Final project report: What happens when students engage in a series of self-reflective and explorative exercises related to job interest, needs and abilities?

Inquiry Project Proposal

Rebecca Foster and Victoria Richter, Genesis Center

I. Introduction

Rebecca Foster and Victoria Richter are ESOL teachers at the Genesis Center. Rebecca teaches Level II and Victoria teaches Level III. Class sizes ranged from 15 to 22, with students from various Latin American countries, Haiti, Nigeria, Russia and South East Asia. As classes are from 6-8 three nights a week, most students are currently employed during the daytime. Rebecca grew up overseas and has worked extensively in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Victoria is an immigrant here in the United States and has taught various foreign languages in a variety of educational settings. They share an interest in the holistic development of their students.

In this project, we developed and examined a tool to help non-native speakers of English broaden their perspectives regarding career possibilities. Given that most existing career exploration tools require high level of English proficiency, we chose to adapt one such tool by simplifying both language and concepts.

II. The Question

We chose to explore the area of developing future job/career interests. While many tools exist for individuals to identify career interests, we were unable to find any that were specifically tailored to the needs and skills of non-native speakers. Moreover, those tools failed to fully consider/support the limitations and advantages of speakers of other languages. One of the objectives of the ESOL program at the Genesis Center is to improve English skills for job development purposes. However, few of our students had fully considered the wealth of job/career opportunities nor had they matched their own skills and interests with those opportunities.

We hoped to develop a tool and/or curriculum that would enable students with a variety of language abilities to identify jobs and careers that matched their individual skills and interests. In the course of our first meeting at Alton Jones in October, 2001, we developed the following project question which remained unchanged throughout the study:

What happens when students engage in a series of self-reflective and explorative exercises related to job interest, needs and abilities?

During the fall of 2001, we tested our assumptions regarding our studentsı limited career expectations by administering a series of surveys. Questions included job likes, dislikes and long and short-term career goals. While results varied somewhat by level, in most cases students expressed considerable dissatisfaction with their current employment without identifying a clear, realistic goal for the future. Interestingly, the preliminary data showed that the lowest level students (which will be addressed in a separate report by Hermes Leal) expressed the most satisfaction with their current employment. Despite these overall trends, there were a few students in the Level II and Level III classes that did express very specific career goals, identifying their lack of English skills as the inhibiting factor. For these students, we wondered whether their participation in the project would change or confirm those goals.

III. The Tool

After exploring a variety of career interest materials, we selected the companion workbook for the best selling career guide, What Color is Your Parachute? The workbook contains a variety of exercises exploring all aspects of personal interests and skills related to career development. The workbook uses an image of a flower with circular petals to summarize the results from each exercise.

We adapted seven of the eight exercises from the workbook. Adaptation included revising and simplifying instructions, tasks, concepts, and vocabulary. Our seven petals covered the following topics:

1. My Favorite Things that I like to Work With
2. My Favorite Kinds of People that I Like to Work With
3. My Favorite Types of Information
4. My Favorite Working Conditions
5. My Favorite Kinds of Rewards
6. My Favorite Results
7. My Best Skills

Each exercise presented extensive lists of options for student to choose from and provided instructions for prioritizing those options. Final results were then copied onto the corresponding "petal" and decorated. At the end of the school year students put their petals together onto newsprint in the form of their own personal "career flower."

IV. Data Collection

We employed the following four data collection methods:

1) Observation: We wrote observations in a journal following each exercise. Observations addressed these questions:

A. How do I know if students understood the activity?
B. How do I know if students found the activity interesting?
C. How do I know if students found the activity helpful?

2) Student Journals: In each class we selected three students to give ongoing feedback on the project. Specific questions included: A. Did you understand the activity? Were the instructions clear? Were there any parts that needed more explanation? Was the activity easy or difficult?
B. What did you like about the activity? What did you dislike?
C. How useful was the activity? What did you learn?

3) Collect and Analyze Student Work: After each exercise we reviewed students work to identify any problems, issues or trends. We also compared students' career goals prior to the project with those stated at the end of the school year.

4) Final Reflection and Evaluation: At the end of the school year, we asked all students to comment on their experience with the project. General questions mirrored those of the individual student journals noted above.

We analyzed the data by employing a basic coding and sorting method. Data collected from the above methods were sorted into the three general categories: Mechanics of the Tool (including clarity of instructions, accuracy, pitfalls, data collection problems, etc.), Student Response, and Student Learning.

V. General Findings

Our findings are divided into three categories: Mechanics of the Tool, Student Response, and Student Learning.

Mechanics of the Tool:

Despite our efforts, the tool's instructions were not always clear enough for the student to follow them independently. While students consistently stated in their journals that they understood instructions, their facial expressions, body language, and repeated questions often indicated to the contrary. In addition, some students' "petals" clearly reflected misunderstandings about specific exercise objectives. Over time, however, students became used to the general format of the project even though specific instructions presented difficulties.

The prolonged time-frame (roughly one exercise every two weeks for fourteen weeks) presented an obvious problem in terms of student attendance and retention. Only the most consistent students finished the project with a full complement of petals. New students in particular struggled with understanding the overall purpose of the specific exercises. Spreading activities out also meant that interest level ebbed and flowed. Moreover, the process itself was extremely time consuming in terms of individual exercises. Trying to rush through an activity inevitably resulted in confusion or inconsistent results.

Thankfully, the decoration of petals at the end of each exercise was easy and enjoyable, engaging everyone, including those who were somewhat lost. Putting together their petals into flowers at the end of the school year not only provided closure, but also a final product of which to be proud. Students were enthusiastic while designing and sharing their flowers, as observed by body language, facial expressions and informal remarks.

Clearly, the tool in its present form is not yet perfected for use in an ESOL classroom. The tool requires significant support by the teacher, and even then leaves some students befuddled. As such, it is still a cumbersome tool for non-native speakers and would clearly benefit from additional editing and streamlining.

Student Response:

In general, students who completed most or all of the exercises were very positive about the project. This was observed both at the end of the various exercises (smiles, nodding heads) as well as discussed in student journals and the end of year reflections. Interestingly, their enthusiasm was less about identifying specific job possibilities and more about the general process of reflecting on themselves and their future.

Some specific reactions to the project include:

"It was interesting. It helps me know what I want to do In the future. Makes me think that I can do other things. That makes me happy."

"Is very useful because helped me to analyze about the different kind of jobs in this country. I have more specific ideas now."

"It was helpful. I learned that I want to help people."

"It helps you think about what you might like to do next."

"You can see what other people like. I like to hear what other people think."

"I am very happy for my flower because it help another people to get a dream for the future. I think I can get a good future and I say thank you."

"I like this activity because it helped me to remember a lot information I can do. In this year, is very important for me because I start on September at CCRI and I'm not sure what career study."

Student Learning/ Benefits

Students benefited from the career exploration process in a variety of ways:

English Language:

  • Learned work related vocabulary (occupations, tools, machines, conditions, skills, types of people or information, natural resources, crafts, etc.)
  • Practiced reading instructions, understanding lists, using tables and prioritizing
  • Wrote journals and communicated feedback orally
  • Developed critical thinking skills
  • Professional

  • Identified interests and skills (for example, "I want to help other people," "I like working with computers" or "Iım good at making things with my hands")
  • Communicated with each other about different occupations and professional goals
  • Thought about their future career in more concrete terms
  • Thought critically about past, present and future working conditions and rewards
  • Developed self-confidence necessary to investigate better job opportunities
  • Developed awareness of the possibility of employing their true interests and skills in a future job.
  • Personal/Emotional

  • Encouraged self-reflection in positive terms
  • Validated importance of their own interests and skills
  • Supported cross-cultural awareness (differing goals, interests, etc.)
  • Developed cooperation skills (helping each other to understand instructions and vocabulary)
  • VI. Implications

    In conclusion, we feel that the most important aspects of this experience for our students was simply the process of thinking in a formal way, many for the first time, about what it is they like and want to do professionally. While the process in most cases did not result in clearer (or even different) career goals, it did create and/or solidify for students the possibility of changing their life for the better. Moreover, the tool seemed to validate their own interests and skills as having a place and use in this country. For those students who already had clear goals, the tool helped to confirm their choices as well as clarified specific objectives or conditions.

    Balancing the logistical difficulties of the tool with studentsı overall positive responses, it is clear to us that there is value to further exploration and refinement of this tool. While we do not recommend using the tool in its present form, we do think there is important learning to be gained from engaging students in a career exploration process. Given that our Genesis Center classes are specifically targeted to workforce development, a refined tool could eventually serve as an integral part of the curriculum.

    Just as the focus of ESOL programs varies significantly within the field, so does the potential relevance of the tool. That said, we encourage teachers who are interested in engaging in a career exploration process to do so. In spite of the cumbersome nature of the specific tool we designed, students in our classes felt it was a very important and relevant topic.

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