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Elementary, Middle Schoolers Glimpse the Future With Career Events


"Career day" and "career fair" events arent just for high school. Administrators and teachers have discovered that they are equally appropriate for younger students. Exposing kids of all ages to the world of work can broaden their perspectives and spur them to more interesting and productive careers. Included: Learn how to make your first career day a success.

"The middle school years are a wonderful time to begin exploring all the careers that are available," reports Penny Adams, a career preparation facilitator for Swartz Creek (Michigan) Middle School. "Most middle school students do not really know what they want to do when they 'grow up,' but they do have ideas about what they like and do not like."

This year, Adams is planning her eighth career fair. She begins with the careers that most interest students, which are identified through interest assessments. Then she refers to her bank of speakers who have participated in previous career fairs.

The Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Schools Connection Resource Bank Web site provides tips for career day planning, talking points for speakers, and other downloadable handouts that will help any coordinator get a career day event off the ground.

Finding appropriate speakers who are able to participate is one of Adams' greatest challenges. To obtain 30 speakers, she typically contacts 60-70 people. When she is given a lead, she makes every effort to reach the potential speaker by phone to personally explain the program. If he or she agrees to participate, Adams follows up with a letter and sheet of questions to assist the speaker in planning a presentation. A map and itinerary are included.

"I have noticed that in the last couple years it has become harder to find people who are able to take time away from their offices and places of employment due to cutbacks and added responsibilities," Adams observed. "Overcoming this problem involves much more networking with people I know and getting the word out that this need exists in our school. People who have a vested interest in the school -- parents, alumni, community business members -- seem to be able to make it work."


More than half of last year's speakers had attended Swartz Creek Middle School as students and wanted to show their appreciation by giving back. A local veterinarian who has volunteered numerous times brings large kidney stones from a dog and passes them around to the students. Students report that this is very "cool." During one fair, a parent promised to invite a colleague from the medical field to take part, and when the day arrived, Adams was introduced to her mystery speaker -- a neurosurgeon and CEO of a local medical center. Most speakers are parents of students and others are relatives and friends who work well with kids.

"That really is the key. You can have a great and interesting career, but if you are not able to communicate with students in the 12-14 year age range, then it will not work," says Adams. "I have had some speakers in the past who have the most awesome careers. They have come in, and they are just not cut out to present to kids, but most of the speakers I get are wonderful."

Launching a New Career Day

When organizing a career day, it is most important to talk and plan ahead of time and to identify the goals, objectives, and benefits for students, advises Gail Woolf, partnership manager with the Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Schools Department of Family and Community Partnerships. If it's the first time, keep the event simple and manageable. Planning and follow-through with ongoing communication are vital.

"Remember, also, to encourage teachers and students to recognize the contributions of the speakers and community helpers," she adds. "Thank-you letters and certificates are wonderful ways to show appreciation to the presenters."

It's difficult to determine whether frequent single speakers or one-day "career day" events are more effective, but this may depend upon the preparation involved, the age groups, and the speakers themselves.

"One thing that does have a big impact is when parents and the community come together to support and be a part of the event," Woolf explains. "The excitement of the students and the fact that there are parents involved, either as presenters or learning with their children, reinforces messages about the importance of life-long learning and reaching the goal of being productive citizens."

Adams has the students and the teachers who monitor each session evaluate every speaker. Their feedback determines whether a speaker is added to the database for future events.

Before the career fair, students are given a list of the occupations that will be represented and may select six that interest them. Adams and a team of high school honor students hand schedule the students into three sessions. On the day of the event, speakers meet in the media center for coffee and get to know each other and school administrators. They then depart for their assigned classrooms.

"I provide a map to the classrooms, and students are available to help carry any materials speakers may have," states Adams. "The speaker will do his or her presentation three times to three different groups of students. The speaker stays in a classroom with a teacher, and the students rotate. Each session is about 35-40 minutes long."

At the end of the third session, the speakers return to the media center where refreshments are served. Each presenter receives a small gift and framed certificate. Adams attempts to alternate the speakers every other year so that the students who choose the same career in seventh and eighth grade do not hear from the same speaker.

"All the work involved is well worth it when we consider that hundreds of students are impacted and exposed to things they may never have seen," Adams says of the career fair. "It really does matter!"


"Career day is great for elementary kids because it shows them early in their academic careers the importance of learning," Casey Doose told Education World. "Many young kids behave well in school and do what they are told because they want to live up to the expectations of the adults in their lives. We want them to see that the expectations we set should not solely be met because we said so. We want them to see the purposefulness of their learning. By doing this at an early age, we get them thinking before they have become disenchanted with learning and before too many negative attitudes have developed."

While teaching at Garrison Elementary in Oceanside, California, Doose served as one of two coordinators for a career day that was full of memorable moments. She lined up presenters and helped them find ways to keep the students engaged; and she selected students to serve as "personal guides" for the volunteers. The highpoint of the career day occurred when two Marine helicopters landed on the school playground and their pilots spoke to the students about their jobs.

"The coolest memory I have is seeing the reaction of everyone as the helicopters landed," Doose recalled. "Adults and children, we were all so excited to see and talk with the professionals on our campus. The kids really enjoyed seeing how interested all their teachers were. I think this helped them see that learning and aspiring to know more about our world is not something that we grow out of."

Doose, who now teaches sixth through eighth grade English Language Development (ELD) at nearby King Middle School, was surprised that so many of the occupations discussed during career day were new to the students. The speakers often showed how the hobbies and goals of the elementary students are being used in the workforce, which energized the children and made them feel both validated and valuable.

"I think career day is probably the event that I am most proud of organizing," shared Doose. "There is nothing better than seeing a huge smile on a child's face, a smile created through a desire to learn and excitement for education. That is a tough thing to bring out sometimes, but career day reminds me that it can be done."


In Rockville, Maryland, the Montgomery County Public Schools' Department of Family and Community Partnerships operates the Connection Resource Bank, which maintains an extensive database of people who are willing to share their expertise with students. When they register, presenters indicate their preferences regarding age, size of group, and geographic location. Then the matchmaking begins.

"We bring in presenters to talk about going to college and arrange college campus visits for classes as early as fourth and fifth grade," reports Gail Woolf, a partnership manager. "This helps students see themselves on a college journey even if they may be the first generation of their families to have the option of going to college. This is how powerful role models can be when they talk to students about their own college experiences."

In seeking presenters, Woolf looks for experts in their field -- people who have passion for what they do and who are able to provide a link to the real world, some hands-on experience, and concrete examples of how what the students are learning in school relates to educational and occupational opportunities. Teachers and other staff members may request presenters through the bank, and their needs are matched with a presenter.

Communication between the school staff requesting support and the presenter is essential to ensure alignment of the presentations with the curriculum standards and objectives. In many cases, Woolf is asked to connect classes or schools with experts who can serve as role models who share the students' background or culture in order to make the experience even more powerful for the children.

"The 'aha' moment is priceless," says Gail Woolf. "All of a sudden a student may say, 'I would like to be like you,' 'I loved learning what you do,' or 'I want to be a better student so that I can have a chance as well.'"

"The MCPS Connection Resource Bank was initially created for the purpose of providing role models for students," Woolf explained. "These interactions show students that anything they are interested in pursuing is possible and also provide opportunities for them to meet real people like themselves in various careers. These authentic experiences with experts help to level the playing field; students are able to envision options and a plan for a successful future. The experts from the community provide a unique voice that reinforces what the teachers and parents are teaching."

Drawing on its diverse population, the resource bank's recruitment efforts focus on finding diverse presenters. Careful planning and matching ensure that students are able to learn from experts who represent various races, cultures, and interests.

"Many students express that, for the first time, they are motivated to do better in school after learning from a presenter who shared their own personal struggles and provided a road map to achievement and success," added Woolf. "Every community is filled with people who are willing to partner with the school system to ensure that all students understand they have options and are able to realize their dreams for college and the world of work. We have found that most people are waiting to be asked."


Connection Resource Bank
This section of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Schools Web site provides tips for career day planning, talking points for speakers, and other downloadable handouts that will help any coordinator get a career day event off the ground.