I spent three hours at McCord Junior High recently, helping seventh graders master the skills they will need when they enter the future workforce. But the morning wasn’t about reading, writing, science or math. Instead, I was one of nearly 55 adult volunteers helping the students learn the “soft skills” that experts say will make them successful in life.
The program, called “The Amazing Shake,” is designed to teach the students manners, discipline, respect, and professional conduct—essentially, the basics of successful adult life. The kids engage in such mini-lessons as extending a proper handshake, how to “work a room,” what to wear at a job interview, and even the effective way to use a credit card.
Research reports that 75 percent of today’s employers are having a hard time finding high school or college graduates with skills like problem solving, interpersonal communications, and how to deal with complex or unclear situations. In a survey of Human Resource professionals, more than half believe high schools and colleges are doing little or nothing to address this deficit.
Generation Alpha and Gen Z students (those born since 1997) have been “digitalized” at a very early age, many experts say. Often, they interact via photos and snippets of text on phones and tablets. Personal interaction suffers.
That’s one reason why Susie Felver decided, when she took over as McCord principal last March, that seventh grade would be a perfect place to teach those skills. New assistant principal Melissa Tussing quickly agreed, and they presented the “Amazing Shake” idea at their staff retreat last summer. Nearly everybody embraced it.
Felver, Tussing and a team of 10 teachers and para-professionals put the program together in less than six months. This included recruiting community members to staff two “gauntlets” set up in both ends of the school gym. Each gauntlet had 24 stations with names like Interview Alley, Giving Directions, Clean Your Room, Sell a Car, and Shark Tank.
“We made a conscious effort during the 10 weeks leading up to the event to expose the students for the situations and scenarios they would face at “Amazing Shake.” These ‘Future Ready Fridays’ previewed the different tasks they would encounter,” explained Principal Felver. “We have some students with special needs at McCord and participation stations were included that were appropriate for them, too.”
The tone inside McCord on event day was energetic and upbeat. I was assigned to a station called Conversation Circle along with Ken Gerber, Matt Caputo and Belinda Heller. For three hours our assessed the handshakes and eye contact of our half of the 169 participants, then engage them in casual conversation for 60 seconds. Some of the students were practiced and poised. Others quietly but confidently told me about their interests in sports or dance. Most were just happy that the day was less stressful than they expected.
“At first I was really scared about the day, but when I came in everyone was so welcoming, and I realized I could talk to them…I was doing better by the end,” student Brooklynn Beran told me.
The morning was structured around a competition: all participants are awarded points at each station, and 23 were identified as semi-finalists to move on to a second round hosted at Kripke Enterprises in mid-February. Just last week seven finalists presented to a “board of directors” at Waterford Bank about what community service project they believe McCord should do next year. Student Marissa Morgan emerged as the first ever champion for her proposed partnership-collaboration with the Sylvania Senior Center.
McCord is one of just two schools in our part of the state to host an “Amazing Shake” so far, and everyone seems delighted with the results. “I was so surprised at just how well prepared the students were and the quality of the answers they gave,” said Emily Roach, one of 20 members of Sylvania Rotary who volunteered. “The amount of insight that some of them had was incredible.”
Added Rotarian Ben Malczewski: “I was really impressed by the effort made by the school to get so many parties together for the event. We had every channel of the community here to create a kind of diverse tableau of adult leaders where the kids could see a bit of themselves.”
Seventh-grader, Jacob Rowland, expanded on Ben’s point: “Today taught kids like us, a lot of life skills. I’d like the school board to know that it puts the younger generation in a good place, and it will make us more helpful to the community.”
Finally, Principal Susie Felver (who seemed to be relentlessly upbeat and everywhere on “Amazing Shake” Day) was able to relax and reflect a bit during the snow emergency that closed her school the next day.
“I’m excited to see how this experience will spread into each student’s life. Teaching these kids to try something new and get out of their comfort zones at this age is going to reap tremendous benefits for them. As they get into high school, college and the workforce, they will have learned to not be afraid … to try something they’ve never tried before … even something that makes them uncomfortable.”
Longtime Sylvania resident Mark Luetke
has served on city council, the board of
education, and numerous foundation
and community boards.