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Vocational Guidance for the Special Education Classroom

It's not unusual when students who have graduated from Little Falls Community High School in Little Falls, Minnesota, return to visit their former English teacher, Roberta Freed. What is unusual is that these students were once in Special Education classes, and now successfully hold jobs or attend college. They come back because the lessons they learned in their "Transitions" class are helping them to make it on their own, and they want to say: "Thank you, Mrs. Freed-You were right!"

Roberta Freed, who holds licenses for both vocational and special education, teaches a unique class for special education students who are transitioning out of high school into work or college, and need extra support. Teaming up with On-The-Job (OJT) teacher Ron Hanenkamp, she provides an integrated program that combines English with career and employability skills in one, two-hour blocked class called "Transitions." Students can earn English credit while planning a future and getting valuable skills for the real world.

Made up of mostly seniors, "Transitions" is a mixture of many different levels and abilities. Some students are headed for the workplace right after graduation, while others are getting ready for college or vocational and technical training. All have some form of learning disability or mild mental retardation, and all have jobs or are in the job-search process.

"These kids have a lot of fear about the future," Roberta reported. "They typically don't receive much encouragement and have difficulty envisioning or making plans for their future." Frequently, Roberta told us, students will ask her for the answers to their more worrisome questions, such as, where am I going to live, who am I going to marry, what kind of job am I going to have? "They really want to be told what to do with their life," she said.

Teachers Combine Both Classes

"Transitions" evolved out of the state of Minnesota's requirement that all schools provide a classroom OJT component for students who are employed while in school. For the past seven years, both Roberta and Ron were in charge of teaching separate OJT classes for the special education population. At the same time, Roberta was also teaching special education English to 9-12th graders.

Conflicts arose whenever Roberta's English students went on field trips in Ron's class, returning late and missing class. Also, without a common planning period, both teachers had to work harder to share materials and plan lessons. Roberta was aware of how valuable vocational guidance was for her students, and knew they would be more motivated if her English activities related to real-world concerns. After many discussions, she and Ron approached their department coordinator with a plan: Why not combine both classes?

"We both believed that all of our students could benefit from the OJT class, even those who were not currently in jobs, because every one of them needed to prepare for the eventuality of work," Roberta told us. "We would be using the Career Choices curriculum with its strong language arts component, so students would have plenty of reading practice and writing exercise, such as filling out job applications, creating resumes, etc."

The result was a fully integrated, English and OJT class, in which students could earn credits for both subjects. During the first hour, Roberta would teach English, while Ron did the OJT portion; the second hour, it was reversed. The two teachers would now have time together in the classroom, making it easier to coordinate field trips, share materials and plan lessons.

Curriculum Meets Special Needs

Roberta came across the Career Choices curriculum when she was teaching a 9th and 10th grade career exploration class for regular students, and was dissatisfied with the text she was using. She was particularly impressed with the "nice, organizational pattern" of the Career Choices materials, which takes the student through a sequential process of self-exploration, career research and future planning.

When she began to develop the new class and had three trimesters to fill with activities for the same students, she remembered Career Choices. "Here was a curriculum that had a wealth of ideas and projects to accompany the lessons in the main text," she said. The progression of the curriculum also paralleled many of the topics Ron would be covering in the OJT hour, providing a back-up reference for his students' on-the-job concerns and issues.

Over the next two years, Roberta used all four of the student books in the series for her section of "Transitions": Career Choices, Possibilities, Lifestyle Math and the Workbook and Portfolio. The curriculum more than met the expectations she had for combining English and job training in one classroom, and it did so with plenty of material to use for the entire year. What she discovered was just how well Career Choices spoke directly to her students' most pressing needs to start thinking about jobs and careers, build self-esteem and self-confidence, and gain a realistic view of what life would be like after school.

At the outset, Roberta knew her students hadn't a clue about how to go about their task. But "Chapters 1: Envisioning Your Future, and 2: Your Personal Profile, got the thinking process started," Roberta told us. "The Bull's Eye Chart exercise, in particular, helped them with that important first question: how do I choose what I want to do?" They learned how choosing a career depends not only on what you do well, but also on what excites you - your "passions." The vignettes of well-known people landing their jobs inspired the students and helped them to project themselves into some of their own possible scenarios.

Typically, adolescents find goal-setting difficult, but special education students have more than the usual amount of trouble. "My students didn't need any more discouragement than they had already been given, so it was difficult for me as the teacher to tell them a particular goal was unrealistic, Roberta told us. Through Career Choices, students could get an honest assessment that Roberta, not wanting to appear overly critical, was hesitant to give them. "It's all there in black and white," she told us, referring to the exercises in the books. "They can discover their limits for themselves, not as something that the teacher told them."

Chapter 4: Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous went a long way in helping students overcome worries and fears about the future. Using the Lifestyle Math book, which cross-references with the Career Choices text, Roberta led them through a lengthy exercise in budgeting for a future lifestyle. "This was a very motivating unit-they asked a lot of questions and got a lot of information," she said. "At first, they thought if they could just make $1,000 a month, there would be enough to eat out and cover all their entertainment needs. What they hadn't figured on was childcare costs, vehicle maintenance, all the hidden little things that come up in life."

But "the exercise put everything in line for them, step by step," Roberta told us. Now they could see what their real needs were, which allayed some of their anxiety and allowed self-confidence to develop. She supplemented the activity with the classified section of the town newspaper and showed students how to locate jobs and housing, skills they would be needing soon.

Adapting the Curriculum

Did she need to adapt any of the Career Choices materials for the students' lower reading levels and comprehension? Roberta responded: "When we do a unit with a lot of reading involved, Ron and I split the group in two. The first hour, I work with the lower functioning students, reading everything out loud and together, while he takes the others and does something different. Then, the second hour, we switch and I get the high functioning students, most of whom I can give assignments to and let work on their own."

At times the teachers mix levels in forming cooperative learning groups. This works especially well for the vocabulary lessons, which are at the end of each chapter in the students' Workbook and Portfolio. In teams of three, students look up words and prepare for a quiz that Roberta gives at the end of the lesson. "They were definitely more motivated to complete the work, and they even learned how to help others who might otherwise drag down their team," Roberta told us. She recommends giving a quiz at the end of the lesson, because then they have a "reason" to be working at their task.

Roberta uses the entire book Possibilities in her class. To help students join in discussions about the readings, she gives out cards with the names of the characters on them, along with important events or actions of the plot. A particular success was the "Lego" story, in which the main character pursues her passion and becomes famous doing what she loves to do. "My students tend to think things will never change, never get better for them in the future," Roberta said. "I tell them, you're living in a time of change, so get ready!"

Other popular selections were "I Have a Dream" by Martin Luther King, "Growing Older" by R. G. Wells, and Emerson's poetry. O'Henry's "Gift of the Magi" never fails to stimulate lively discussions about the students' own families, which Roberta encourages by sharing her own experience with the class. "When I bring my life into our discussions, then they start to find things in their lives that relate to what we're doing," she told us.

A Successful Model

The program is so successful, Roberta told us, she and Ron have packaged it up and sent it to the State Department of Education for distribution to schools that are starting to show interest. Next year, administrators at Little Falls High School are considering starting a "Transitions" class at the 11th grade level, and Roberta hopes to see it start even earlier.

A strong proponent of the message that special education students can benefit by vocational and career guidance, Roberta believes that in the near future, schools across the country will be starting programs like theirs. "It's easy when you use a curriculum like Career Choices," she told us enthusiastically. "And it's very satisfying when your students come back to share, not only with you, but with your class, about how they are making it, thanks to your efforts." That certainly says it all!

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