As a new teacher, I first started offering students more choices when I grew weary of reading 150 essays on the same writing prompt. I knew there had to be a better way! It was clear my students needed scaffolding to find success, including opportunities to write topic sentences together, review textual evidence, and formulate complete paragraphs, but I quickly realized they didn’t need to be writing on the same topic to share in this learning process. When I opened up the next essay to three topic choices (and a “free choice” option for those students willing to write their own topic proposals), their engagement skyrocketed and the quality of their writing improved. I was thankfully more engaged with the process too, because there was less repetition and it was exciting to see their unique viewpoints emerge.
From that moment on, I looked for more ways to bring choice into my classroom as a way of increasing student engagement. Classrooms that incorporate student choice provide learning environments where students can fully invest themselves in work that matters to them. Research confirms that students have fewer behavior problems, feel more connected, and exhibit less time off-task when they are able to make choices about where and what they learn. In an ideal classroom, there is time for students to pursue personal interests and create independent projects, and other times when students can be given choice in small but meaningful ways. It is the act of choosing that makes us unique and allows us to express our individuality. Maintaining a focus on student choice helps to create schools where student voices matter and independence is nurtured.
Check out a few ways to include more student choice and student voice in your classroom today:
Allow students to make decisions about where they sit in your classroom. If your students are younger or you are concerned about off-task behaviors increasing, provide your students with some guidelines and assist with final selections. In my classroom, I handed out note cards and asked students to write down the names of two students they would like to sit near and make a note of any students with whom they could not work (this included friends they knew would distract them). I then collected their feedback and used it to create a traditional seating chart that incorporated their preferences. The more my students’ ability to handle class decisions grew, the more choices I provided throughout the year.
If you have the time and some creative ingenuity, consider the benefits of flexible seating. Flexible seating allows students to move out of traditional desks by incorporating stools, rugs, balance balls, standing desks, and other nontraditional work areas into your classroom design. If you do try a flexible seating plan, encourage your students to try out all of the options for an entire day. They won’t know where they learn best until they try them out first! One final tip: if your options for flexible seating are limited, have students take turns selecting their spots for the day (or week) to avoid arguments over that favorite bean bag chair!
Choice Boards for Classwork and Homework
The simplest way to introduce choice in student work is to let students choose how they want to prove their learning. Not every student needs to complete the same assignment to achieve the same goals. You can still create class learning targets or general rubrics to outline expectations, but give students a variety of ways to meet these outcomes through choice boards. These boards include multiple activities for students to select from and come in a variety of designs like menus, tic-tac-toe boards, or bullet-pointed lists.
Carefully planned, choice boards can work for summative assessments, too! Newspaper editorials, drawings or posters, creative stories, songs and poetry, dramatic scenes or short iMovies--there are so many ways that students can show what they have learned. If your students are already experienced with choice boards, ask them to brainstorm new ideas to add to those you provide. This is where creative students really shine!
Unstructured Innovation Time
Creative companies like 3M and Google give their employees time during their scheduled workweek to innovate. Employees are allowed to work on projects that excite them, that may or may not be directly related to their specific job. Imagine what your students could do if you gave them some unstructured innovation time! Let students choose their topic, do their research, and create or build what they want. Not sure where to start? The 20-Time in Education website (http://www.20timeineducation.com/) has everything you need to launch! If you’re worried about how parents or administrators might feel about adding unstructured class time and you teach in a state that has adopted Common Core standards, consider tying student work to the ELA research standards, which require both short and sustained research projects.
Save Room for Reflection
Whatever curriculum or assignment choices you provide, save time for reflection. Paula Denton, author of Learning Through Academic Choice,1 writes about the importance of giving students time to self-evaluate their chosen work and the processes they used. Ask students to think about why they made the choices they did, how their choices impacted their learning or final outcomes, and what adjustments they might make in the future. Students can share these reflections with their peers in an informal presentation of their work or privately through a journal or notebook entry. Reflection helps students build confidence in their decision-making skills and helps them target areas for growth. It will also make future problem-solving and decision-making easier for them.
A Few Final Tips for Success
- For any choice you provide, explicitly teach your expectations and discuss potential roadblocks before issues arise.
- Pick choices that feel right for you and your students. If the thought of 15 bouncing heads makes you feel crazy, feel free to skip those balance balls in your flex seating plan!
- If you’re just getting started, think of 1-2 ways you can provide students with choice--there’s no rush! For some students, choice can create uncertainty and everyone needs time to adjust to new responsibilities.
- There is such thing as too much of a good thing: research shows 3-5 options are better for students than 6 or more. When too many choices are offered, many students exert too much energy trying to pick the right option or worrying they have made the wrong choice. Consider this research as you create flexible seating options or when building choice boards.
- Denton, P. (2010). Learning through academic choice. Turner Falls, MA: Center for Responsive Schools, Inc.