Not Just One Way to Learn: Minnesota Trades Academy Empowers Hands-On Learners

Minnesota Trades Academy mentor Paul Focht-Perlberg draws on personal experience to ensure that each of his students has an equal opportunity to learn in the way that works for them.

Minneapolis, Minnesota – Paul Focht-Perlberg knows that not every student comes to school each day equipped with the same passions, confidence levels, skill sets, or even styles of learning.

The Minnesota Trades Academy (MTA) mentor and Physical Education teacher at Southwest High School strives to make sure every student knows that there is a place for them in education, regardless of whether their learning style is suited to the standard lecture format or otherwise.

“So many of my students and interns are hands-on learners, not listen-to-lecture learners,” said Focht-Perlberg. “Hands-on or project-based learning is something that is missing from many schools, but meeting students where they are is so valuable. Every student is important. Every student should have a voice and it’s my job to help them find that voice.”

Focht-Perlberg first got connected with the Minnesota Trades Academy, a paid-summer construction internship for high school students, eight years ago through a fellow educator at Southwest High School who was also an MTA mentor.

“When we got talking about the program,” said Focht-Perlberg, “I thought, ‘This is an amazing opportunity for kids and they should really be able to know about this. And that is why I got involved.”

The Minnesota Trades Academy is one of several programs offered through the Construction Careers Foundation (ConstructionCareers.org), a Minneapolis-St. Paul-based nonprofit dedicated to helping young people discover careers in construction.

How Students Learn Matters

This educator understands first-hand what it means for a student to carry incredible talent and potential, but simply lack access to a method of learning that works for them.

A hard worker, attuned learner, and generous and charismatic spirit, anyone who knows Focht-Perlberg would be surprised to learn that he struggled academically in high school. He studied hard and he cared about the material, but something just didn’t seem to click. According to Focht-Perlberg, it was his strong relationship with his teachers that got him through.

After high school, Focht-Perlberg studied at the University of Wisconsin in Whitewater, where his struggle continued. Until one day, when he finally got an answer that changed his life for good.

“When I was a sophomore in college, I was diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia,” recalled Focht-Perlberg. Dyslexia and dysgraphia are neurological disorders that make it incredibly difficult for students to comprehend material through reading or writing. “I had been tested in high school, but the person that tested me told me I just needed to study harder.”

While studying ‘harder’ was redundant advice to give to Focht-Perlberg, who was already a dedicated worker, learning to study in the way that worked for him made all the difference. After his diagnosis at 19 years old, Focht-Perlberg began working with a tutor, “to figure out how to learn in the way that actually works for my brain.” Little did he know that this diagnosis would all but change this educator’s life.

“Once I started listening to books on tape and could hear words instead of reading them, things started to make a lot more sense and I was able to get through school much easier,” said Focht-Perlberg. “Once I realized I could change the way I was learning information, I was able to finish my degree at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with a Physical Education License, and that brought me to where I am today.”

Transforming Self-Esteem Through Resources and Mentorship

The relevance of Focht-Perlber’s experience with a learning disability to his current work with the Minnesota Trades Academy, as well as in his role as a Physical Education teacher, is not lost on this educator.

“The mentality I stress to my students is: let’s try something first before we say that we can’t do it, then after that, let’s try again,” said Focht-Perlberg. “Even if a student doesn’t have the strength or skillset yet, if they keep pushing forward, they learn that there isn’t just one way to achieve a goal; they can get stronger or build a new skill by learning it a different way.”

Focht-Perlberg has seen a lack of assimilation to a particular style of learning manifest as insecurity for so many of his students. The educator recalls having girls in his program tell him that they cannot do something because they aren’t strong enough, students with learning disabilities who internalize their academic struggles as a lack of intelligence, and more throughout his career.

For so many students, lecture-style learning is simply not conducive to their learning style, but once they have the chance to participate in hands-on projects through MTA, they thrive.

“Every day as a mentor for MTA, I see those ‘Aha!’ moments happen. When students are trying something completely new, they struggle at first, but once they discover they can actually do it, they realize it’s really cool,” said Focht-Perlberg. “I recently had a group of students make a coat hanger out of a pipe. Watching the kids realize, ‘Oh my gosh. I can actually do this,’ is so rewarding. It can change their life.”

Building Confidence…and a Life-Long Career

The nuanced, individualized pedagogy that Focht-Perlberg employs is not only critical for self-esteem, but for readying students for a life-long career that suits their personality, skillset, and financial goals.

“I speak with so many kids that are unsure what they want to do after they graduate,” said Focht-Perlberg. “Then I bring up the Minnesota Trades Academy and we talk about all the different trades. I explain that we go and see job sites in real life and describe the money that students can make with a career in construction. The kids are surprised that they can make such a high wage without going to college. I see them immediately go from feeling defeated to hopeful. It’s a really cool program.”

The Minnesota Trades Academy simulates real-world representation of what a career in construction looks like, so students who are visual and hands-on learners can understand first-hand what it feels like to have a career in the trades. For some students, this makes all the difference.

“If I had a program like MTA when I was in high school, I might have gone into construction as a career,” said Focht-Perlberg. “I am so glad to be doing the work I am doing and helping students the way that I am helping them now. This is an awesome program, and I just hope that more kids can try it out because it really does make a difference.”

Find Your Path with the Construction Careers Foundation

www.ConstructionCareers.org is the leading source of information for exploring a career in the Minnesota construction trades.

To learn more about the Minnesota Trades Academy or get involved, visit this page.

For access to key resources involving a career in construction, specifically catered to educators, visit this page.