Finding the balance of freedom and structure that is good for kids—who are of course all different from each other—is hard. Still, I know that giving my students a fair shake at some real autonomy is a principle that I’m willing to work for and stand by. My dear friend and colleague Paul Salomon and I collaborated last year on making free-choice time happen for our middle schoolers. For me, this meant that every Friday, my sixth and seventh graders would take their SBG skills quizzes; after finishing these, they were free to pursue whatever they pleased.
Inspired by my mom, I distributed a bingo grid of different activities at the beginning of the year to encourage my kids to dig into a variety of tasks. It looked like this:
(BTdubs, Bloxorz was a huge hit. You should definitely give it a whirl.)
I thought I would roll out other boards as the year progressed. I didn’t. The school year, as school years are wont to do, took on a crazy, unkempt life of its own. While I introduced a few new activities to my classes over the course of the year, the activities that I put on offer at the beginning were basically the ones that students worked on. In addition, I never got around to providing the resources for students to actually do some of the activities, so this cut down on their options even more.
To better serve our soon-to-arrive new batch of students, Paul and I are aiming to improve upon our last year’s attempts to provide students with structure and rich resources during their free-choice time. This year I’m giving out a board that has categories of activities, rather than individual things to do. Like so:
Really broad stuff, plus a center square that rivals Zombo.com in making the sky the limit. To accompany the board will be a list of some possible activities for them to pursue:
Those are the ones that I’ve penciled in for the start of the year. The full brainstormed list currently stands as follows:
…although that will probably be out of date as soon as I publish this post. Over the course of the year, the list of pursuits that my students will have in hand will expand to include more items from this larger list. I’m planning to limit the options at the start for a few reasons. First, I didn’t want all of the possibilities to overwhelm kids. Second, for some of the activities on the full list, I want to have the chance to introduce the activity in a whole-class setting—for instance, to have a day or two where we talk about cellular automata, run some by hand, and take a look at the Game of Life. Finally, I figure for the sake of diversity, it won’t hurt to put off the unveiling of Bloxorz for a little while.
An important part of my plan to make free-choice time an opportunity for my students to grow is to have them record and reflect upon the progress they make on their free-choice projects, as well as to help them to set goals for themselves. Students will be able to write their goals into their bingo grid, and they’ll also have opportunities to goal-set and reflect in their journals. By design, the items in the list above aren’t very specific. Yes, here is a Rubik’s Cube. But what’s your goal? Try to figure out how to solve it on your own? Watch some videos online and try to internalize some algorithms? Solve a cube in under five minutes? Take one apart? Only you can decide. My thought is that putting this decision down in writing–even if it will change a few days from now–can give kids more empowered visions of themselves and of mathematics. That’s what I’m betting on, anyway.
I’ll have a poster-sized copy of the bingo board on the wall of my classroom. When a kid completes a goal in one of the categories, she’ll get to write her name into that square on the poster. She’ll also get to share her accomplishment with her classmates, either by announcing it, making a presentation, or displaying it in the room.
It may feel to you—I know it does to me—that in my description of this supposedly free-choice time, I’m emphasizing structure over freedom. My excuse is that I don’t have live, kicking, and wooly fifth graders to share this stuff with yet, to run rampant in my classroom and test and break and remold my structures—until they aren’t really even structures any more, but rather the culture of our classroom. Right now, the build-up of thoughts and hopes just lies in potentia, waiting to go live and spring forth. I can’t wait to share with you the awesome things my students do!
There’s a lot of good stuff on that list of activities, and I’m excited to uncover, stumble across, and get suggestions for even more. And I feel that the list is not only good, but that it includes things that often have no place in our mathematics classrooms. And so if I may…
We as teachers, by the tasks and opportunities we provide in our classrooms, define what mathematics is to our students. If we don’t model activities like reading books about math, creating mathematical games, or communicating with “outside” people who are interested in math, then our students may never encounter these activities. And to me, that’s a lot scarier than a kid missing out on any particular fact, theorem, or skill.
To conclude, let me say that I’m working to find ways of incorporating more free-choice time into my high school courses, but this is a challenge. While I’ve made room for choice in my high school courses, free-choice feels more difficult. In the usual mold, middle school is more student-centered, while high school is more content-centered. Still, just typing this out has got me thinking about how I might construct a similar board for my high schoolers to encourage them to try out different kinds of tasks over the course of the year in a non-deadline way. Stay tuned for that, and for lots of sharing of how free-choice goes down with my fifthies!
At the moment, though, I would love to hear your suggestions for pursuits for my middle schoolers to take on. Help that list grow!