College and Career Ready: What It Means for Middle School Students

College and career ready is the new mantra in education—it’s what students must be when they leave our secondary schools. My school district, Dorchester County Public Schools in Maryland, includes the phrase as a part of its student mission pledge—I will finish my program of study and become college and career ready—and echoes it as a daily reminder for students to strive for greatness.

What exactly does college and career readiness look like through the lens of a middle school student?

To young adolescents, four to six years in the future is an eternity. Yet we are asking them to think about what steps they need to take to be successful that far down the road—in postsecondary education or some form of career. I asked my eighth grade students what it means to be college and career ready. Here are some of their responses:

  • “I want to learn something that I am actually going to use outside of school. With all due respect, reading all the stories in the textbook is not going to help me get ahead in life. I want something that’s real.”
  • “College and career ready is what we do in STEM class. We get to design different things using the computer and actually build it; sometimes it can even be printed in the 3D printer. I love testing our creations as we are building them. It lets us see if we have to go back and fix it.”
  • “I want to be a writer and have others read my writing. Sometimes I feel I want a larger audience than you [referring to the teacher]. I want to write so others can read it, preferably short stories.”

Students’ responses varied, but one common thread emerged: the importance of collaboration, communication, creative thinking, critical thinking/problem solving, decision making, evaluation/argument, and organization.

We’ve got the academic skills part of it down pat—how do we help students master these “softer” skills?

Communication and Collaboration

Technology may be one of the most powerful tools for 21st-century learners, but it can also be a problem. Immersed in a world of text slang and multi-tasking on their mobile devices, my students often struggle to communicate effectively face to face. They need practice honing their speaking and listening skills.

I use literature circles and writing workshops to train students in effective group management and questioning strategies. For example, during discussions, students may be asked to repeat—in their own words—a classmate’s response. This challenges all group members to actively listen to a conversation and always be ready to participate. Students may ask classmates whether they agree with a group member’s statement, thus challenging group members to explain and justify their response to a discussion question. I may ask students to review, dissect, and discuss a sample of exemplary writing.

Creative Thinking

Two-voice poems are an excellent way to encourage creative thinking—especially when the poems focus on social studies and current events. The two-voice poem focuses on one topic, such as the shooting in Ferguson, Sudan’s Civil War, or vaccinations, and presents two contrasting perspectives on the topic. The poem is written in two columns, one column for each perspective. If the two perspectives share an element, that element is written on the same line in each column.

To develop the poem, students must do research and consider both “sides,” which promotes deeper understanding of the topic. To integrate technology, students can perform the poem using simple podcast or audio recording applications. The teacher can post the products online using Edmodo, DropBox, or a wiki, and allow students an opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of the content using a teacher-made rubric.

Critical Thinking/Problem Solving

Every muscle needs exercise to become stronger, and the brain is no different. Rebus puzzles are fun ways to promote critical thinking and problem solving. A rebus puzzle is a combination of images, letters, and words that cryptically represent a phrase. Often the positioning on the page, its direction, size, color, and style give a clue to the answer. For example:

  • MCE MCE MCE (three blind mice)
  • Snow Sleet Rain Feeling (feeling under the weather)

A quick Internet search will uncover a treasure trove of puzzles to share.

Decision Making

Having the ability to make a decision that may affect the life of another young person is powerful. After reading texts saturated with stories about conflict, homelessness, and social injustice, my students became curious about whether homelessness was a choice. The conversations were powerful because in our low-income area, almost everyone had some experience with the topic.

The next step was to take their personal connections one step further through an activity in which they hypothetically worked for a nonprofit agency and were to submit a fundraising proposal to a local homeless shelter to raise $10,000 to transform the shelter into housing for 10 teenagers.

Each group was responsible for giving a formal presentation to the shelter’s board of directors that included an outline of the type of fundraiser, the audience, the admission charge per person, the anticipated attendance, and total profits with overhead included (determined by the teacher).

In addition, each group developed an advertising plan that included a full-page newspaper advertisement, 30-second radio public service announcement, and scale billboard model with an explanation of where the billboards would be placed and the total cost of the project.

The culminating task was to decide what items to purchase for the teens to help them feel more comfortable, along with a breakdown of each item, cost, and location of purchase.


Most states have adopted some form of standards focusing on helping students develop and maintain healthy behaviors. Showcase student mastery of evaluation and argument by having them evaluate their own current health practices or those of a family member or classmate.

They can use surveys or interviews to gather data, evaluate the data to determine whether a lifestyle change is in order, then write a paper arguing the reasons the person should make changes.

Argument or persuasive writing comes in multiple forms— editorials, letters to the editor, essays, and short responses—and is an essential skill across multiple curricula. For example, in science, constructed responses are written in a similar format: state a claim, support it with proper evidence, offer a counterclaim, and draw a final conclusion on the subject matter.


Planning and organization are vital to success in college and career, so helping middle school students develop their organizational skills is important. Middle school clubs and organizations provide opportunities for members to practice their skills in organizing events such as dances, canned food drives, and talent shows. Students get experience creating a plan, cost analysis, marketing strategies, and evaluation—all crucial to a student’s personal growth.

Everybody’s Business

The responsibility of ensuring our students are career and college ready does not fall to one educator at one grade level in one content area. It’s the daily responsibility of many instructors using many different approaches.

The challenge lies in the fact that the definition of college and career readiness changes with each passing day, with each new technology, and with the fast-growing changes in our global society.

Keeping up with the changes is difficult, but providing opportunities for students to develop these skills can give them the tools to tackle any task that comes their way.

Brian Cook is a reading, English, language arts teacher for Dorchester County Public Schools in Maryland.

Published in AMLE Magazine, May 2015.