A conversation with Sandra Adams about taking CTE to the Next Level

After the recent publication of her new book, instructional coach and frequent Techniques contributor Sandra Adams sat down with us to discuss the state of career and technical education (CTE) today. Discover what inspires Adams’s drive to sustain high-quality CTE programs for all students. And how she hopes her participation in ACTE’s Inclusion, Access, Equity and Diversity (IAED) Mentorship Program will inspire others to continually improve student learning.

What inspired you to write Next Level: Classroom Instructions for CTE Teachers?

The inspiration for this book really stemmed from the merging of two different experiences. First, since the release of our first book, But I’m Not a Reading Teacher, I have found myself continually engaged in deeper discussions with teachers on active learning strategies in the CTE classroom. From Alaska to Texas to Ohio, the need for students to engage more frequently with productive talk and peer feedback strategies rang strong. The first book built those strong foundational skills of active learning.

The more I observed CTE classrooms in action, the more I realized the difference in student enthusiasm when they transitioned from classroom to lab. In writing Next Level, I wanted to demonstrate lesson plans that allow teachers to bring those powerful lab attributes into classroom learning.

Who is your intended audience and what do you hope they’ll take away?

My audience includes all CTE teachers and administrators who share a passion for continuous improvement. My hope is that everyone who reads through the eight scenarios in Next Level will apply these strategies to their own lessons.  We tried to create the lens for achieving high levels of active learning through four key lab attributes — including freedom of movement, processing together, building student agency, and relevance. I hope that the deliberate focus on four lab attributes inspires others to continually improve the level of active student learning.

Will you please share an example from the book? How exactly will its use help CTE teachers improve classroom instruction?

One of my favorite examples in the whole book is the story of how an automotive instructor transitioned from lecturing to an approach we dubbed “figure it out.” We used the “figure it out” lesson for the “freedom of movement” lab attribute. We discussed how freedom of movement is key to engagement, collaboration and increasing critical thinking. The instructor was reluctant to change, stemming from a deep belief that content was too complex for students to understand on their own.  After a lot of coaxing and modeling strategies, he implemented a student-directed, collaborative lesson. Not many of us like to make ourselves vulnerable in front of others, so I was elated when he agreed to field-test a different way to introduce the material.

He decided to design a small group, student-led mini-research project with a presentation. He literally brought pieces of the lab into his classroom. On a large table, he placed an assortment of coils and plugs that students could rummage through. Doing so made the abstract learning more concrete. He divided his class into teams of three students, assigned each group one of four ignition systems, and gave them three prompts to explore:

  1. Figure out how this ignition system works. Use the text and digital tools at your disposal.
  2. Diagram the process and illustrate key points.
  3. Practice how you will describe the process to the class.

Students embraced their freedom to move.

They talked openly and asked each other questions. They visited the parts table, and they asked the teacher for feedback. For an hour students were actively engaged.

Were they able to understand the whole process after an hour? Of course not.

Did they actively construct meaning for themselves? Yes.

And this is the whole point. We cannot construct meaning for someone else. We empower students every time we create opportunities for self-directed learning.

How has COVID-19 affected CTE program activities in your school/ district? How has it affected the wellbeing of your professional learning community at large?

The pandemic shined a spotlight on three significant problems in our district.

  1. While students are quite savvy with mobile devices, many need our support to master learning via LMS, Google tools, Microsoft, and so forth.
  2. Many families did not have reliable access to wireless and/or high-speed internet.
  3. Though all teachers had learning management system (LMS) structures in place, many were not ready to use the LMS as their launching pad for all of the instruction.

Months later, however, we have learned is that our staff really are lifelong learners. Teachers adapted quickly to Zoom and LMS platforms. They all jumped right in to learn and practice. Our levels of collaboration were incredible. Teachers and administrators worked together to develop digital engagement strategies. In addition, our staff worked hard to understand and address the social–emotional needs of our students.

In what ways are teachers innovating to conduct the hands-on, project based-learning inherent in CTE — while keeping everyone safe?

Teachers innovated to make virtual classrooms more engaging for students Several invited interesting guest speakers to enter the digital chat rooms. Students were given opportunities to connect with local leaders and ask questions about different career fields. We learned to perform virtual scavenger hunts how to use breakout rooms, and ways to chunk instruction.

Some CTE teachers delivered kits to students’ homes so that they could access supplies needed for hands-on practice. Our welding teacher demonstrated how to achieve smooth welds with graham cracker and icing. Video became a tool widely used. We asked students to upload videos of them talking through performance skills or demonstrating a skill if they were able to from home.

Please briefly discuss your role with ACTE’s IAED Mentorship Program. In what ways do you hope that you will grow in your participation?

I am currently a mentor with ACTE’s IAED Mentorship program. My mentee is a fellow administrator.  Interestingly, I represent a large, diverse, urban area where poverty is widespread.  Jim Michlig, on the other hand, represents a more affluent rural area. Despite the differences, we have identified many common concerns, recognizing the need:

  • For more internship opportunities
  • To continually improve our longitudinal data collections so that we are making decisions from accurate evidence and data
  • To create pathway exploration opportunities in our middle schools

We also discussed how we all need to be more conscious of and deliberate in the marketing of programs. We need to be intentional about breaking gender and racial stereotypes. For instance, when my district added programming and networking courses to our IT pathway about five years ago, we were advised by Stephanie Zircher, a representative, to be attentive to issues of disproportionality with enrollment. We then looked at the 11 enrolled. They were all male, and mostly white.

Zircher explained that IT programs tend to be largely white and male. We realized that we had to increase our investment — of time and resources — to provide more equitable programming. Through targeted efforts to increase accessibility, program enrollment expanded to include five minority students and three young women. The following semester, two students were hired as interns with a local software company.  I accompanied them to their orientation meeting. And, these, I saw the truth in Zircher’s cautionary words.  The entire staff was white, and mostly male. We owe it to our students to fight to make such high-demand career pathways available to all students.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

It has been well established that the quality of the teacher is the most influential factor on student achievement in any classroom. My passion lies in building instructional capacity to sustain high-quality CTE programs. This involves deliberate planning, to achieve greater levels of equity, accessibility in classroom learning, and in work-based learning experiences. Collaborate! Consider creating professional learning communities (PLCs) within your CTE staff. This will be an excellent first step.

Imagine if PLCs were designed to research IAED and field-test strategies to provide greater equity. Then team members share their experiences throughout the years. The end result is the creation of social capital. Staff become more committed to the vision and mission of equitable instruction.

Sandra Adams recently authored a course on PLCs (EC119), available for credit on CTE Learn. Additionally, she will host a webinar, Professional Learning Communities: How to Reach Transformative Change, on Jan. 28.

Purchase her new book, Next Level: Classroom Instructions for CTE Teachers, in ShopACTE.

Summer program provides authentic CTE experiences for migrant students & English-language learners

Beaverton School District provides a comprehensive career and technical education (CTE) summer school program for migrant students and English-language learners (ELL) in middle school. The program began six years ago. And it continues as part of an ongoing partnership with Portland State University (PSU). Beaverton, nestled outside of Portland, serves approximately 41,000 students. It is one of the most populated school districts in Oregon and also one of the most diverse. Students within the Beaverton School District speak more than 101 different languages. District personnel identified a significant need for strong ELL programs.

CTE engages all students in hands-on learning.

“We needed a strong hook for these students to commit four weeks of summer to practice their language and math skills,” said Jeffrey Crapper, a high school CTE teacher and summer school coordinator in Beaverton. “CTE provided an amazing opportunity for our students to apply their learning using an hands-on engineering project,” said Crapper.

Program themes rotate on an annual basis and include  topics such as bridges, earthquakes, boats or robots. Participating students complete a hands-on CTE engineering project to apply their knowledge. Past projects included:

  • Building a cardboard board that can float their teacher
  • Building a balsa wood structure that can withstand the seismic testing at the PSU Engineering Lab
  • Learning coding through simple Micro:Bits

“Migrant and ELL students often need additional support to prevent academic losses from occurring in the summer. These projects allow students from different backgrounds to reach a common goal: to demonstrate the critical problem solving skills embedded in high-quality career and technical education,” said Crapper.

Stella Bergman, a summer school CTE teacher in Beaverton, agreed. “Students said building a huge cardboard boat was one of the most fun projects they have ever done in school! They had a great time and learned some important engineering and construction skills.”

Program creates professionalism opportunities for secondary & postsecondary CTE students.

Bergman and Crapper recruit high school CTE students and alumni from their home school, Beaverton Academy of Science & Engineering, to serve as interns for the summer school program. “We couldn’t make the program work without our high school and college interns. Many of them are bilingual and help bridge any language barriers we may experience in our program,” said Crapper. “The high school students are able to obtain work experience elective credit for their work and the college students receive a small stipend to compensate for their time.”

Strong community investment supports students through COVID-19.

To accommodate for distance learning due to COVID-19, we had to modify our program slightly; however, a strong focus on career and technical education remained. Bergman and Crapper created project kits for all of their students and the entire summer school staff personally delivered each kit to their students’ homes. Thanks to a donation from the Campbell Foundation, a local science education foundation, and a grant from Portland State University, every student in the program received a bag full of balsa wood, a bottle of wood glue, an engineering workbook, a string backpack, two books at their specific reading level and a toy car for their completed balsa wood bridge, which was their project for this past summer.

Beaverton School District’s partnership with Portland State University has been integral to the success of our annual summer school program. PSU has consistently provided most of the funding for the necessary project materials. Additionally, they have offered campus tours of their engineering facility and encouraged college students to volunteer as part of their capstone experience during the construction process.  

Summer outreach programs expand students’ geography of opportunity.

“Our summer school program targets the most at-risk students, said Robert Hillhouse, a multilingual department teacher on special assignment. “It is critically important that we expand the students’ geography of opportunity. They don’t just visit a college, no, they experience having a college professor treat them as intellectual peers, receiving feedback and advice on their projects.  Students taking part in this program are truly respected as engineers-in-apprenticeship.”

“Without a doubt, my favorite engineering task is the cardboard boat project,” said Crapper. “I enjoy seeing the students’ progression from prototype to finished project. However, I sometimes think a few of my students occasionally sabotage their final project because they want to see their teacher get wet during the final testing process.

“It is always my favorite day at work. I seeing their faces as I float in a kiddie pool on the cardboard boat that they designed.”

Alaska ACTE Hosts Virtual Professional Development Conference

Oct. 9 and 10, 2020 – Zoom

Virtual learning: Two words invoking major headaches for educators across the country. Despite the challenges of online learning, especially for Career and Technical Education (CTE), benefits are emerging! One such benefit is the expanded access to professional development, which is why Alaska ACTE decided to host its annual professional development conference virtually this year! Continuing to increase student access and equity in CTE is too important and we could not cancel the one opportunity many have to learn from the best in our state.

The 2020 Alaska ACTE Professional Development Conference will take place October 9 and 10. Going online means educators from across Alaska have access to this important continuing education from the safety of their home or school. No travel and no time away from the classroom! All live sessions will be recorded, allowing participants the opportunity to re-watch sessions or view sessions later if they missed one.

This year’s keynote speaker is Ricardo Romanillos, Ed.D., the senior director of programs with the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity. Romanillos will address equity, an extremely timely topic for all educators navigating the challenges of teaching during a worldwide pandemic. The public education system is meant to give every student access to the same educational opportunities. However, virtual learning has created an environment where many students only have access to what they have within their own homes and what parents can provide, creating a much less even playing field.

Romanillos is passionate about building structures and pathways that empower underserved communities. He has 14 years of experience in public education. He’s also a husband, second generation Latino and father of a medically dependent child. Romanillos keynote presentation will address equity’s challenges and give ideas on how to reach underserved communities in one of the most trying times educators, students and parents have faced.

The 2020 Alaska ACTE Professional Development Conference will take place October 9 and 10, 2020. Registration is $150 and includes membership to Alaska ACTE.

Register Online

Teaching Strategies: Certification Test Prep

For career and technical education (CTE) teachers, spring brings with it a focus on certification test preparation. This can be a daunting task. Consider how a teacher might approach supporting student review sessions. You might hear a teacher announce, “You have 45 minutes to study today. Use this time now to review your notes quietly.”

Is it effective? On the surface, it seems to be a good use of time. Students need to perform well. Time is needed for review. However… Students’ attention spans begin to slip around the 15 minute mark (Medina, 2014). Rather than becoming frustrated when students struggle with quiet review, get creative.

Here is an approach you can take: Structure meaningful test prep lessons in which students talk through questions and concepts and, as a result, engage in deeper thinking. Use the following strategies together to help students identify their knowledge gaps.

Socratic Circle

In a traditional Socratic circle, students are seated in a circle without the teacher. They are challenged with open-ended questions or hypothetical scenarios, and instructed to discuss. This exercise helps students to talk through scenarios and situations — to explore possibilities and think deeply — without constant acknowledgement from a teacher.

Early childhood education students were given the following instructions, “We have studied eight leading theorists this year. Discuss each person’s contribution to understanding and rank them by importance to preschool development.”

Students then learn to collaborate and struggle through awkward moments. According to Tony Wagner (2015), agility and adaptability are as important as collaboration and critical thinking for success in 21st century workplace. Engaging in conversation that is challenging, open for exploration but also outcome-based, will push students to construct deeper meaning for themselves.

Forced Agreement

When you want students to arrive at one correct answer, use the forced agreement strategy alongside your Socratic circle. Design this session to follow a think-pair-share lesson. Students are accountable to think on their own, and then they must “pair” together, with forced agreement, to “share” a single correct answer. With the full class group, expand on and discuss those areas where students disagreed.

Because our session was deliberately designed as test prep, students were given three difficult questions to answer. Students were instructed to answer individually and then deliberate together. When the table agreed to one response, and had a strong defense for that response, they signaled the instructor with a thumb in the air.

While each table of students collaborated, the instructor facilitated. More importantly, the instructor listened and checked for understanding, identifying which students grappled with difficult concepts.

The Strategy in Action

How long will it take?

20–30 minutes, depending on the number of students present

What’s the gist?

When your goal is to prime students for deeper retention of key concepts and theories, arrange students in a circle. Students engage in discussion about the question or scenario given. Students use constructive criticism to make judgments and come to sensible conclusions together. The teacher serves as only a facilitator. The goal is for the teacher to never intervene in the dialogue.

Add the forced agreement piece when you are moving toward a specific desired answer. This is a great tool to engage students in modeling and reflection.

Structuring Success for Your Students

Educators must be cognizant of how many students struggle with study and test prep skills. Given that certification testing covers a vast array of standards, terms, concepts and processes, structuring powerful study sessions is crucial.

By doing so, teachers avoid the habituation of routine studying and help students deepen their own understanding by engaging in continual productive talk themselves. Further, by focusing on strategies that are metacognitive in nature, students can identify the areas in which they are still weak.

Sandra Adams is a teacher and instructional coach with the Career Academy, Fort Wayne Community Schools. She co-wrote the ACTE-supported book But I’m NOT a Reading Teacher!: Literacy Strategies for Career and Technical Educators with Gwendolyn Leininger. Contact her to learn how you can implement theses certification test prep and other innovative teaching strategies in your CTE classroom.

Medina, J. (2014). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home and school (2nd ed.). Seattle, WA: Pear Press
Wagner, T. (2008). The global achievement gap: Why even our best schools don’t teach the new survival skills our children need — and what we can do about it. New York, NY: Basic Books.