Anchored to a dream

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Students taking apart a computer in a computer science class at High School of Language and Innovation.

Eldan* is in the 10th grade. He’s charming, originally from Montenegro, and a talented soccer player. However, he frequently comes late to school and until we started to address it, he would often cut classes. We have a few Eldans in every grade: not openly resistant or disrespectful, but also not always able to see the point of school.

This year, I realized that rather than being frustrated by such behavior, I could be curious. Does Eldan see the point of school? Are we communicating that school is a “have to because you have to”? Or are we communicating that school is a “get to” that leads to possibilities?

When Eldan last cut a class and I was conferencing with him, I realized I should try to figure out what he wants to do with his life.

“Do you want to graduate from high school Eldan?” I did not ask him this question with an attitude or a challenge; I asked him out of genuine curiosity.

He looked blank.

“Really, I’m curious,” I continued. “Do you see the point of high school?”

“Yes, of course miss,” he replied automatically.

“Well, what do you want to do after high school?”

“Um . . . well, my dad wants me to be a soccer player.”

This answer was interesting. When our students have a dream of playing sports professionally, it’s important to not discourage their passion. Yet we also know the extremely low percentage of those who become professional athletes and we have a responsibility to expose students to other possibilities as well.

Also, was soccer Eldan’s dream? Or his father’s dream?

“Do you want to be a soccer player Eldan?”

“Of course.”

I wondered: do professional soccer players even need a high school diploma?

“Good, so soccer is on your mind. Is there anything else you also like?”

“I like . . .” he seemed hesitant. “Cars.”

I asked him about his favorite cars and he expressed that he’d also be interesting in working on cars. We looked up a program called Co-Op tech. Co-Op teach is a year-long vocational program in New York City for students or recent graduates ages 17-21. It offers training in a variety of skills from building trades to health careers. Students can attend after graduate from high school, or they can attend for half they day while they are still in high school if they are on-track to graduate.

When I showed Eldon Coop Tech’s automotive program, his face lit up. I had never seen him look so inspired.

“I could do that?” he asked. “While I’m still in high school?”

“Yes,” I replied. “So you could finish high school with a diploma and the skills to be an auto-mechanic.”

“OK, so you’ll find out when I can join? Like next year?” I promised Eldan I’d get more information.

When we ask students what they want to be when they grow up, 90% of the answers are around what students already know: police officer. Doctor. A few teachers. A few engineers. Maybe a nurse here and there. Our English teachers do a good job of incorporating a unit on career exploration and we had a successful Career Day last year that we’re going to repeat. But I’m starting to see that rather than career exploration being a unit or activity, it needs to be a frequent conversation so that as students navigate high school, they are not just going through the motions, but getting anchored to a dream.

*The names and identifying features of students have been changed.

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