You also gained valuable insights into where you would like to grow in the future. “I would like to get better at problem solving,” Gavares said. “There were so many problems because English schools are structurally very different. And in these meetings we would find ourselves with the same problems. He was having a hard time not getting knocked down by this one barrier that we were really struggling with.”
STRUCTURING OF PRACTICES
Internships are a central part of education in certain schools, and there are at least two ways to structure internships at this level. High Tech High chooses to send its students to their internships for a period of three weeks in January or June. That model better suits your scheduling needs and allows teachers to visit students at their sites so they can bring elements of that experiential learning into the classroom.
Big Pictures Schools favors a model where students work with mentors in the field two days a week. The internship is not an isolated experience, but a central part of the pedagogy. “We couldn’t run our school without our mentors,” said Joe Battaglia, Director of Curriculum and Instruction at The Met, a Big Picture school in Providence. They are essential to us.” School administrators encourage mentors to hold students to the same high standards that they would expect from employees. “We have an expectation that the work will be high-quality and real because it raises the stakes,” Battaglia said.
Students spend a large portion of their week at internship sites, so it is important for advisors to communicate with students and mentors and help make connections to school standards. “Our advisors create a specific individual learning plan and a set of standards-based curricula for students, but very rarely will they cover all of them,” Battaglia said. “But I also have a tendency that I don’t think everyone is covered in a traditional setting either.”
The Met calculates to cover fewer standards in greater depth and to have advisors deeply involved in shaping the experience for the student to practice in areas where they have skill gaps. “The point is not to be competent in the specific work of that place, but to learn to solve problems, to collaborate, to be able to have a base to develop academic research,” Battaglia said.
To help link the internship experience to the classroom, there is a lot of documentation. Students keep a journal about what they are learning through the internship and often take photos and videos to record their reflections. “We have structures of rubrics and scales and scaffolding to help them reflect,” Battaglia said.
SPECIFIC SKILLS ARE NOT THE GOAL
The greatest value of the internship experience is social. “It wasn’t about learning a particular career or job,” said Rob Riordan, co-founder of High Tech High and president of the High Tech High Graduate School of Education. “The bottom line for students, particularly for lower-income, less-resourced families, was that this was the introduction to those networks. They were meeting with mentors who were going to recommend them for summer jobs and other opportunities.” The internship helps students build social capital, while feeling that their work has real-world purpose.
High Tech High emphasizes that while students should pursue an internship in an area of interest, they should also carefully choose a mentor, a key piece of the experience. “It’s not about narrowly predicting what they’re going to do the rest of their lives,” said Ben Daley, High Tech High’s chief academic officer. “It’s much more about the mentor-student relationship.” Daley tells the students to choose a good mentor instead of what might seem like the perfect experience.
Mentors often gain a lot from the experience as well. The Met provides mentors with brief training on what to expect when working with teens and tips on how to explain the knowledge they know implicitly and clearly to students. “Many of [our mentors] I feel that it is the first time that someone values the work”, said Battaglia. “They are very well supported by the students and there is a very deep human connection.” Teaching someone else who is interested can help recapture many mentors’ passion for their work.
Internships take place in real workplaces and students work on real problems in a variety of industries. They offer tremendously diverse experiences to students, but often don’t align with state standards, a challenge for public schools using this model.
“There is going to be a deeper approach, less is more,” Battaglia said. She is confident that the internship experiences are aligned with the Common Core State Standards goals of creating students who can think creatively, solve problems, and transfer knowledge. But her advisers also occasionally have trouble explaining to an internship mentor why a particular standard or skill should be built into the experience. Mentors often say that the skills are not necessary for the job and can become frustrated when seemingly meaningless learning objectives are injected into the experience.
Students may also end up in internships for which they are not qualified. Gavares described the experience of a friend of hers, whose internship at the Salk Institute was different from hers. That student had no idea what was expected of him on the first day and wasn’t sure if he could live up to the expectations. “The way they survived and ended up thriving was learning from their mentor and from other professionals at work,” Gavares said. He noted that mentors often expect that kind of learning curve and it’s actually very realistic. “That’s one of the most exciting parts of the internship: learning new things that weren’t expected of you.”
AN EXPERIENCE OF GROWTH
Ultimately, the internship experience is a taste of the real world, a glimpse into various fields of interest, and an incentive for what the school can help students achieve. But the experience often also develops personal growth.
“I think internships are really, at their core, about an expansion of identity, of bringing in what you couldn’t have done before and new relationships that you didn’t have before, in your sense of who you are,” Riordan said. . “And that is something that is a rare commodity in our classrooms, but is present in abundance in internship experiences.”
Teaching through the world of work can be tricky. Students at both High Tech High Schools and Big Picture Schools have been fired from their internships, a real and often appropriate consequence for various behaviors. Internships also require a lot of communication between students, mentors, and school advisors to ensure that the student is engaged in real, authentic work, and not playing second fiddle in an office.
“They are not ‘clean’ systems,” Battaglia said. “If you’re responding to kids and mentors, you can try to control it, but there’s always going to be some messiness, which is really healthy, I think.” For school leaders, choosing to incorporate internships requires some comfort with uncertainty and the ability to adapt to circumstances as they change.
School leaders who have taken up the challenge have seen such positive trends in their high school students that they are considering how to provide similar real-world experiences to younger students. “We just started looking less at age and more at ability to intern,” Battaglia said. Some students are not ready for a middle school internship experience, but others are and could benefit from the program. High-tech high schools have already seen good results working on real problems in the community as a whole class.