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What to Teach, Ask the Experts

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One mentor reviews a sophomore’s resume

In order to keep abreast of trends in the workplace, I constantly ask for feedback from professionals and invite them into my classroom. This not only keeps me up to date now that my world is inside a classroom and not in an office, but it helps my students as well. I try to teach my students what they need in order to navigate life, college and career. To achieve this goal I teach what the students need, not just what I know or think they should know.

Jobs in computer science are growing. Great jobs. Creative jobs. Currently the big tech companies employ mostly white males. They have owned up to this fact and would like to see a change. On the other side, my students don't have friends and family working in these tech jobs. These tech jobs are not close by in South Los Angeles, where I teach, and for this reason the students are not part of a community encouraging them to break into the field of computer science, unless the students get it from their school. This is where Foshay Learning Center and I come in.

I am the lead technology teacher at Los Angeles' Foshay Tech Academy -- a 175-student school-within-a-school at Foshay Learning Center -- and recently co-wrote a curriculum for a video game course that will be available for other high schools to offer that will count in the students' GPA towards college; in other words, an A-G requirement. I reached out to experts to get feedback about the pacing and projects of the course. To begin this meeting, I had some students deliver elevator pitches about board games they created and game tested with elementary students. I then invited the students to stay and listen while the meeting moved on to discuss the curriculum mapped out for the rest of the year.

This is not the first time I have brought experts into my classroom, or asked them to review my curriculum. I bring professionals in all the time to talk to the students about their careers. We begin with the guests introducing themselves, and an example of when they failed or took a risk along their career path. I also hold mentor days for the professionals to come in to discuss their interviewing experience, review resumes, and edit student digital portfolios, cover letters, and personal statements.

Two mentors meet with juniors to discuss their portfolios and resumes
Two mentors meet with juniors to discuss their portfolios and resumes

The purpose behind bringing professionals into my class is threefold:

1. Networking opportunities for the students. My students are largely first generation to attend high school in America, and they have big dreams for their careers. The professionals give them the communication experience they need with people outside their own tiny network. Their network can now include professionals who can help them navigate into various careers through building up their digital portfolios, accepting informational interviews, and reaching out to them when opportunities occur. This experience is truly priceless. We have had students chosen for scholarships and awards and hired as game testers, web designers, and interns this way. We have also had students who were tapped for jobs in college from mentors they met in high school.

2. Real world critique that the students will actually listen to. Most of the time, I have already given similar points or advice as the mentors, but I think I sound like the teacher from the PEANUTS cartoons to them. The students hear my voice all the time; perhaps some have begun to tune me out. These experts add gravitas and truth to what I teach, or connects to a student in a new way that did not work for me through a large classroom setting.

3. The experts give me advice about what I need to adjust in order to match real world career expectations. I may no longer be an expert in my own classroom since so much has changed in technology, business, and education since I worked in television, and since I received my masters in Educational Communication and Technology from NYU. I have enough sense to bring in the experts to help guide my class in going in the right directions as I get the students prepared for jobs of the future. Technology is constantly changing, so we try to stay relevant in the types of projects the students create. I don't want to teach what I think I should be doing, I want to teach what is necessary for success.

I know this element of my curriculum is working because the mentors keep coming back with their friends and colleagues. They now write to me about opportunities my students might be interested in. This past year alone, one professional pushed me to start an internship fair and now he is helping me plan a 6 week hackathon/mentoring program with my seniors. Another international ad company has contacted me to see if they can use my classroom as the outlet for their public service support, and want to work closely with my juniors. Many of the professionals are excited to return, which has pushed me to expand the mentoring opportunities for my students.

Foshay Tech students attend a Career Panel to ask questions from the experts
Foshay Tech students attend a Career Panel to ask questions from the experts

As for the students, the professionals make them nervous. Good, since life involves communicating who you are to strangers in order to advance in career and challenges. The professionals make the students look at their work with new eyes. Instead of a random assignment for a grade, it becomes a litmus test of their skills and their attention to detail. All the students listen more closely when the experts come. All the students look at their work more critically. The day after the experts leave, the students don't want to talk to me -- they just want to get to work and make some of the fixes and corrections based on the feedback they received.

As a classroom teacher, I am constantly networking for my class. There is no secret to where I find these people. When I first began teaching, most of the experts were my friends or family. Over the years I have accumulated a list of emails from people I have met at conferences, at parties, even in line for concessions at my child's school. I tell everyone I meet what I teach, and if they show interest I ask for their emails to include them on my mailing list when we have events and opportunities. Most of the people on my list are people who came to my school through our mentor days and mock interview days. More often than not, those same people start connecting me to their friends and colleagues as well. My list has grown, and now I am at a point where people are actively giving me their card and asking to keep them informed about upcoming events, including some of my stellar alumni.

One expert -- the head of human resource at an international ad agency -- recently told me that she likes coming to my classroom because it always feels like she has done something helpful with at least one student. She also appreciated that I did not make high demands of her time. She comes when she can, and does not feel guilty if she has to miss a mentoring opportunity.

The game designers that were part of my meeting all came to me through my networking contacts; I did not meet any of those people on my own. I spread the word that I needed support with a video game production and design class, and my contacts helped network for me. All of the people who attended that planning meeting then came into my classroom and conducted an impromptu Q and A with my juniors. They loved meeting the students and asserted that they would come again to hear game pitches, look over resumes, critique game design, and answer other questions. I may be expanding the topics and skills learned in my classroom beyond my levels of expertise, but the students still get expert advice.

A company recently asked to get in touch with my alumni to see if any of them are interested in internships and entry level job opportunities. They want my students because they are impressive. They want my students because they have the communication, collaboration, and problem solving skills they want in an employee. My students do help change the ethnic makeup of a typical technology company but that is not why they are getting the job opportunities. They are also the best.

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