In the not-so-distant past, teachers knew exactly what jobs they were preparing their students for. There were a limited number of careers available for graduating students, and the reading, writing, and numeracy we taught in schools prepared those students for all of these possible positions. We knew what the jobs would be, so we knew what skills our students would need.
This is no longer the case. The explosion of job positions that did not exist ten or twenty years ago bears witness to the fact that our society is rapidly changing. Journalism and book publishing are two formerly secure job prospects that are now undergoing massive changes. It is possible that neither of these careers will continue to exist in the form we now know. Given all these changes, we are now preparing students for a future we cannot predict and jobs that may not yet exist. What’s a teacher to do?
The future has already begun in my first grade classroom. As my students are becoming literate, they are also learning skills that will certainly be important in their future. I am not referring to the skills of reading and writing. Those are, of course, necessary, and they are the focus of every first grade classroom. What I am referring to are job or life skills that will serve a child well no matter what career path he or she chooses.
The days of having your students work individually in rows of desks have passed. That was a great model when the future for many students was working in a factory where they would spend their days sitting quietly in those same rows. None of my students will be doing that in their future. Those jobs no longer exist here. Instead, employers now require workers who can effectively work through problems in groups and come up with solutions. Human resources directors are looking for people who can think. I want my students to learn how to collaborate and to work with and learn from their classmates, not only because this is good pedagogy, but because this is a career skill they will need.
When my students help to peer edit their classmates’ writing, they are learning how to evaluate the work of another and how to give support and constructive criticism in a socially acceptable way. When they buddy read, they are learning to take turns while working on a shared goal. When we do a turn and talk they are learning to communicate their own ideas in small groups and to listen to the ideas of someone else. These are all important skills to have when working with others.
Past generations often had few options for the path their lives would take and once that path was set, there were even fewer choices along the way. That is no longer the case. There are now an overwhelming number of options for a student to sift through as he looks at possible career routes. Every vocation has a wide range of options within it once a career has been chosen, and second and third careers have also become common. Choice will be part of our student’s futures. They will need to have a skillset for making these life choices. How can children learn to make good choices if their schooling never allows them to choose?
Even young children should have opportunity to make choices in their learning such as where they sit, whom they work with, how they learn and how they show that learning. They’ll make some choices that are not wise, but isn’t it better if they choose the wrong app or sit beside someone who distracts them and then are able to learn from that mistake than if later in life they are unable to choose a career for which they are well suited?
So when my six year olds are learning to read, I offer them choice. What would you like to read about? Do you prefer to read from a paper book or on an iPad? Do you like to read fiction or nonfiction? When we practice spelling words, they can practice with letter tiles, wiki stix, markers and paper, or an app on their iPads. Would they prefer to write on paper or on their blog? They won’t know unless they get to try both and then choose what works best for their individual learning.
Recently, a teacher told me that she thought that students should not be using technology of any kind in their classroom. (I assume she was referring to computers, tablets, and personal devices, since she clearly enjoyed the use of electricity, the telephone, and the heating system provided in her classroom.) I totally disagree. We KNOW that technology of some kind will be a huge part of our students’ futures so we need to do our best to get that technology in the hands of our students so that they can learn to use these tools as learning devices, not simply for entertainment. Something we see as a new technology is merely part of life for children. If students are interested in using any device, I want to find out how I can use that device to help my students to be literate.
In my classroom, this conviction has led to the use of the Pictochat feature of the Nintendo DS for practicing alphabet and spelling skills, to using online games to practice rhyming skills, and to using screencasting apps on iPads to explain the silent “e” rule.
When my sister left home for school overseas, I remember my parents being very emotional. Letters took a couple of weeks to arrive and phone calls were very expensive. My own daughter is now making a similar move, but I know we will be able to remain connected. We’ll have email, Skype, Google Hangouts, Facetime... the only limitation to our connections will be the time difference.
The world has changed. With instant access to what is happening in other countries, we are part of a global community. We want our students to develop an awareness of their place in that community and how they can be part of it. It is probable that many of our students will spend at least part of their working lives connecting with people who work in the same company or field of interest in another country. Since we can now connect our classroom with other classes with just the click of a mouse, we can begin to prepare them for that future now.
When students use Skype to practice phonics skills or do reader’s theater with classes in other countries, or when they read tweets or blog posts by students who live far away, but share their interests, they are beginning to get a sense of that global community that they are a part of. They develop empathy for people they have never met face to face and begin to see the world through another’s eyes.
Even though we cannot know what the future holds for our students, we can still begin to prepare them for that future—whatever their career choice might be. I don’t teach career education in first grade, but by helping my children to develop skills they will need in the future job market, I am certainly preparing them for their career!
Kathy Cassidy is an award-winning first grade teacher whose students blog, make videos and connect with classes from around the world. Each student's blog is a digital portfolio of his or her learning from the first week of school until the last. Her first book, Connected From the Start: Global Learning in Primary Grades was published last spring.
© 2013 Kathy Cassidy. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.