The American Dream Project: Embedded Career Exploration Curriculum

By Jacqueline Cherry, Ann Couyoumjian, Kaitlin Pyles

Too many students feel anxiety and uncertainty about their post-secondary education plans as confirmed by a survey of students and from existing research (Calhoun & Hayden, 2019).  Reviewing students’ extensive curriculum demands made it evident that there is a need for more intentional career exploration and planning opportunities for students. When students receive guidance and their time in career exploration is increased, anxiety decreases, and students experience a greater sense of direction. 

Photo By Leonardo Toshiro Okubo On Unsplash

The American Dream Project

The American Dream project was born out of a need to address state core curriculum benchmarks for 10th Grade English students (Canul, 2020) and a desire to provide students meaningful real-world application of the material. Research points out that when tasks are made personal, student buy-in is higher. The project provides an opportunity for students to conduct in-depth career exploration and planning within the curriculum requirements. The objective is that each student, through weeks of research, class discussions, journaling, career exploration, budget analysis, and goal setting, define their personal American dream. In the end, the project is about helping teens turn the American dream into reality.

The American Dream project involves partnering with classroom teachers, special educators, and career development facilitators to create opportunities to embed meaningful career planning activities into the standard school curriculum. in order to fulfill students’ career-readiness goals. Curriculum demands leave little time for extra, albeit essential, activities such as career exploration in the classroom. Ingenuity leads to the infusion of career activities in the classroom, specifically when career facilitators work with classroom teachers. The result is a ‘win-win-win’: for accomplishing classroom instructional goals, for educators for accomplishing career-readiness objectives, for career counselors for students’ post-school, world-of-work preparation.  The American Dream project helps students prepare for their future.  

Joining Forces at the Classroom Level

Teachers play a big role in preparing students for their future careers. Teachers meet with the same students on a regular basis and have considerably more time with students than the career development facilitator at the high school level. The American Dream Project infuses career planning content into the classroom curriculum allowing students to connect classroom content with the world of work, while the career specialist oversees the program. The team approach adopted in this project utilizes the strengths and skill sets of each of the school educators to accomplish the set goals for students.

Classroom teachers, special educators, and the career development facilitator work together to create class projects that require students to apply research and literacy analysis components of the English department curriculum while exploring career options.  Students may be required to create projects by engaging in activities to better understand themselves in relation to work, researching occupations, and applying course content recommended by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA). “These activities can include discussion of students' interests, abilities, self-efficacy, and outcome expectations and can engage students in experiential activities to identify their current interests and self-efficacy in a variety of occupations” (ASCA, 2021, Implications section, para. 3).


Learning Begins with Inquiry

The answers to students’ questions regarding future career interests lie in detailed research, self-reflection, and responses.  Students ask themselves important questions to identify what is needed to achieve their American dream and results in each student submitting a comprehensive report that guarantees their questions are adequately answered.

A series of questions launch The American Dream project:

  • What are your skills, talents, aptitudes, experiences, likes, dislikes interests?
  • What do you like to learn?
  • What do you aspire to?
  • What are starting steps to achieve your goals?
  • What is needed to achieve your goals and how are you able to get what you need?
  • Where do you find inspiration?
  • Who can help you along the way?  Identify sources of support.

Students often express not knowing where to find the answers. Career specialists may distribute articles and videos of industry professionals sharing personal career and life journey examples and advice. An especially useful assignment in this project requires students to interview an elder to gain valuable information about careers and career paths. “Informational interviewing is an important tool in helping individuals of all ages gain a better understanding about the knowledge, skills and abilities needed in different careers” (The Ball Foundation, n.d., last para.)


Addressing Associated Student Emotions 

Too many students feel anxiety and uncertainty about their post-secondary plans as confirmed by surveying students, existing research, and the implementation of the American Dream project. Asking students to explore their future careers and lifestyles understandably evokes a range of emotions. An important goal of the project is to recognize students’ feelings, validate and normalize their emotions, and work to increase self-confidence.

To decrease anxiety, alleviate stress and enhance a sense of direction, career specialists and educators may offer career exploration guidance and increased time for career activities infused in the curriculum. Student's time can be spent exploring possibilities, conducting meaningful career research, learning about themselves and how their personality aligns with different career options, and setting goals.  Recognizing students’ emotions at the onset of this project helps to ease students’ anxiety. The better prepared students become for the future, the more confidence students experience, as evidenced by the feedback on the project.

Students Learn How Personality Aligns with Occupations

Students engage in a couple of personality assessments based on Holland’s theory of Vocational Choice (IResearchNet, 2021). After students receive their personality assessment results, students explore career options using two systems, Xello (Xello Inc., 2021) and O*NET (U.S. Department of Labor, Employment & Training Administration, n.d.). The Career Exploration platform Xello, gives students access to detailed information on hundreds of careers, using a Holland-Based Assessment to match occupations with careers, and allows students to store notes, likes/dislikes, and weblinks to career-related articles, videos, and resources. Students explore O*NET to see how their personality aligns with occupations and to discover additional information about occupations. Students complete a Xello Graphic Organizer and an O*NET Graphic Organizer to help them identify important information found for specific careers on each of these websites. Students identify occupation tasks, skills necessary, education requirements, occupation interests/personality codes, wage information, employment trends, and related occupations.  


Final Report and Feedback

Student feedback from the first couple years of implementing the American Dream project indicate that they find purpose in planning for their future and appreciate the time to really question what they want in the future. Students submit a summative paper answering the question, “What is your American Dream?”  Report rubrics provided for each assignment show grading based on content and ideas, organization, language, and grammar. Students gain an understanding that the road to the future typically follows non-linear pathways. Learn, grow, assess, and adjust becomes a repeated process that continually shapes individual students’ preparation for their future careers. The career specialists' guidance within the curriculum solidifies this path to the American dream.



American School Counselor Association. (2021, January 16). Factors influencing high school students’ career aspirations. The Free Library. https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Factors+influencing+high+school+students%27+career+aspirations.-a0180860877

Calhoun, B., & Hayden, S. (2019, November). Integrating career and mental health assessment and treatment. NCDA Career Convergence Web Magazine https://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/261945/_self/CC_layout_details/true

Canul, Y. C. (2020). Michigan merit curriculum: Course/Credit requirements, English Language Arts, Grade 10 (Report No. 8.06). Michigan Department of Education, Office of School Improvement. https://www.michigan.gov/documents/ELA_10_167753_7.pdf

IResearchNet. (2021, January 20). Holland’s theory of vocational choice - career development - IResearchNet. Career Research. https://career.iresearchnet.com/career-development/hollands-theory-of-vocational-choice/

The Ball Foundation. (n.d.). The power of informational interviews. Career Vision. https://careervision.org/power-informational-interviews-v1/

U.S. Department of Labor, Employment & Training Administration, (n.d.). O*NET OnLine. Retrieved August 2, 2021, from https://www.onetonline.org/

Xello Inc. (2021). Xello (Version 2021). [College and Career Readiness K-12 Online Software Program]. Xello Inc. https://xello.world/en/



Jacqueline CherryJacqueline Cherry, M.A., is an English Teacher in South Lyon, Michigan. She has co-taught enough English classes at the high school level to be considered an honorary member of the Special Ed department. Her favorite part of teaching is bringing real world connections to her students through reading, writing, and speaking in the classroom. Her ultimate goal in this American Dream unit is to encourage students to be knowledgeable critical thinkers as well as happy individuals. Jacqueline holds a B.A. in English and an M. A. in Curriculum in Teaching, both from Michigan State University. She can be reached at cherryj@slcs.us.



Ann CouyoumjianAnn Couyoumjian, M.A., is a high school Career Development Facilitator in South Lyon, Michigan.  Ann has over 25 years of experience in education in various Pre-K through college positions. She experienced marketing and management positions in her previous business career. Ann finds inspiration helping students with their career development, encouraging students in their ongoing reflective practice to realize and further develop their interests, abilities, and values, and find purposeful pursuits.  Ann holds a M.A. in Education, B.S. in Education, and B.S. in Business Administration.  She can be reached at couyoumjiana@slcs.us 



Kaitlin PylesKaitlin Pyles, B.A., is a Special Education Teacher in South Lyon, Michigan. She co-teaches English classes at the high school level. Her favorite thing about teaching is forming strong relationships with her students and watching them achieve little victories every day. Her ultimate goal is to encourage students to be responsible, hard-working, and contributing members of the community. Kaitlin holds a B.A. from Michigan State University in Special Education- Learning Disabilities with a focus in English. She can be reached at pylesk@slcs.us


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