Researching the Future

My colleague had a rather weird experience this fall when a recent grad came back to visit.  She was one of those students who barely made the finish line but managed to get herself on a wonderful path to success at a local community college.  These are the sorts of victories all teachers root for, but if you’re a teacher, like me, who teaches entire classes full of learners who are significantly below grade level, these sorts of success stories become especially meaningful.

Which is why my colleague’s guest–and her surprising, unprecedented “news”–became an unexpected warning that led me to revisit my research writing with that exact crew of writers this year.

As my friend chatted up her ex-student, she was surprised to discover that after only a partial year of community college under her belt, this young woman would be pursuing her doctorate at a much larger college next yea!  You didn’t read it wrong and she didn’t hear it wrong.  And the young woman wasn’t lying.  

She was overwhelmingly, heartbreakingly misinformed.

It turned out she had no real sense of what a college pathway to a career actually looked like.  And at this point I can substitute her story with those that my class of special education students started telling me this year when we had one of those “real talk” moments.

The class was drifting off task one day and so my co-teacher and I did something we do sometimes to reset them:  We asked them to remind us why we were all there.  Which is when they started making their rather grandiose announcements:  My student who has yet to arrive to class on time and has to be invited personally to join the class for discussions plans to be a lawyer.  My student who is still learning to write complete sentences and be accountable for any work assigned outside of class plans to be a video game designer.  

They all had awesome dreams–and when we pressed the issue, they all knew exactly nothing about what the path from my classroom, where they sort-of-kind-of-maybe understood why we pushed them to improve, to that future career looked like.


In that moment, I realized our other writing was going to have to wait.  If “research” would ever have any use to this ambitious but confused crew, it would be in helping them to see a pathway currently shrouded in the fogs of teenage ignorance and fearful denial.

Researching Success

The first thing my students need is a better understanding of what success in their desired field looks like.  There are lots of resources for this, especially if you can tap into your local community.  I’m going to use some local resources like Crain’s Detroit 40 Under 40 list–a who’s-who of up-and-comers in our area.  The profiles of prodigies in various fields are short and let the talents tell their stories while clearly outlining what made them each outstanding in their field.  

If you aren’t into research papers, you could actually have your students write a fictional “40 Under 40” for themselves as they imagine their life in 15 years.  These would make fantastic mentor texts for kids who can produce 600-800 word writing pieces with a little bit of journalistic organization.  

That would be a lot for my crew, and besides, they still need a sense of The Path.  When pressed, some of my kids actually could articulate the details of the career they want.  What they couldn’t do is explain with any detail how to get there.  These are juniors who may have thought about college but–like our premature doctoral candidate–have had no guidance about what college looks like…or does…or requires.

We’ll be exploring things like entry requirements and cost planning but also the more ethereal stuff:  How colleges create opportunities and networking, and how they improve life in ways besides opening career pathways.  Students who have more vocational plans will examine similar parallel pathways that don’t involve college study–they’re out there and students who seek them should be honored.

Writing Their Futures

So you get the idea; but where’s the writing?  For students who are significantly below grade level, this is where such a research project gets complicated: My kids will dive head first into this exploration, but heavy writing tasks overwhelm them.  In order to meet them at their level, I’m planning to create something of a hybrid writing piece.

The goal is to help them turn their unfocused ideas about life into a plan of sorts (or at least an understanding of what they need to plan FOR), so I’m going to have each of them produce a labeled timeline of their next 15 years.  This will help them with some simple citation of facts/sources and also force them to think about organization.  One point on their timeline might focus on degree requirements, another on challenges of the interview process, and so on.  Many of my students can verbalize and visualize these sorts of ideas at much more sophisticated levels than they can write about them so this hopefully meets them in the middle.

Seeing Themselves Down The Path

For a sustained writing piece, I’m going to ask them to produce a 300-400 word job application letter.  This will allow them to imagine their future success while demanding they draw from their research.  It also speaks to something I’ve tried to stress a lot with all of my students in recent years.  When kids ask “Why do I need writing if I’m going into Auto Tech?” one answer that always catches them off guard is to point out that the most successful auto technicians these days have their own YouTube channels and blogs and end up making quite an impressive living by being able to explain what they do so that people like me–who don’t know a lug nut from a peanut–can understand them.  Success looks different than it used to.

By asking them to imagine themselves formally applying for their future career, I’m hoping they can see the path of challenges ahead of them but also recognize that it IS, in fact, a path.  Sometimes the kids who feel “left behind” in the academic race start to give up on other races too and don’t realize that they can certainly be successful–if they can find their way to the finish line.


How do you help your struggling students to understand success?  Do you have writing assignments you use to help your students think about their next steps? You can connect with me on Twitter @ZigThinks or on Facebook at

1 Comment

  1. This is amazing! I can’t wait to try it. I have so many who don’t have a clue and I want to prepare them better for the real world.

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