College and Career Readiness in Middle School: and Career Readiness in Middle School: ... n an episode of Seinfeld, ... of college and career thinking when supporting reading

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  • 19College and Career Readiness burkins, yaris, and hoffmann-thompson

    College and Career Readiness in Middle School: From George Costanza to Oprah Winfrey

    Jan Burkins kim yaris kathryn hoffmann-thompson

    It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.

    e.e. cummings

    In an episode of Seinfeld, George Costanza, after quitting his job in real estate, is sitting on the floor of Jerry Seindelds apartment contemplating what he is going to do with the rest of his life. Clearly distressed about the monumental decision before him, George begins to discuss with Jerry the things he enjoyssports and movies. For both interests, George generates ideas about related careerssuch as sports commentator and projectionistand he and Jerry discuss the reasons these jobs wont work for George. The conversation continues with the exchange below:

    George: What about a talk show host?Jerry: Talk show host . . . thats good.George: I think Id be good at that. I talk to people all

    the time. Someone even told me once they thought Id be a good talk show host.

    Jerry: Really.George: Yeah. A couple of people. I dont get that

    though. Where do you start?Jerry: Well, thats where it gets tricky. (David, 1991)

    Deciding in adulthood to become a talk show host is fraught with complications. In contrast, consider the career path of Oprah Winfrey, as described in her picture-book biography, Oprah: The Little Speaker (Weatherford, 2015). As a child, Oprah memorized poems and Bible verses and recited them for her grandmother and her grandmothers friends. Learning to read at just three years old, books were windows for her (Bishop, 1990). On the farm, without so much as a television, books showed her a wider world, a richer life (p. 12). Oprah discovered early that she loved to speak to groups of people, and her grandmother nurtured this interest. When anyone asked Oprah what she would like to be when she grew up, shed say, I want to be paid to talk (p. 28). The rest, as they say, is history.

    We work in middle schools, most of which are currently investing tremendous resources to support students in preparation for college and careers, but we cant help but think of George Costanza and Oprah Winfrey. While it seems that college- and career-readiness ought to consider questions such as the one Jerry asked GeorgeWhat do you like to do?and intentionally mine and develop students interests to unearth their passions, as Oprahs grandmother did, recent conversations about college- and career-readiness focus more on quantifiables, such as a students ability to read independently and proficiently at the upper range of a grade-level Lexile band, as indicated by some online assessment.

    Naturally, this leaves many of us feeling exasperated and worried about what will become of students who attend schools with such narrow parameters for college and career readiness. Already, we have witnessed children feeling weary of the constant focus on quantitative indicators, such as text complexity and standardized measures of progress. In one middle school Kim Yaris recently worked in, she gave students an article titled Scientists Look Back to See How They Found Their Future, in which successful scientists offered this advice to middle school students, . . . grades are not the only measure of knowledge (Baker, 2016, p.3). When asked to react to this sentence, a sixth-grade girl wrote that she thought her sole purpose in being educated was to do great in school and learn without having fun. Another student asked, If grades arent the only measure of knowledge, what is?

    This experience and others like it make us wonder, if there is little joy in learning, and preparedness for life beyond school is evaluated only in terms of what can be measured quantitatively in school today, how do we know if children are genuinely college- and career- ready? Are we measuring what we think we are measuring? After all, George Costanza was a competent reader.

    Trends toward joyless, anxiety-ridden learning environments are often attributed to the advent of the

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    pcrewsText BoxCopyright 2016 by the National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved.

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    Common Core State Standards, which are commonly interpreted in ways that place great emphasis on presumably quantifiable aspects of instruction. Education is rife, however, with examples of children whose interests and talentswhich later led to world-changing careerswere not supported by traditional classroom instruction.

    Gillian Lynne attended school in England in the 1930s. At age eight, she could not sit still, lacked focus, was underperforming in all aspects of school, and was nicknamed wriggle-bottom (Lynne, 2011 p. 46). In her autobiography she writes, By the time I was eight, it had become very clear that I suffered from some kind of excess of energy (p. 46). Exasperated, the school notified her mother and suggested that her daughter may need to attend a school for children with special needs (Robinson & Aronica, p. 1).

    Determined to better understand what was going on, Gillians mother took her daughter to a doctor, who observed the little girls behavior as he spoke with her mother. Then, he explained to Gillian that he needed to talk with her mother privately. Assuring the child that all was well, the doctor turned on the radio and ushered her mother out of the room. Meanwhile, the doctor and the girls mother surreptitiously watched the little girl through a small window in the door to the doctors office. Almost immediately, the girl leaped off the couch and began to dance to the rhythm of the music. Her movements were graceful and seemed to come from a place deep within her. The doctor turned to the mother and very wisely said, There is no trouble with this child, Mrs. Pyrke. She is a natural danceryou must take her immediately to dance class (Lynne, 2011, p. 46).

    Gillian Lynne eventually grew up to become a world class ballerina, eventually working with Andrew Lloyd Weber and choreographing Cats and Phantom of the Opera. How privileged Gillian was to have a mother who had the resources and insight to look beyond

    the recommendations of the school and seek another opinion!

    When we look at the sea of faces filling the classrooms in which we work, we often wonder how many of the children might be similar to Gillian, embodying some latent talent or harboring the potential to change the world while they complete aptitude Scantrons and participate in online courses designed to set them on a course for their future. We also wonder how many of them, with narrow parameters for college and career readiness and without someone like Gillians mother or Oprahs grandmother to advocate for them, might not realize their potential, leaving them destined for misguided college choices and unsatisfying careers, much like George Costanza.

    As schools across the country work to teach the Common Core State Standards, we wish that there was more space for the common core of experience, as described by Louise Rosenblatt (1968), giving students opportunities to look for the ways they see themselves in texts, particularly those that show them pathways into possibilities for their future. While education as an institution perseverates on standardized test data, it seems to us that thoughts of children graduating without understanding what sets them ablaze from within and how such passion might be of service to the world should be of equal concern. We think the question that educators really need to be asking is, How can we help children discover their passions and develop visions for their great futures while also increasing their reading proficiency?

    We find that middle school, when students quests for identity are on overdrive, is an optimal time to help students deeply explore the rich and diverse possibilities for futures that connect to the things that bring them joy. But, how might educators engage in this added layer of college and career thinking when supporting reading competency in middle school requires such tremendous

    connect ions from readwritethinkIn this lesson from, students are introduced to familiar characters, from literature and from popular culture, whom readers first encounter as adults, but whose childhood stories are only told later. Students first discuss characters from texts theyve read. They then discuss the characteristics and stories of other familiar literary characters who are first introduced as adults. Then, in groups, students plan their own versions of a childhood for a selected character, and describe that childhood in the form of a short story, journal entry, or time capsule letter.

    Lisa Storm

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  • 21College and Career Readiness burkins, yaris, and hoffmann-thompson

    resources? We can begin by introducing students to Jane Goodall.

    Reading as Jane Goodall Read

    When Jane Goodall was ten years old, she announced to her family that when she grew up, she wanted to go to Africa to study and write about animals. This was unusual on many counts. During 1940s England, people didnt often leave their home country for work in faraway, exotic locales. Add to that that Jane was a girl, and the idea seemed doubly preposterous. So where did a young girl living in the English countryside come up with such an idea?

    Jane Goodall was an avid readerincluding Dr. Dolittle and Tarzan of the Apesas well as countless informational books about all varieties of animals and things related to nature. Based on the research by Cipielewski & Stanovich (1992) that suggests that reading volume is linked to attaining the higher order literacy proficiencies (Allington, 2006, p. 35), we can reasonably assume that Janes reading life contributed to her growing proficiency as a reader. Of even greater importance, however, is the way in which Jane Goodalls reading

    choices empowered her to imagine a unique future for herself. Given the direct connection between the books she read and her college and career path, it feels as if what happened to Jane was magical. We believe, however, that replicating that magic in classrooms is possible and at least worth the effort. In fact, the real magic isnt just that students discover unique paths for themselves, paths that help them meet both short-term goals (test scores) and long-term goals (predispositions towards lifelong learning) for college- and career-readiness, but that this work also brings more joy into classrooms.

    A Magical Path to Authentic Reading

    When middle school aged children are asked what they want to be when they grow up, many of them will shrug their shoulders, while others will offer the old standbysdoctor, lawyer, teacher, professional basketball player. While all worthy professions, we tend to believe that students default to these ideas because they have limited knowledge about other possibilities. In an effort to help students learn about other careers and potentially formulate unique visions for their own futures, we (Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris) worked with Kathryn Hoffmann-Thompson, a fifth and sixth-grade teacher in a school on a Native American reservation in the rural Midwest. Like many middle schoolers, these students have limited exposure to the variety of ways their interests could become career options. In collaboration with Kathryn, we developed a biography unit of study around the Heart, Head, Hands, and Feet lesson (HHHF), from Reading Wellness: Lessons in Independence and Proficiency (Burkins and Yaris, 2014).

    To launch the unit, Kathryn gathered her students on the floor and read aloud Me . . . Jane (McDonnell, 2011). Next, she introduced her students to the HHHF graphic organizer, presented in Figure 1. Together, they went back to the text to think about Janes experiences from childhood through her arrival in Africa.

    Beginning first with the heart, Kathryn asked her students to think about what Jane loved to do. Moving next to the thought bubble (head) on the graphic organizer, she filled in Goodalls vision for her futureJane dreamed of a life in Africa, too. A life working with, and helping all animals (McDonnell, pp. 2628). Finally, on the hands and feet of the graphic organizer, Kathryn and her students carefully noted the actions Goodall took to attain her goal. The completed HHHF graphic organizer for Jane Goodall follows in Figure 2.

    For the remainder of the first week of the unit, Kathryn read aloud HHHF picture-book biographies and increasingly relied on the students to complete an

    Figure 1: The Heart, Head, Hands, and Feet (HHHF) graphic organizer

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  • Voices from the Middle volume 24 number 2 december 201622

    HHHF graphic organizer for each. It is important to note that all of the picture-book biographies used in this unit were carefully selected because they begin by describing the characters childhood. This helps students to learn that their actions can influence their futures and that when they connect their actions to the things they love most, they can discover opportunities and possibilities that help forge a path to their careers.

    With each biography, students grew more and more excited. One student reflected, Everyday we get to learn about a new person, place, time, and how excited people were about their passions. They found ways to explore what they loved no matter what. Kathryn also noticed that the students were making connections to the setting of historical fiction through a deeper awareness of how the context of time and place impacted the lives of real people.

    Next, students began to read other HHHF biographies of influential peopleJacques Cousteau, Jimi Hendrix, Oprah Winfrey, Peter Roget, Wilma Rudolph, and Pablo Nerudaand completed graphic organizers individually and with partners. As students learned about these influential people, they began to notice similarities in their stories, which led them to conclude that moving in the direction of ones dream often requires traits such as curiosity, tenacity, perseverance, and determination. The students returned to the picture-book biographies again and again throughout the entire unit as touchstones that made these big concepts concrete.

    Of course, reading aloud picture-book biographies was only the beginning of the work. As students were immersed in conversations about the famous or unique individuals featured in the biographies, Kathryn next asked students to consider their own interests. They were given a blank copy of the HHHF graphic organizer (or they drew their own), and over the course of several days, they wrote the things they were interested in and truly enjoyed in their hearts. In Figure 3, Thomas has written his interests in his heart. He has also circled the interest about which he is most enthusiastic.

    Focusing on topics and experiences that are interesting to students shifts the energy of the classroom, a shift that continued as students searched the classroom and library for informational books about some of the topics listed in their heart. This book selection was aided by Kathryn who helped her students see connections that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. For example, a student who indicated that he likes Legos was inclined to select The Lego Ideas Book. Kathryn, however, was able to also point out that a book on design or architecture could also be of interest to the student.

    To further aid in text selection around their interests, and to teach students a process for mining the topics that gave them energy, Kathryn created an exercise

    Figure 3: Thomass heart from his HHHF graphic organizer

    Figure 2: Completed HHHF graphic organizer on Jane Goodall

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  • 23College and Career Readiness burkins, yaris, and hoffmann-thompson

    she referred to as exploding your heart. She shared Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington (Asim, 2012) with students, which describes Booker T. Washingtons 500-mile trek to learn to read. She asked her students to look at what was written in the hearts of their HHHF graphic organizers and identify the interest for which they would be willing to walk 500 miles. She asked, What would you be willing to walk 500 miles to learn more about or to do? Then students took that interest and exploded it, revealing details about themselves as learners and as people. This expanded understanding of what appeals to the students about their topic provided insights for Kathryn into how she might differentiate instruction and create more obvious links between students interests and the learning they do across the day in school. Thomass exploded heart, developed around his interest in being outside, is presented in Figure 4.

    Over the next few weeks, Kathryn and her students searched for books and other resources that supported students investigations of their topics. After students selected informational texts related to the topics inscribed upon their hearts, Kathryn dedicated several weeks to allowing students to explore their informational texts. She supported them with authentic, in-the-moment mini-lessons about how to read informational texts. Because they were reading about things that were important and interesting to them, students relished the time they were given to do this and often explored unexpected avenues of learning.

    As they read, students completed an HHHF graphic organizer on themselves, putting possibilities for their futures into the thought bubble and writing action steps in the hands and feet. Students oftentimes spontaneously

    shared with their peers what they were learning, and engaged in fascinating conversations that invigorated and inspired their classmates and Kathryn. The explorations of the picture-book biographies helped students imagine new possibilities for their own futures. For example, one pair

    of students, after reading a picture-book biography of William Carlos Williams (Bryant, 2008) and marveling at his ability to continue to make time to write even during his busy work as a doctor, spontaneously located a book of his poetry and began reading his poems together.

    While it is not uncommon for middle school students to resist reading, especially nonfiction, Kathryns students embraced it, creating optimal conditions for Kathryn to nudge them to read closely and carefully and to think about the possibilities for their futures. Figure 5 presents Auroras HHHF graphic organizer.

    One of Kathryns goals for the HHHF unit was to help the students to envision ways that they could

    Figure 4: Thomass exploded heart

    Figure 5: Auroras HHHF graphic organizer

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  • Voices from the Middle volume 24 number 2 december 201624

    pursue their passions throughout their school years and beyond. So the culminating project was to picture themselves fifty years into the future and write a picture-book biography about their possible paths in life. Over the course of the unit, the students had internalized the big ideas of the HHHF biographies and incorporated the themes into their work. They drew on the HHHF organizers they had made for themselves and revisited the classroom wall covered with those they had created from the dozens of picture-book biographies that had been read. In the final stories they crafted and illustrated, there were experienced and anticipated obstacles to overcome, a relentless drive to pursue their passions, and an overarching understanding of the power of learning. Each child saw that they, too, could do this work. Figures 6 and 7 present pages from Auroras autobiography.

    Closing Thoughts

    We are concerned that many schools, in a shortsighted effort to raise test scores, may be communicating to students that reading and writing serve the schools purposes, not theirs. In an age when numbers seem to matter most, and a national push for college- and career- readiness revolves around quantitative definitions of reading level and interactions with short, dry passages, we invite you to consider broader definitions of what it means to prepare for life after high school. Our collaboration with Kathryn Hoffman-Thompson and our work with other teachers implementing Heart, Head, Hands, and Feet explorations, convince us that efforts to help students find their paths into adulthood need not only give them the fundamentals of reading and writing, but can also give them agency around their inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.

    For a complete list of the Heart, Head, Hands and Feet biographies, go to and search HHHF.


    Allington, R. (2006). What really matters for struggling readers: Designing research- based programs. Boston, MA: Pearson.

    Asim, J. (2012). Fifty cents and a dream: Young Booker T. Washington. New York, NY: Little Brown and Company.

    Baker, A. (2016, February 3). Scientists look back to see how they found their future. Newsela. Retrieved from https://news

    Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. In Perspectives: Choosing and using books for the classroom, 6, ixxi.

    Bryant, J. (2008). A river of words: The story of William Carlos Williams. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans for Young Readers.

    Burkins, J. M., & Yaris, K. (2014). Reading wellness: Lessons in independence and proficiency. Portsmouth, ME: Stenhouse.

    Cipielewski, J., & Stanovich, K. (1992). Predicting growth in reading ability from childrens exposure to print. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 54, 7489.

    David, L. (Writer), & Cherones, T. (Director). (1991, April 18). The revenge [Television series episode]. In L. David (Producer), Seinfeld. New York, NY: West-Shapiro Productions.

    Lynne, G. (2011). Dancer in wartime: One girls journey from the blitz to Sadlers Wells. London: Chatto & Windus.

    McDonnell, P. (2011). Me . . . Jane. New York, NY: Little, Brown.

    Robinson, K., & Aronica, L. (2009). The element: How finding your passion changes everything. New York, NY: Viking.

    Rosenblatt, L. (1968) Literature as exploration. London: Heinemann.

    Weatherford, C. B. (2010). Oprah: The little speaker. New York, NY: Marshall Cavendish.

    Figure 6: Interior page from Auroras biography

    Figure 7: A second interior page from Auroras biography

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