Tag Archives: bingo

Free-Choice Time: Gearing Up

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:

last year's bingo board

(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:

free-choice bingo board

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…although that will probably be out of date as soon as I publish this post.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…

<ascends soapbox>

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.

<descends soapbox>

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!

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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.