Tag Archives: goal setting

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…although that will probably be out of date as soon as I publish this post.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

Choice in Class: Three-Pronged Attack

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.