What Giving Students Choice Looks Like in the Classroom

Students at Skyline High School record a video segment in the school's studio. (Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action)

Excerpted from "Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement" by Heather Wolpert-Gawron.

Read the companion piece, "Why Choice Matters to Student Learning," for more about the research on student engagement and choice.

By Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Keeping in mind the prior research that proves there is such a thing as too much choice, it’s important to just look at all the possible options that teachers have who are looking to incorporate more choice in their classrooms.

Options to offer choice:

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1. People to Work With. Give students the chance to choose whether to work independently or with another student(s). As a teacher, you can still maintain some control by giving students input. Poll them to see the four students they would most want to work with and then give them the guarantee that at least one of those students will be working with them. Let’s face it, life would be great if nobody got left out of the picking process or if every student felt welcomed in every group, but teachers might want to maintain some input here as well, if only to help students who socially need the push. Nevertheless, give students the ability to have some say in their coworkers. Don’t you wish you could have some say in yours?

From "Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement" by Heather Wolpert-Gawron

2. Resources to Use. Guide students in how to research, but don’t point them to every possible resource. Help foster independent learning by giving them the choice in what they are learning from.

3. Driving Questions. In inquiry-based learning, students tend to develop their own questions that require research in order to form a solution. Being able to develop these questions, the questions that drive the learning, is not a small task, and can be used as their own informal assessment as well. By allowing students to set the train on the track, you will have them buying into the learning throughout the journey.

4. Ways to Show Their Knowledge. As Marzano said above, there are many ways in which a student can show what they know about the content area. From essays to dramatic interpretations, from digital slideshows to sculptures, from websites to podcasts, students can prove their knowledge and give evidence of their learning in an infinite number of ways.

5. Which Rubric to Be Scored On. Some teachers have taken to developing different rubrics that reflect different levels of understanding. In other words, if students feel they are ready, they can attach the advanced rubric to their essay or if they feel they aren’t quite ready for that challenge, they can be assessed using a more standard or grade-level rubric. Rubrics can also be used to assess different elements of an assignment. Just imagine a student setting their own goals and then selecting the rubric to match that goal.

6. What They Need to Work on to Improve/Learning Goals. And speaking of setting goals, allow students to set their own goals and objectives. When I have my students begin the revision stage of essay writing, for instance, I always have them first state what they choose to have me look for in order to give more targeted feedback. In so doing, they not only show me that they are reflective and aware of the skill they need to work on, but they also pay closer attention to the feedback overall.

For instance, one student used the commenting tool in Google Drive to indicate what she wanted me to look for as I was reading her initial essay. She asked me the following:

Katie: How should I change my title to make it seem like a strong representation of the theme?

Student choice, therefore, helps me to help them.

From "Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement" by Heather Wolpert-Gawron

7. Ways to View and Record Assignments for Time Management. Tweens and teens continue to need advice in how to manage their time, but they don’t all connect with the same methods. Therefore, I give my students three different choices as ways to record their assignments or track their assignments. This is yet another way that choice feeds into our mission to differentiate.

Weekly: I post our classroom and homework online each week. On Mondays, students see what the upcoming week holds. This allows students to plan their workload and know when things are due in manageable pieces.

Daily: I break down each day on the board and let students know what we are doing throughout the period. Some students really can only take in bite-sized information at a time.

Quarter/Semester: I give students a rough timeline of what the quarter or semester looks like including key dates when larger assignments are due. Some students find this overwhelming, while others really like the overarching knowledge of what’s to come.

8. Scaffolds. By the time students get to middle school, it’s really vital that they have a choice in how they take notes or in what scaffolds to use. I’m not a fan of dictating what Thinking Map to use or if a student needs to use one at all. However, if they learned one earlier that they continue to rely on, why not allow them to use it? There might also be a different kind of graphic organizer that does help them. Perhaps a student likes using Cornell Notes, while others might prefer index cards or a digital program like Evernote. We can dictate that a brainstorming element needs to be included in the learning process, but we shouldn’t be dictating for students the scaffold that works best for them.

9. Text Structures. Give students choice in the structure of their essays. We know that the traditional five-paragraph essay doesn’t exist in the world outside of school, and in fact, in many of the formal tests administered to students, that standardized structure never even appears, so teach students to take risks with their written structure. Teach students how to organize their thoughts using subheadings, bullets, and numbering. Teach them how to use transitions that not only work between paragraphs, but also work between sections of text. Teach them about captions and integrating quotes. Allow students to embed images and videos into their essays as well as data or textual evidence. Give them choice in the structure of their essay, and you might just find that they can communicate their knowledge more clearly than trying to fit what’s in the brain into a structure that doesn’t connect with them.

10. Choice of opinion/prompts, etc. Give students options of prompts to respond to and/or create open-ended questions that can only be answered by each individual student. By giving them leeway to decide on their own opinions or choose from a list of content-related prompts, you will find that their excitement for responding increases. And if their engagement increases, you will get the highest level of response they can muster.

11. Seating. Choice of seating was actually mentioned a number of times in our student engagement survey. In my classroom, for instance, I have beanbag chairs, standing desks with bar stools, video game chairs, small group tables, and plenty of carpet. Different kids like to work in different positions. Some like to work under tables or facing walls. I call them “cave dwellers.” Others like to stand at the taller tables, dismissing chairs altogether. Others like to sit, back-to-back, on the floor. I also find that they tend to make wise choices. More hyper kids, for instance, will work quantitatively more while rocking in a video game chair than seated static at a desk. The only drawback is that it took me longer to memorize the names because they also liked to try different views of the classroom and different seating options, particularly at the beginning of the year. But (shrug) that was my problem. When we’re talking about engagement, it’s a no-brainer.

12. Deadlines. You know how you get slammed when all those essays or projects come in all at once? Why not avoid that dilemma and allow students to select the deadlines themselves? Once I have introduced a long-term assignment, I generally open up a window of dates for students to choose from. I send out a Google Form that allows students to select from a drop-down menu of choices. Their selection then seeds a spreadsheet automatically that I can sort by date. The date they select is their firm deadline. So I’m still honoring the assessment of responsibility, but I am also honoring the process of bringing students into the decision-making process.

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher and author of Just Ask Us (Corwin, 2018). She has authored several other books including: DIY for Project Based Learning for ELA and History, DIY for Project Based Learning for Math and Science, Writing Behind Every Door: Teaching Common Core Writing in the Content Areas and Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers. Heather is a staff blogger for Edutopia.org and shares all things middle school at tweenteacher.com. Follow Heather on Twitter: @tweenteacher.

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