How Middle School Obsessions Can Shape Career Paths
Think back to your days in middle school, specifically to what you did after you slung your backpack off at home and began to unwind. My memories involve shopping for JNCO jeans, using AOL Instant Messenger to chat with friends and obsessively listening to music from popular boy bands including Backstreet Boys, NSYNC and especially Hanson. What would your answer have been if a teacher asked, “What am I doing outside of school that I want to tell other students about?” I know what mine would have been…
As a middle schooler growing up in the 1990s, I was one of many girls who had a goal of marrying Zac Hanson. I lived in a small town and didn’t know how I was going to meet him. So to set myself apart from other fans and gain that chance, I created a Hanson website. I spent time researching the Hanson brothers and gathering facts in my A-Z Hanson book, complete with quizzes and fun facts, then transferred that knowledge to my very own GeoCities website.
I was driven by the desire to meet the band. I envisioned that Zac would fall in love with me, obviously at first sight. I never thought that what I was doing would be considered “techy” or that this passion project could be setting me up for a future career as a computer scientist, software engineer, learning designer, research associate or UX designer—all jobs that I learned about much later in life by reading Careers with Code magazine.
I was driving my project. I chose what to work on and how to create it. I was picking up a lot of technical skills along the way but never thought of it as learning. I was driven by my end goal of meeting Zac Hanson and I was completing tasks along the way to help me accomplish that goal.
Fast forward to 2018. I’m a technology integrationist and I’m part of an educator group called MidMN, named for our location in central Minnesota. We come together to share best practices and collaborate on projects that benefit our students. At one of our meetings, there was an “aha” moment when we realized that we all had passions when we were younger—just like our students today.
Instead of nurturing these interests in our individual classrooms, we organized a student-powered conference where middle schoolers could showcase what they were really interested in learning about with a wider audience. Our event organizers included Neil Andruschak (Little Falls Community Schools), Paul Schlangen (Sauk Rapids-Rice Middle School), Mark Krueger and John Gerads (North Junior High School) and Amanda Holstrom and Brad Scherer (Sartell Middle School).
Preparation for the Big Day
We had about five weeks to plan our sessions for the conference, so all of the organizers collaborated to pull everything together on time and to support our team of seven students built their presentations. We started by posing the following questions to small groups of students for them to reflect on and discuss:
- What can I currently do in school that I think is awesome and want to tell other students about?
- What can I currently do outside of school that I think I should be able to do in school?
- What do I wish I could show my teacher and my peers?
Collaborating on Google Docs, they came up with a handful of gaming- and hobby-related topics, such as how to create video games with Bloxels, Scratch and Code.org. Other students wanted to tackle creating worlds in Minecraft and figure out how to build their own robots and computers.
From this discussion we learned that our students loved to create and they could make connections between what they were doing outside of school and subjects like English language arts, math and art.
Using a Schoology group we were able to support students in building the presentations they would eventually share with their peers. They decided as a group to collaborate on a shared Google Slide presentation. Being a former Kindergarten teacher, I wasn’t sure what to expect from middle school students, but this was their project, and I wanted to support them but not take over. So I learned to ask a lot of questions and add comments on their sides that prompted them to expand on their posts.
As they built their presentations, they included pictures and videos of their work. They interviewed people from the companies they were interested in, reaching out to engineers, founders and product managers at Kano Computing, Wonder Workshop and Kodable. We finished up the conference preparation by practicing presentations in front of each other, giving the students a crash course on learning how to speak in a public setting.
The Big Day
Brad Scherer, the technology integrationist at Sartell Middle School (and one of our organizers), kicked the morning off with a few fun games to get the kids moving around, talking to each other and to ease their anxiety about their presentations. He followed this up with a story on his “Why”—the reason he wanted to help bring this student-powered conference come to life. Just like I built a website for Zac, Brad spent his middle school years trekking through games like Oregon Trail and Number Munchers and playing Around the World with multiplication flash cards.
We had three sessions with four concurrent presentations for students to choose from based on interest. Each topic was aligned one of the ISTE Standards for Students, and students earned (and proudly displayed) buttons for attending each session. (Students couldn’t say enough about the session they went to on YouTube for Teachers.) At the end of the day, we gathered to recap why we were there, make connections about what students did that day and how it could relate to their future—and we challenged them to take what they felt passionate about and pursue it.
We ended our morning back at school reflecting over a pizza lunch. Our next step is to work with students who participated in the conference and have them present at a future staff meeting on their experiences, how they prepared and what they took away from listening to their peers in nearby schools. As a group, we plan to make this an annual event and create additional offshoots for elementary school and high school students.
While I was building websites, each of the Hanson brothers ended up marrying a girl they met at their concerts, but I have maintained a lifelong interest in learning and technology. I am living proof that the experiences and interests that students have in middle school can shape their career paths. The skills I was building back then were valuable—for life and, who knows, potentially a career. My hope now for my students is that they are able to make the connections I missed.