Student Choice Doubters – Read On.

There always seems to be debate amongst educators regarding how much choice students should have in their own education.  And although there has been plenty of research done by both psychologists and educators regarding how important choice to both  learning and motivation – Thank you, Alfie Kohn and Daniel Pink! – there still remains doubters.  I’d thought I’d share three stories that have occurred to me recently that made me once again appreciate how important choice is not only for students but also for their teachers.

  •  An “Un-conference”:  I am a member of my school’s vision steering committee and one of our main purposes is to help plan and offer faculty professional development that will both inspire and move us forward as we delve deeper into PBL and begin using a block schedule.  Knowing that in the past, teachers have had little, if any, say in what would happen on these days, our committee thought we would shake it up a bit by using the un-conference model. An un-conference, as its name suggests, is not a typical PD experience.  Instead of having pre-determined sessions and speakers, the day is created by those in attendance.  Individuals share topics of interest  and the schedule is created from this list of ideas.  (My colleague Dana Huff gives a great overview of our process on her blog if you are interested in how we ran this.)  In a nutshell, our faculty members had a significant amount of choice what types of sessions they would partake in. As a result, people seemed genuinely more engaged in the process, those who tend to be more reluctant to participate had strong voices, and I can speak from personal experience to say that I found it energizing and inspiring to discuss ideas that I found important with colleagues who felt the same way.  My discussions would also immediately have an impact on my teaching.  Most of us as teachers have sat through uninspiring PD.  Many of us may have only gotten through these experiences by checking email or playing Words with Friends.   Neither helps our students.  What does help?  Giving faculty members some choice over their own growth and trusting that what they will choose will be worth it.
  • Adopting independent reading: I had the privilege to participate in a week-long internship at The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), a school in Maine founded by Nancie Atwell, where I observed how to run a reading and writing workshop.  One of Atwell’s philosophies that is evident throughout the school and in any of her writing is the importance of choice in both reading and writing.  Students at the school have almost complete authority in choosing what they read.  In the middle school, where I spent most of my time, there are no class reads; reading skills are developed primarily through choice books and reading conferences.  At first I challenged this idea as I do see the value in having an entire class read the same book and think the discussion that results from doing so is important, I quickly changed my viewpoint.  The students there were incredibly well-spoken, had astounding analytical ability, and most importantly, loved reading.  And though I will not be giving up my class reads, I very quickly realized that I had to figure out how to also get my students to read books of their own choosing.  Though I had always encouraged my students to read on their own, I never required it, and their reading was dwindling. Using the CTL model, I  now expect my students to read for 20 minutes each night in addition to the 45 minute period we spend reading and conferencing in class once a week.  The catch?  They could only read books they found enjoyable.  Although at first some students balked at the idea, proclaiming that 20 minutes every day was far too much, it has not taken long to completely win them over.  My proof occurred this Tuesday, our first day back from a long winter break. As I walked up the stairs to my class, I realized my students were already present, so I got ready to settle them down, expecting them to all be conversing about their time off. Imagine my surprise when I see every student in the class frantically recording all the books they read over winter break into their reading log, proud of their achievement and eager to share their accomplishments. Not only did this happen in my first class but also my second.  Every student, even my most reluctant readers, finished at least one book.  One student finished as many as eight.  Books ranged from the latest John Green to a Tom Clancy thriller to Animal Farm.  Not only are they choosing books that are enjoyable but they are also picking ones with high literary merit.  During our combined reading workshop the following day, 10 of my students presented book talks; it is obvious they are starting to love reading and are not afraid to show it.  Their vocabulary is improving.  Their writing is getting stronger.  Their understanding of what makes something a valuable piece of literature is developing.  It is hard for me not to beam with pride.  I’m finally achieving what I sought out to do when I decided to become an English teacher: share my love of reading with my students and help build theirs.  I don’t for one second think this would have happened if I told my students exactly what book they had to read over vacation.
  • Allowing student choice in writing:  I have always been a firm believer in allowing students as much choice as possible in their writing.  I have had my students blog every year for the past six years and typically allow them to blog about any topic of their choice as long as it remains school appropriate.  In doing so, I am often amazed at what actually interests them, how they see the world, and how much better they voice their opinions and put together an argument when the topic matters.  In the past few weeks, my students have written editorials on topics of their choice which have ranged from the Richie Incognito scandal to gay marriage to child labor.  I was a little nervous when one of my students decided that she was going to defend Miley Cyrus – really, how can you defend her, I asked – but I was glad I let her go with it.  Her final product argued that although what Miley was doing at the MTV Video Music Awards wasn’t great, the focus was completely on Miley and not on her “twerking” partner Robin Thicke. She went on to discuss double standards and maintained that the focus should be on the demeaning nature of Thicke’s song, which many believe is about rape.  Many people might fear, and I’ll acknowledge I did a bit, that when an 8th grader decides to defend Miley Cyrus that their argument will be immature and lack substance.   This was not the case here.  I gave this student expectations regarding the assignment and she surpassed them. And because she was writing about a topic that mattered to her, her voice was strong and her writing sound.  Amazing.

What prevents us from allowing people to choose their own paths?  Trust.  When we tell people how to act or what to do, it is because we assume that they are not able to figure that out for themselves or that they are going to make the wrong decision.  They might not choose the best workshop or pick the best book or write something of substance.  They don’t know what’s best for them.  Therefore, we have to do it for them.

Now, I am not someone who believes that an 8th grader should determine every aspect of their academic career.  I, as a teacher, also know that I cannot control absolutely everything about my curriculum or job.  But I do realize how  important it is for me to have some choice in my learning process.  And how much more enthusiastic I am about the process when I do.   Honestly, my students are not that different.

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