Saturday, October 1, 2016

5 Reasons Why At Risk Students Need Entrepreneurship Classes

We're almost two months into the school year.  By now what they call the "honeymoon" period in education, is long gone.  This is when students behave their best and give teachers a false sense of security of having things under control.  For many "at risk" students, by now they have visited the dean's or vice principal's office at least one or two times.  Similarly, the grades of "at risk" kids have plummeted from all A's on day one of school, to C's, D's, and F's.  Every school has a small segment of kids that just doesn't like what's on the menu, so to speak.  And in many instances, intelligence is not the culprit.

Signing up to be on teams

Technical education is on the rise.  In many high schools, students can now learn job training skills, like graphic design, digital media, photography, and video production.  These new vocational type classes with certification as an end goal, do reel in many dissatisfied customers of the system, those who happen to have passions of their own related to these courses.  Innovative schools have adopted personal learning, where teachers present students with problems they must research and solve.  The leash is being unhooked and students have more freedom to design their learning than ever before.  So why has entrepreneurship not caught fire just as much as technical education and innovation?  The only reasons I can think of is that there are too few teachers with entrepreneurial know-how (to teach a course), and course creation issues keeping classes from being adopted by district curriculum boards.  And this is how Charters sometimes out-compete districts for students.  They have more freedom to offer non-traditional coursework.

The elected management team leading the discussion
I happen to teach entrepreneurship and financial literacy to 8th graders at a public middle school.  This is my one elective class (I teach science the rest of the day) and it consists of 31, Mexican-American, males.  It is my most difficult class.  I spent the first week of school breaking them of their pattern of using the word "Fool" as a first name.  Nobody had a first name.  It was, "Hey, fool!" this and "No, fool!" that.  But by the second week we were well on our way to becoming a family.  

Web Design and Social Media Teams

Even though they constantly talk, talk over me, can't stop joking at each other's expense, and will transform into playground mode if I don't keep my eyes on them, they have made significant progress in the following areas.  My claim is that these results can be duplicated at other schools with similar class demographics.

Product Design and Innovation

1.  Engagement.

I have several of my entrepreneurship students also in my science classes during different periods.  The difference is that when these boys are in my entrepreneurship class, they actually raise their hands to contribute, don't try to hide, listen attentively, and always do their work because they know the rule: No turned in work = no time to work with their hands creating products to sell.  Being a builder and designer is a privilege.

2.  Leadership.

In their core academic classes, at risk students get little to no experience leading.  Teachers just don't provide the environment for one, two, or three students to take the helm and make decisions for everyone else in the room.  Not so in entrepreneurship classes.  After coming up with a business idea (selling custom made fashion jewelry and accessories at a discount), these boys then voted for three individuals to lead the company, a CEO, a CFO, and a COO.  After failing to live up to the standards of the "workers," the CEO was deposed with a quick vote and another one selected.  Now this second CEO is under fire and a normally quiet student in my science class has asked to be CEO (would be the third one thus far) in the entrepreneurship class.  Fighting for control of the company has become the norm.  And this is a great thing!  I've recently instituted doing impromptu 30 second pitch to lead presentations for all would-be CEOs, followed by a class vote.  This happens every two weeks and the current CEO has to defend his tenure.

3.  Ownership.

At risk students often don't feel like anything at the school belongs to them.  The books are borrowed, the classrooms belong to the teachers, and even the culture of the school is foreign to them.  They rent their time there and can't wait until the lease expires.  In entrepreneurship classes, however, these same students begin to see that whatever effort they put forth builds shared equity.  This is especially apparent to them when they start selling and the money starts rolling in.

4.  Confidence.

What's there to really be proud about in a core academic class?  Getting an A on a test.  To at risk kids, earning an A on a test is equivalent to a big, So What!  But because this is what defines success in school, these students have their confidence constantly under attack.  Entrepreneurship success has nothing to do with grades on a test.  Success is based on mastering a set number of skills, like salesmanship, record keeping, and team building.  Success in entrepreneurship also has to do with perseverance and grit, driven by repeated failure.  What happens when a student fails in a core academic class?  Usually the teacher just moves forward because of pacing, leaving no opportunity for the student to learn from his/her mistakes.

In my entrepreneurship class, students have embraced failing.  They know that failure is an opportunity to tweak what isn't working.  On our first day of selling, we sold one or two items.  A week later when the store was open again (during lunch), the sales team had tweaked their activity, taking product in hand to the customer and making sales away from the table.  They showed their pride running back to the table waving money they had made, closing a sale.  We quadrupled our sales volume that day and this instilled great confidence in them!

"Friendship necklaces" with personal gift note. 

5.  Value.

The value of a traditional, formal education is obvious to students who have college and career firmly entrenched in their vision of the future.  At risk students have the opposite going on: they don't see the value of a traditional and formal education.  College and a long career is not something that excites them.  Yet, teachers sell this pathway as if it were the only ticket to these students' salvation.  When encouragement and support for whatever passion or pursuit these at risk students have is called for, often times teachers discourage these passions by telling kids they won't have a job, a way of supporting themselves or a family, etc.  They mean well of course. 

Image result for Notorious BIG

In the words of Notorious B.I.G., (from his hit album that went quadruple platinum):

"Yeah, this album is dedicated to all the teachers that told me I'd never amount to nothin'..."

In entrepreneurship classes, whatever passion or pursuit a student has is celebrated.  Why?  Because it can lead to a business idea!  At risk kids can finally be told:  "You love to rap?  Great, now think hard about how you can become the next B.I.G. and write down some goals."  Skaters, street artists, rockers, and so on, can all be told the same thing: In this class you learn how to make what you love to do into a monetized opportunity.

The other day, one of my students told me he set up a lemonade stand outside his house.  He did this on his own; it was not a homework assignment.  That tells me that he recognizes the value of what he is learning in my class without being forced to and is applying his education.  The only homework I ever assign in this class is for them to read.  When I took a quick survey, every single one of them told me they don't like to read and that they don't do it at home.  So I introduced them to the book, Rich Dad, Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosaki.  We are reading this as the class text!  After reading the book in class, the next day one student told me he downloaded the PDF on his phone, and another one told me he found an audio file and started listening to it on his way to school!

I'm on a crusade to get entrepreneurship in schools across the nation.  Since innovation is flourishing, it is only natural that we add the topic of how to turn innovation into jobs in America.  Innovation might be the cart, but entrepreneurship is the horse!  And as the saying goes, "you don't put the cart before the horse."

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