So at the EdCamp session about choice, I shared three ways that I’ve tried (and am trying) to encourage student choice in my classroom:
- “free choice” time
- wide-open projects
- goal setting
When I wrote those up on the board at EdCamp, I had them associated with three of the classes that I’m teaching this coming year–fifth grade math, high school geometry, and calculus, in that order. Upon further reflection, I’ve begun to see how I want to have all three features embedded into all of my classes, as well as how they all rely upon each other. I’ll say more about these three prongs individually at a later date–and writing about how they actually happen in my classroom on a day-to-day basis is what I’m here for. For now, I just want to say a few words about each to give some context.
Briefly, free choice time is time set aside in class when students are working on their own thing without my giving them direction. I make available a variety of resources and suggest a range of possibilities. I did this for the first time this past year with my 6th and 7th grade classes. Each week on Friday after their SBG-style quiz buffet, students would pick up some new activity or continue on their ongoing project. As a point of reference, think of Google’s “20% time”.
By wide-open projects, I mean some piece of extended work where the steps haven’t all been laid out for the student. Further, the end products that individual students produce may look very different–either because they’ve investigated different problems, or approached the same problem in different ways, or because they’ve chosen to share their efforts through different media. It’s easy for me to point to examples from my geometry course, like this project about geometric properties. But now that I think of it, the free choice time activities could fall into the same category.
For goal setting, I mean asking kids to figure out what they want to accomplish and helping them to do so. I’ve done this some with my middle schoolers with their skills quizzes–which ones they want to prepare for and take the following week–and now that I think of it, in helping them navigate their free choice time activities. This year I plan to ask my 5th graders to reflect on both their quizzes and free choice time activities as weekly journal assignments. However, my mind for whatever reason has recently been thinking about this in the context of my upcoming calculus class–having my students do the same kind of journal reflecting, for one, but also helping them to establish larger goals about what “success” in the class will mean for them. A student could decide that basic proficiency on the items on my skills list is what he’s after. Or maybe he wants to get almost all of them, but to try tackling some additional challenge topics. Or who knows what. Allowing him to make that decision and then helping him with following through on it seems huge to me in terms of motivation and learning that’s bound up with integrity.
To summarize: give students the time to dig into a rich variety of possible activities and the freedom and guidance to choose among them.
Finally, I should say that at Saint Ann’s we don’t give grades to our students and that curriculum is by-and-large decided upon by each teacher for his or her classes. The way I give an account for how my students use their free choice time is the same as how I report on anything else they accomplish–through a semi-annual page-long report, individualized for each kid. Having no grades definitely frees me up to take chances with what I do in my classes, and not having to worry about attaching points to tasks makes something like free choice time easier to legitimize in my classroom. But even with no grades, fostering student choices is countercultural, it runs against my own inherited habits and thought patterns, and it’s really hard. Still, I deeply believe and hope that real student agency and empowerment is important and that it can happen in any school.
I’m excited to find out whether these ideas resonate with your own experiences and your own hopes.