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A vocational school curriculum that includes genocide studies and British literature

One way the school has tried to encourage students’ to keep their options open is by introducing college seminar-style classes like the Genocide Studies course, currently an honors-level elective. English teacher Justin Bilton and history teacher Jason Stark created and team-teach the class. Bilton had studied the topic as part of his graduate work at Salem State University, and later attended an educators’ workshop in Washington at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Stark’s grandmother escaped Germany in 1939, although many close family members, including her parents and brother, perished in Nazi concentration camps. While discussing their respective backgrounds, the two teachers wondered if there was a way to give students a deeper understanding of genocide than what was covered by the state’s instructional “frameworks” — Massachusetts’ version of the Common Core standards.

Historical documents and literary fiction make up the curriculum. First-person accounts, like a recording of Stark’s grandmother describing her wartime experiences and a visit to the school by a Rwandan genocide survivor, help to keep the material on a scale that students can understand, Bilton said.

Freshmen Helen “Ellie” Clark and Noah Stevens have class in the machine shop.

Freshmen Helen “Ellie” Clark and Noah Stevens have class in the machine shop.

A frequent refrain among Essex Tech staff is that some kids seem to have their “shop brains” and their “academic brains,” and the two don’t overlap often enough, something the school is trying to change. Yet some students say they’ve already found surprising connections between the genocide class and their vocational training. Emily Brown, a senior studying Sustainable Horticulture, said learning that farms and farmers were often components of genocides — either as valuable prizes to be seized or as resources for forced labor — was a powerful moment for her.

It’s a challenging curriculum for high schoolers, O’Toole said. But the high bar hasn’t discouraged student interest: The class has become so popular that next year two sections will be offered instead of just one, and it will be upgraded to a credit-bearing course so that more students will be able to fit it into their schedules if they choose to, he added.

“We’re trying to break that old mantra of ‘you send your kid to a tech school because they can’t do school,’ ” Stark said. “Our kids, not only can they ‘do school,’ but they can do it at a high level.”

To be sure, high-quality career and technical education isn’t for everyone. But experts like Nancy Hoffman, a senior advisor to the nonprofit Jobs for the Future, say the hands-on learning inherent in career programs can often motivate young people in a way textbooks and tests can’t. Students need to know both the “why” of what they’re doing as well as the “how,” she added.

I don’t think I could have gone to a regular school — I look forward to my shop classes, and going back and forth (between tracks) means I'm always ready for the next level in academics.
Gabriella Okparaoko, a junior at Essex Tech in the Automotive Technology program

During a busy week in early January, that was precisely the lesson of the day for students in Essex Tech’s Construction Technology program. At a Habitat for Humanity house being built in a nearby town, students were supposed to be installing a bathroom lighting fixture. But they discovered that plumbing pipes had been routed behind the designated wall — a change not reflected on the plans they had been provided. In smaller residential projects, especially ones like this where multiple teams of volunteers are working on rotating schedules, it’s not unusual to face these kinds of challenges, Essex Tech electricity teacher Chris Xerras said. The setback provided a teachable moment he would be hard-pressed to replicate back in the classroom. (“It activates their critical thinking — when there’s a problem, how do you react to it?” Xerras said afterward.)

Quinlan Roberts, left, and Nicolai “Kolya” Sims, both freshmen, work with Advanced Manufacturing teacher David Bailin. "Do you want to know what makes him a good teacher?” asked Sims. “Quote this: ‘Everything.’ ”

Quinlan Roberts, left, and Nicolai “Kolya” Sims, both freshmen, work with Advanced Manufacturing teacher David Bailin. “Do you want to know what makes him a good teacher?” asked Sims. “Quote this: ‘Everything.’ ”

Even as his students discussed possible workarounds, Xerras reminded them that some of the parameters couldn’t be changed. “We still have to adhere to … what? What do we have to adhere to?” he asked.

“The code,” several of his students answered almost in unison, referring to the state’s regulations for licensed electricians.

“Very good, that’s exactly right — we have to follow the code,” Xerras said. “Because the inspector is going to come in and check that we’ve done this correctly.”

These are the kinds of real-world experiences that stick with students, says Jobs for the Future’s Hoffman: “If you’re looking for engaged students, you’re going to find them when they’re turning the fundamental skills they’ve acquired into action. With high-quality career and technical education, there’s a strong chance that this can happen.”

Source: HechingerReport

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