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November 1, 2008
Vol. 66
No. 3

Dude, What Choice Do I Have?

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Combining our years of experience, we have been teaching middle school students for 30 years. In those years, we have lurched, with both false starts and fortunate leaps, toward giving students greater choice over what and how they learn. It has always been an adventure, and we have seen students move miles ahead in their learning. But offering choice to our students did not come naturally or quickly. Our mistakes often allowed us to find our way to a practice that we believe is essential to students' education.

Michael's Early Fumblings

As a new teacher, I knew enough to frequently check my middle school students for signs of engagement or rigor mortis—but not how to use their thirst for autonomy to enliven their learning. I still thought that I could do anything, including use reason to bend the willfulness of a student.
Joyce walked into my English 1 class with an attitude. "I don't want to be here" radiated from her like Pigpen's cloud of dust. She dumped herself into a desk in the back of the room, slumped in her seat, and crossed her arms. That entire year, I gauged my ability to reach students by Joyce's reactions. Often that reaction was only a grunt, sigh, or a flip of her hooded sweatshirt over her head; rarely did she straighten up and listen.
After one class, I asked Joyce to give me her opinion of W. W. Jacobs's 1902 short story "The Monkey's Paw":<EMPH TYPE="5">Michael: What did you think of the story?<EMPH TYPE="5">Joyce: It was lame.<EMPH TYPE="5">Michael: What made it lame?<EMPH TYPE="5">Joyce: What didn't make it lame? Some dead white guy wrote a story about making stupid wishes and some shriveled up monkey's hand.<EMPH TYPE="5">Michael: This is the curriculum. What do you propose I do about it?<EMPH TYPE="5">Joyce: Dude, why would you ask me? It's your class, not mine.
I wasn't prepared then to lay out authentic choices that might have made the class—and the learning experience—Joyce's as well as mine. I might have simply asked what stories she would have preferred to discuss. Joyce rarely wanted to be in my class because I had set myself up as the one with all the answers. I had unwittingly made students powerless.
Students often sense that what they do in the classroom has nothing to do with their real lives. They yearn for the time when they can make their own choices. Alfie Kohn (1993) has noted,Let us ask what we know from research and experience in the workplace about the cause of burnout. The best predictor, it turns out, is not too much work, too little time, or too little compensation. Rather it is powerlessness—a lack of control over what one is doing.
By the end of that year, I was faced with a choice of my own. Should I keep following the curriculum at hand and see the same boredom Joyce exuded afflict students the next year—or should I revisit my assignments, assessments, and lessons and find ways to engage students? For the sake of my students, what choice did I have?
In the following years, I loosened up considerably about using the prescribed stories in class. Instead, I considered what students were supposed to know and understand according to the standards and offered reading choices that would match these targets. The more choices I gave learners—even if only a choice between two suggestions—the more engagement I saw.

Terry's Early Stumblings

As a new 6th grade teacher, I found I had to do more than simply lay out attractive options. It took a combination of choice, persistence, and just the right text to get a particularly reluctant reader interested.
I created a classroom library that ranged from picture books to Stephen King and invited students to choose their own books and "read like real readers." They could choose a book that appealed to them and read it on the floor, on a bean bag chair, or wherever they fancied. If they didn't like the book, they could select another. Full of the arrogance of the new teacher, I was sure that students would instantaneously love to read and write and that this "real" reading would translate to better writing. I would become famous throughout the land as "the man who made kids love reading and writing."
But many students had learned to hate reading over a long period of time. It was going to take more than my collection of 250 books to change this attitude.
Drew was a typical 11-year-old 6th grader. He loved sports and his friends, was interested in girls, and hated reading. I tried everything in my limited bag of new-teacher tricks. I read passages from short, interesting texts out loud to the class. I had students do book shares in which they talked up a book they liked to the rest of the class. I had them write book reviews on cards and pass them around to peers. None of this fazed Drew.
Every day or two, I showed Drew a new book. I tried popular fiction and short biographies of famous athletes. Drew wasn't interested. As the year wore on, I began to give up. I sat with Drew less and showed him fewer books. But when Why I'm Afraid of Bees (part of the popular Goosebumps series by R. L. Stine) was released, I gave it one last shot because these books so often hook students who dislike reading. The day after its release, I brought the book to class.<EMPH TYPE="5">Terry: So … This new book just came out. Lots of kids want it, but I thought you might want to read it first.<EMPH TYPE="5">Drew: You've shown me those before. I didn't like them.<EMPH TYPE="5">Terry: Ummm, yeah. I read the first three chapters, and some crazy stuff happens in there. This one might be different.<EMPH TYPE="5">Drew: I don't know, man. I told you, I don't like reading.
Then, out of frustration, I proposed a bargain.<EMPH TYPE="5">Terry: OK. If you'll read the first three chapters of the book and talk with me about them tomorrow, and you still don't want to read anything for class, I won't bother you for the rest of the year about reading.<EMPH TYPE="5">Drew: You promise? No tricks?<EMPH TYPE="5">Terry: [wondering whether I was doing the right thing] Really.<EMPH TYPE="5">Drew: Deal!
The next day Drew entered the classroom and tossed the book on my desk. "You didn't like it?" I asked, thinking I had made another young-teacher mistake.
"I think the ending was awesome! Do you have any more of those Goose-bumps on the shelf right now?"
Drew went on to consume a book a day, reading all the Goosebumps series books and a couple from Stine's Fear Street series.
This deal-making strategy was risky. But it worked, I think, for two reasons: (1) because I held Drew accountable for reading at least three chapters of the book and discussing those chapters with me, and (2) because I also gave him the choice to refuse to read the book I was pushing. This ultimate choice was a key part of getting Drew to feel positive about reading. It gave him an out but also got him to dig into a text he wouldn't have tried on his own.
As a more experienced teacher, I now realize I could have tried other choice-based strategies with Drew that might have worked more quickly. In my classes now, I often pair a resistant reader with a friend to read something short on a high-interest topic, such as an online article on skateboarding. Or I might do a group activity called Book in an Hour, in which I assign a short book to a group and make each group member responsible for reading a particular section of the text and reporting on major events and details in that section. This prevents a shaky reader from feeling overwhelmed but holds that reader accountable and gives him or her a sense of accomplishment at getting through a long text.

How to Make Choice Happen

School leaders might think it would be great to give students more control over what happens in the classroom—but then conclude that the curriculum (or the standards, administration, and so on) isn't flexible enough to allow students many options. We argue that, with creativity, teachers can come up with alternate learning experiences that give students more control yet also help each learner meet curricular goals.
Offering student choice is complex, however, when students need to master certain content and skills. Although many students are ecstatic at having some say over how they complete a particular assignment, others take this as an opportunity to do the bare minimum. The latter students ask questions like, "How long does it have to be? What does a final paper look like?" We answer such questions by asking, "What do the directions say?" When the student says, "They don't say exactly," we reply, "Then you have a choice."
Many students don't like this answer. They would rather be told what to do. In a classroom characterized by student choice, students and teachers must both be comfortable with the unknown. Teachers must accept the possibility that many learners will thrive with the options that choice allows, but others may give their least.
We have found that carefully phrasing written directions for assignments is one way to give students control over learning while increasing the chance that they will master required objectives. Write out expectations in a way that allows students who want to go above and beyond enough latitude to do so, while making sure those expectations demand that—however students choose to perform the assignment—each one will master the basic objectives.
Another way to deal with a student who aims to do the bare minimum is to allow that student to study something different from the rest of the class. There is plenty of curriculum to go around, and we have all seen certain students light up when they finally get to a content area or skill that they can just plain enjoy. When we can afford to practice such extreme differentiation, it's worth it.
In the end, we must hope that students who consistently give the minimum will eventually see the possibilities that choice offers and will, even once, move out of their comfort zone.

Terry's Holocaust Tile Wall

Several years ago, I wanted my students to do a brief project that would combine what they had learned about the Holocaust with our study of symbolism. I took the risk of asking students what kind of group project we should do. That risk paid off, but it took some negotiating.
"Mr. Biggs! We could create a Holocaust museum here at school," Anthony immediately cried. "Everyone could create a different piece of art, and we could have parents come see all the stuff we learned."
"He said brief, man," retorted Kim. "We need something smaller, but still good."
"Why don't we make a tile wall like at the Florida Holocaust Museum?" Liz proposed. "Each year your classes could add more tiles to it."
"Yeah!" approved a handful of voices.
"Wait," I interrupted. "First, this can't cost a fortune, and second, I doubt we'll be allowed to put anything on the walls permanently. But I like the idea. We could each do a design on paper the size of a ceramic tile. That should create a powerful visual. Let's talk about details tomorrow."
Together we planned the project and a simple assessment that judged student work on use of color, neatness, effectiveness of the message conveyed through symbolism, and adherence to deadlines. I also required students to write a brief explanation of how the symbols on their "tile" represented what they had learned during the Holocaust unit. Although they originally resisted the writing component, that component tied the assignment together.
I often give students some control over designing a project but reserve the right to step in if I see some key ingredient lacking. However, I don't open up every project like this. For some assignments, I keep almost complete control; for others, I give students as much choice as possible.
The tile wall was a success. Every year since, I describe this project to students after our Holocaust unit and give them the option of doing a tile wall or something completely different. Although the project differs slightly each time, every year students choose to do a tile wall. The students who first developed this assignment knew what they were doing.

Michael's Cultural Awareness Night

In my classroom, choice has helped students create amazing products because it allows students freedom of expression and the chance to explore unusual topics that mean something to them. The enormity of possibilities has also at times frozen a student's thinking. One project my students engage in involves so many options that I have to support students carefully.
My curriculum gives me the opportunity to foster multiculturalism in my classroom. I have tried different approaches, including classroom novels and literature circles, but have settled on an approach that leads to a final student presentation we call Cultural Awareness Night.
Students choose and read two books, each illustrating a culture that is different from the student's own. For example, Robert chose Montmorency: Thief, Liar, Gentleman by Eleanor Updale (about a Victorian convict turned gentleman) and The Kite Rider by Geraldine McCaughrean (about 12-year-old Haoyou's adventures in 13th-century China). Both cultures were far removed from Robert's upper-middle-class life in Florida.
After reading his or her book, each student discusses with the class similarities and differences among the two cultures in their texts and the student's home culture. Students create a trifold presentation board to accompany their talk. I require them to present solid information and to show poise, voice projection, and enunciation.
After these initial presentations, I show students a PowerPoint presentation titled "Did You Know?" created by Karl Fisch, director of technology at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado (available at This presentation gives statistics on changes in world demographics, economic trends, globalization, and young people's media use and online networking—and asks what skills will be needed for success in the 21st century. I urge students to question what they should focus on as learners to succeed in the future and ask them the following question: "No matter what technological advances take place, what virtues inherent in the cultures you studied are likely to endure?"
Students have free rein in how they present this information, but they must choose one virtue for each culture, give a three-minute presentation on these virtues, and present their learning to their parents as part of Cultural Awareness Night.
For many kids, this process was far from smooth. Students had trouble choosing books. So I brought in many books and directed students to skim those that appealed to them, looking for one that described any culture different from theirs, even a culture within the United States. Many needed further direction; we had class conversations about what culture means and what factors—such as economic level and religion—make cultures different from one another. A few students found the concept of virtues too abstract. They had a hard time wrestling with such abstractions as morality, ethics, and principles, and it was hard for some to pinpoint virtues within their home culture. I put together a list of 40 common virtues and their definitions and reviewed it with the class. The process forced them to think outside their own lives and consider not only what might be important to them but also what might be important to the world in the future.
All this work wrestling with books, culture, virtues, and how to distill hefty information into a three-minute presentation pays off on Cultural Awareness Night. I show parents "Did You Know?" and students do the rest. Many students focus their virtues on a specific job they hope to attain and speak eloquently about how virtues connected to cultures they studied are likely to affect their goals. Some students just bring out their trifold board again and add a discussion of virtues, but others surprise me with their creativity.
For example, Jenn created a Power-Point presentation with images representing the values of the cultures she had studied and her goal of becoming a teacher. She discussed what she'd learned from reading Chinese Cinderellaby Adeline Yen Mah (about an often forgotten stepdaughter) andFarewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston (a true story of Japanese internment during World War II). She also described her family culture, which blends Christian and Jewish values. Jenn focused on the virtues of honor, helpfulness, and caring, connecting these virtues to what she called her "pledge of service to others" as a future teacher.
Cultural Awareness Nights are often magical. As a follow-up, I require students to reflect on the steps they took to gain the knowledge they shared that night and to talk with their parents and seek their feedback. I frequently get letters from parents the following week expressing appreciation for the opportunity to learn something new about their child. Personally, I find out more about my students' aspirations and characters through this project than through any other assignment.

Worth the Work

Providing students a say in what happens to them as learners is hard work, especially if teachers face curriculums that require a prescribed course of study or rigid scripts. How central an individual teacher wants to make student choice in his or her classroom comes down to the comfort level of that teacher. But one axiom is true: The more alternatives we give students for participating in their own learning, the more engaged they become.
End Notes

1 Kohn, A. (1998). Choices for children: Why and how to let students decide. Phi Beta Kappan, 75(1), 8–19.

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