“The name Ampersand was inspired by the way each of our lives changed as we took on internship. We developed relationships with professional mentors. We saw that our teachers are experienced professionals often with relevant industry experience. We learned to balance our roles as high school students, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters and now as interns. In this way, Ampersand is inspired by all of our worlds coming together—the world of home, the world of school and the world of work.”
—from the Editors’ Introduction to Ampersand
In January 2009, in my sixth year teaching and fourth year at High Tech High Media Arts, I was thinking this might be the point at which things start to make sense and maybe even seem—dare I say—easy. But here I was, walking into school with all of the feelings of a first-year teacher. “I’m a fraud! The students are going to find out that I don’t know what I’m doing! If I can just make it to the end of the day, I’ll be okay.”
My anxieties stemmed from one source. My 11th grade students would be on their internships, and for my Master’s action research project I was developing a curriculum that I hoped would strengthen the relationship between internship and school. I had already learned that many students experienced a disconnect between these worlds. Yet, as the semester approached, that knowledge had yet to translate into a coherent curriculum for my classes. For the first time in my career, I walked in the door without a clear idea of what my projects would look like and what my students would learn. Part of the problem stemmed from a lack of examples. HTH facilitates an internship experience for all eleventh graders, but I struggled to find a clear example of a project that grew out of internship and bridged the gap between school and work.
While the students’ internship experience provides a powerful “text” from which to draw lessons and projects, internship is also a great unknown for the teacher. Students leave school to work on projects that we don’t fully understand, in a workplace that we may have only seen a few times. Given this context, I decided to develop projects that would draw from my personal strengths and emanate from students’ internship experiences. For a teacher who enjoys creative writing, I could see students deriving archetypal characters from people they meet, learning to describe a setting clearly, and constructing a narrative structure. I could similarly envision students mining their internship sites for data sets, environmental samples, and more for analysis in math or science. For me, I decided to focus on my passion for various forms of journalism.
I started with a mentor interview—a small project that meshed my interest in journalism with my goal of having students process the lessons from their working experiences. Early on, I asked students in a journal prompt, “What is the purpose of doing a mentor interview?” Students responded with phrases such as, “to get to know him/her,” or “so they can get to know me,” or “to learn about this career, my internship, this field of work.” I decided that we should spend time generating more nuanced goals.
For three days we journaled and discussed a variety of topics designed to unpack the purpose of a mentor interview. Each time, I asked students to select—or I assigned—key phrases from past conversations for them to unpack, expand or otherwise further develop. Sometimes I inserted my own phrases. For example, when students repeatedly came back to the concepts of “to get to know my mentor” and “for my mentor to get to know me,” I suggested the word “relationship” and searched for key terms such as “professional,” “intellectual,” “productive” and related concepts. Each day we recorded our thoughts, covering an entire wall of whiteboards in my classroom.
Through these exercises, we developed new purposes, such as:
“To see different paths my life might take beyond high school.”
“To understand different decisions my mentor made in his/her life.”
“To develop a professional and intellectual relationship with my mentor.”
Over the course of one month we completed and exhibited mentor interviews, sharing insights into each student’s internship. I decided to delve further into the concept of documenting internship (and my personal passion for journalism) by assigning students a photo essay. The photo essay demanded significant writing, but it also encouraged us to see what each other’s internship sites, coworkers and projects looked like. Throughout this experience, we maintained regular blogs that featured writing, photography, and other supporting materials, such as video and audio.
As we worked on our projects, I encouraged students to think outside the nuts-and-bolts of their internship for inspiration. One student did not want to write about much of anything related to his internship. His job was to write code for the internal website of an insurance company, and that just wasn’t providing the spark needed to develop exhibition-worthy work. I noticed that he frequently talked about the amount of electricity wasted in his workplace, wondering aloud if the enormous glass windows in his building could be replaced with solar panels. So in class, I encouraged this student to behave like an entrepreneur and consider the economics of the situation. What tax incentives might be available for such a project? What would it take to bring a product like this to market? With each student’s experience, I became more confident in my ability to tease out the value of an internship experience and help the student translate it into a meaningful project. What I was discovering in these interactions was that the connection between school and work is not “curricular” in any traditional sense, but, instead, interactive, reflective, and analytical.
One opportunity for reflection came when two internship sites closed and laid off our interns. Like many Americans, they found themselves out of work. Meeting the graduation requirement of an internship was suddenly difficult. One of the laid-off students wrote about the experience of finding a second internship well into the semester. She wrote, “People with college degrees and high capabilities are being forced out of work. Knowing they need to support their families, many people accept positions that underutilize their skills….When HTHMA students were laid off from their internships, our teachers wouldn’t allow us to remain unemployed, but in some ways we were underemployed….I witnessed firsthand how fragile this economy is.”
As I read through blogs, mentor interviews and photo essays, I began to see many high quality reflections and complex narratives told by young people who were seeing a world that I wanted to better understand. I knew we had possibilities for an exhibition among these writings. The previous semester, we had created an interactive website where the user could navigate through multiple media forms to encounter a variety of messages. Because the news during the course of the semester (and a few blog assignments) explicitly highlighted the so-called death of traditional media, I assumed that students would naturally want to continue working with new media. I walked into class excited and proposed that we bring in our best work and think of a way to showcase it in a media form best suited for the 21st century. I was met with a room full of bored stares. What was wrong?
Students said, “We’ve already made a website,” and “We do stuff like that all the time—can we do something different?” Then came the real kicker, when a student asked, “Can we make a magazine?” Now, ideas were really flying, and the class seemed most enthusiastic about a seemingly quaint suggestion: “Let’s make a book!” The idea of a print publication had been the furthest thing from my mind. “Print media?” I said in disbelief. “You mean, like the kind that is going out of business across the country? The kind that might not even exist anymore when you are out in the ‘real world?” But they loved it. I talked to both of my classes, and both came to the same conclusion—we were making a book.
I was hesitant to work on a class publication for a few reasons. First, printing takes time, and we didn’t have that much. Second, printing costs money. We had a few hundred dollars in our class bank account and I knew from experience that high quality printing—especially color pages—could easily cost a few thousand dollars or more, even if we only printed enough copies for each student in the class to take one home. I worried about the static nature of print. Once we sent the files to the printer, we would be stuck with it forever. Our mistakes would be set in stone.
I presented these concerns to my classes, and they shrugged them off as if I was simply afraid of a challenge. Need time? We’ll work twice as fast, they said. Need money? We’ll fundraise after school and sell sponsorships to local businesses. Scared we’ll make mistakes? We’ll draft and revise, we’ll do some form of critique every day, we’ll get the tutors to help, we’ll get more teachers involved, we’ll get our parents to help. What could I say?
I reiterated the initial offer to the students—choose your best work from the semester and use it as the jumping off point for a single piece of writing to showcase in our book. Naturally, I hoped my students would develop new ideas, but I was excited to see that many made legitimate revisions, often synthesizing multiple previous writings to form a new piece far stronger than the sum of its parts. Our earlier work provided an archive that they could draw on to shape new creations.
During the critique process, students began to exhibit the decision-making skills I believe they saw in their internship mentors and other adults. Faced with challenging deadlines, the editorial board led a class-wide discussion about the choice of printers and how it would impact the class schedule, the critique process, and ultimately the overall nature of the final product. To my delight, that process led to a unanimous decision to base production decisions around what would yield the highest quality writing, even at the expense of cosmetic enhancements like color pictures or glossy paper.
Later, students wrote in reflections about the benefits of collaboration and critique. One student wrote, “What stood out as a good example were my fellow classmates’ articles. By going through them I was able to get lots of good ideas….[Other student’s] blogs helped me the most because they got their layout plans by looking through other magazines. I tried to make my layout unique while keeping their ideas in mind.” Another student wrote, “What worked very well was all the critiques done on my paper and how much time I actually spent on them. I have had so many critiques and I would change something and then people would say to change it again. In the long run it helped me shape my article into a well-written piece. I used a significant amount of my time helping my editor with the layout. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t.”
The tangible product of a book motivated students to reflect deeply on the internship experience. And as they reflected, I learned a valuable lesson—the relationships students develop with college-educated professional adults may just be the most important aspect of internship. Although it is easy to mistake internships for career tracking, they are not. They offer students a chance to understand—and hopefully try out—the thought processes and decision-making skills practiced every day by working adults.
At this point it seems hard to believe that I was so concerned about how internship would fit into my second semester. It had felt like a puzzle to solve. Yet, when I view the whole, the connections between the pieces seem so logical and even simple. My next steps are to continue developing the core vision of documenting students’ internship experiences, and to use that material as the springboard into a large-scale system of projects and curricula. And, of course, to feel comfortable in the face of uncertainty, and to find my strengths so that I can best support students’ discovery of the unknown.
As we neared production, I was working on an initial draft of my master’s thesis, but I hadn’t seen the big picture yet. In fact, I hadn’t even mentioned Ampersand in my thesis, since I was still nervous. But my students felt differently. Around that time, the Ampersand cover crew proposed their design to the class as a whole. Along the spine, they had written “Volume One.” When I gave them a quick little look, the head designer said, “What? You’re going to do this again next year, right?”
These elements of connection were the building blocks for the internship curriculum.
Blogging—At least twice per week, students posted reflective writing in response to a prompt from class. Blog entries typically involved writing as well as various forms of media found online or uploaded from our work. Blogs generated content and drafts for other projects and provided a convenient forum for critique.
Mentor Interview—Students interviewed their internship mentors and exhibited their write-ups on their digital portfolios.
Photo Essay—Students documented their internship experience via five to seven photographs and accompanying captions. Each caption was 150 to 200 words in length and offered additional research and dialogue. The final product developed a character, told a story and/or communicated a theme discovered in the world of work.
Ampersand: The Student Journal of School & Work—Students created a book to showcase their writing, art and photography as inspired by their engagement with the adult world of work. Some approached this as a retrospective and synthesized previous work samples into new pieces, while others took the opportunity to create original work. Students filled all of the roles needed to create, publish and sell the books.
US History & Literature—Humanities content stemmed primarily from the world of work; labor history and economics provided a lens through which we viewed much of 20th century American history.
To learn more about Ampersand and Randy Scherer’s on-going work and research, visit his digital portfolios at http://dp.hightechhigh.org/~rscherer and on the HTH GSE website, https://hthgse.edu/team/randy-scherer/