Diving in to new career, cultural electives

Will Nathan (left) and Shannon Szukala (right) work on their business project

Thornapple Kellogg Middle School Principal Kelli Wegner asked her staff for recommendations for new electives to offer students. “I told my staff to pick their passion and help kids be passionate about them as well,” Wegner said.

Shannon Szukala works on a name for his business

As a result, six classes have been added to the school’s roster and in one of them, students create a business plan for an imaginary company. One team of students invented “Gravizone,” an anti-gravity entertainment experience.

Teacher Sam Wilkinson said he likes giving students a chance to use their imagination. “You never know what they will think up.”

New classes include personal finance, career exploration, economics, U.S. History and Film, French cultures and book club.

After classes were selected, Wegner and her teaching staff researched, sampled and collaborated with Curriculum Director Kim Chausow to create them.

“We work through our school improvement process, and since the new Career and Technical Education Standards were coming out, we wanted to make sure that our middle school was offering more exploratory options for students,” Chausow said. She added that new classes to keep up with current needs is an important part of any school curriculum.

Teachers are working together to find courses that offer exploration, new learning opportunities and exposure to career options, she said.

Abbigail Morgan weighs her options in her business plan

Correcting a Gap

Sam Wilkinson, who teaches seventh grade economics, introduced his class after noticing a gap in student knowledge. As an added bonus, he happened to find unused books in the school that helped him shape a general curriculum.

Wilkinson’s class focuses on an overview of basic economics subjects such as supply and demand, manufacturing and distribution — all through project-based lessons. Currently, students are working on creating a business plan.

“Each group has to look at the details of what it takes to start a business,” Wilkinson said. “They have to look at a name, slogan and location.”

Will Nathan figures out his business motto

Students Will Nathan and Shannon Szukala decided to base their hypothetical business on a fantasy version of local trampoline park Skyzone. “We wanted to make a playscape like Skyzone, but just bouncing on trampolines seemed too normal,” Shannon said.

Will and Shannon call their company “Gravizone.” It is an anti-gravity experience located on the football field, and their main competitors are astronauts and outer space.

“This is a super fun project because we get to think outside of the box,” Will said. “We just keep laughing — that’s the only problem.”

While other class projects are based in reality, Wilkinson said he likes to give students opportunities to use their imagination. “I remember imagining watches that you could talk to when I was younger, and those actually exist now,” he said.

Christian Brandt works on his business plan for a new pizza place

What I Want to be When I Grow Up

Students in Lindsey Baxter and Jen Reifinger’s career class may not have a job offer after nine weeks, but they will have a set of skills that will help them as adults, Baxter said.

“We are learning a lot of soft skills that matter, no matter where you go,” she said.

Students focus on how to have a professional conversation, how to maintain eye contact and getting to know individual values, Baxter said. One of the major projects in the class is creating a visual resume.

“We’re learning about what certain abilities will allow you to do in the world,” she said. When creating résumés, students had to consider references other than their parents and skills that could contribute to a professional lifestyle.

The school partnered with Junior Achievement to have career speakers come to class on Fridays. Each class also starts with an exercise that promotes professional behavior, such as greeting classmates the way people do in the workplace.

Reflecting and Revising

Throughout the inaugural year of all the new classes, Wegner and teachers will reflect on progress and challenges they have faced. “We’re going to continue having conversations about what we are doing right and what we can do better in the future,” she said. “It’s about working together for the benefit of our students.

“We have a great staff with great ideas. I am excited to see what we come up with together.”

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Hannah Lentz
A 2017 graduate of Grand Valley State University and a lifelong teacher’s kid, Hannah Lentz has worked as a journalist in and outside the Grand Rapids area for more than five years. After serving as editor-in-chief at the GVSU student newspaper, Hannah interned at the Leelanau Enterprise where she learned a lot about community journalism. In addition to her work for School News Network, Hannah has worked as a freelance blogger in the furniture industry, focusing on design trends, and as a social media manager for World Medical Relief in Detroit. Read Hannah's full bio or email Hannah.

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