s happening on their campus,” says Allerman, who notes that students should know the range of options.
“They can look at colleges with airports, technical schools, art or music conservatories, big sports teams or no sports teams, fraternities and sororities, work options, outdoor adventure classes and activities and other specialties. Show them and make it exciting.”