Free-Choice Time: Origins

As I mentioned in a previous post, having regular free-choice time for my students has become an important part of my middle school classes.  (Plans are still simmering for bringing free-choice into my high school classes more explicitly.)  Last year was my first go at this.  My original inspiration for sharing free-choice time with students probably sprung from a number of influences, including The Open Classroom by Herbert R. Kohl and Mindstorms by Seymour Papert.  As I remember it, however, the notion really crystallized for me when my mom, who is an elementary school librarian, told me about a way that she helps her students expand their reading horizons.

Mom and me

Mom and me, bundling up for the harsh Louisiana winter.

Now you’d think that picking library books would have a lot of choice built into it, and you’d be right.  However, the circumstances surrounding selection can affect what choice (and reading) feel like to kids.  You may be familiar with the Accelerated Reader program.  I did it when I was in elementary school, and for me it felt like an add-on.  Whenever I happened to read a book that was a part of the Accelerated Reader program, I took a short computerized test on it and accrued “points”.  There were incentives involved, but it didn’t wholly shape my reading experience.  In the two decades since, the AR program has evolved from being an add-on to a core concept, at least in some schools.  My mom found that her students had been trained to seek out books that were in their AR reading level range—which could be something as specific as 3.2 to 3.6.  I know—it sounds almost like a horror story.

My mom worried that the narrow focus that these kids had on their reading levels was getting in the way of their relationship with reading.  In an effort to help kids to stretch themselves as readers, she designed a “bingo card” with a different genre of book in each square—science fiction, poetry, biography, and so on.  This allowed kids to keep track of the genres they had read.  Over time, she more often heard kids asking for help to find a mystery novel rather than a 3.2 to 3.6 book.  She was fostering personal, eclectic choice just by giving kids a different window into the selections they were making.  (I think there was also a reward for bingo “black-outs,” which certainly didn’t hurt.)

There was already room for choice in my mom’s library.  Unlike the status quo in most math classrooms, she didn’t have to make a conscious effort to install choice.  What was needed was curation of the available resources—a reframing of the decision-making of her students.  By imposing a small amount of structure, she actually gave them more power to find things that they liked and to pursue them.

I think that before my mom shared this organizing principle with me, free-choice sounded very amorphous and abstract.  Even with my experiences at free-wheeling Saint Ann’s, it was unclear to me what–if anything–students would do without direction from me.  Somehow, what my mom said made it click for me that free-choice isn’t the same thing as structurelessness–that choice at its best happens in a context.  In my next post I’ll go into some details of how I’ve used and am planning to use this bingo card idea in my middle school math classes to help create context for free-choice time.

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2 responses to “Free-Choice Time: Origins

  1. Exactly right! Learners need choice and structure. They need to know what to expect (structure) and they need to feel as though they have some control over their lives (choice). This is especially true of learners whose life outside of school is chaotic.

  2. I remember you telling me that your mom gave you the idea, but I didn’t realize she did it first! That’s so cool. I’m really looking forward to working on this with you this year.

    I agree with what you say about structure and choice. I’ve realized lately how much I sound like Paul Lockhart, who I love for some things, but whose ideas I previously called “dangerous.” The structures you’ve put in place over the last two years have really helped me improve. You’re exactly right, and I think our fifth graders are gonna have a great year.

    Thanks for another solid post!

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