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Last August, 6 high school students and I converted our tech club into a small business. We had no idea what we were doing. This is an overview of our experience in hopes that other teachers will feel encouraged to take the same journey. It’s an incredibly satisfying ride for both the students and the teacher.
These students wanted more than the mock projects, so I challenged them, “What if you test your skills in the real world, providing real services in web and video?” They responded and that was it. We knew going in we would fail sometimes, maybe even miserably. I offered that they can forget about the grade, and instead focus on being a successful small business disguised as a tech club. Everyone gets an “A”. Now what? What do you have to worry about? No homework, no tests. It was a precarious recipe. One I fully expected to flop in my face. Of course, the inverse happened. The mutual risk taking of teacher and students fed energy into each day’s class, and we built on that.
The first week of school we frantically pieced together a master plan which included a formal business plan, marketing strategy, logo/branding, and how projects should be structured. Our business plan (available on rockettech.org) was developed with the free service from sba.gov, and clearly articulates what our services are, who our competition is, and what differentiates us from them. We create win-win-win situations that benefits the business, the students, and the school.
Our marketing strategy was simple: 1) Ask local businesses to give us a chance, even if it’s for free. The Chamber of Commerce is a good place to start. 2) Show the print, tv, and web news outlets what we’re doing and ask for a story. 3) Approach new businesses with our growing portfolio of work.
We decided each project would have a “project lead”. This student ultimately makes the final design decisions, ensures deadlines are met, and makes all client communications. As in life, they can use anyone or any resource (legally) to create professional work. They must learn to find and utilize resources other than the teacher, a ubiquitous problem that manifests as a line at my desk in some classes. Project leads OWN their projects, and take pride in producing a quality service. They are no longer playing the student role, and shift into the professional world.
By Christmas break, we had more projects than we had students, making some students balance multiple project lead roles. We had to review time management and I did my best to model what good professional communication looks like in email, on the phone, and in person. Every single student, even the straight-A ones, made massive improvements in these areas.
We were fortunate to make it through the snow and ice to present at the OETC conference in Columbus in February (“Gamify Your Tech Club for Fun and Profit”) and by years end we had a nice group portfolio that included churches, non-profits, a retirement home, individual entrepreneurs, a government agency, and a personal healthcare company.
Throughout the school year, I made a point to give as much control to the students as possible. Specifically, I let the students dictate what we did with the money. I felt that if they truly did the work, and only needed me to consult with at key points, they really did earn it. I explained reinvesting in the club to get better equipment to land bigger clients, but the final decision was theirs. If they wanted $1000 worth of Skittles, fine. Maybe this approach only worked because this was a sensible group (we didn’t get the Skittles), but I believe they carefully weighed these decisions because they invested themselves into these projects. Their decisions finally mattered beyond a grading scale.
I encourage other teachers to integrate at least or some of the elements of our experiment into their own business, computer tech, or graphic design courses. Specifically, put kids in situations where their decisions matter and their work can be seen by a larger audience. The excitement reciprocates between student and teacher. Decide going in that it’s good to fail. A sign in my room states “Fail Harder.” asking that students fail big, take a risk, and come back from it with lessons learned.
Some word’s from last years students (verbatim):
“(the clients) walked out of the room feeling as if they didn't just deal with a kid in a tech class the dealt with a professional and my entire life i've been looked as the juvenile in the classroom and then i dealt with 2 powerful individuals and they treated me as an adult because i've earned the right to be treated as one because of my professionalism”
“...there's a calm yet exciting feeling I get, and I know THIS is where I'm supposed to be right now.”
“But in the end i still hate school but when i walked into my last period of the day and got down to business it didnt feel like i was in school i felt as if i was hanging with a group of my buddies having a blast earning cash”
“forced me to interact with other students who I normally would not have the chance to, for reasons such as grade differences, conflicting class schedules, and even differing cliques.
...all it takes is that tiny spark of curiosity to start a wildfire of imagination and ingenuity.”