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Best Practices: The Miracle of Choices

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Ever heard a simple truth? They’re easy to spot. Something about the simplicity is appealing and the statement sounds, well, just right. I heard one of these truths when I was at home with two small children. A television psychologist advised against asking newly independent two-year-olds a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question. At that age, the answer is always “NO!”

His strategy: Instead of asking “Do you want to go outside?” try “Do you want to go out the front door or the back door?”

It was brilliant—and simple! Just by offering a choice between two equally acceptable answers, the two-year-old asserts his coveted independence and contemplates the options. And, best of all, he’s outside before he knows it. Unfortunately, it was years before the miracle of choice became my preferred tool for motivating high school students.

As part of a partnership, teachermagazine.org publishes this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

For the most part the concept is the same: Let them decide. I use these toddler tactics in my English and journalism classes, but I suspect they would carry over into many other subjects (and grades), with a little adaptation.

What Does Choice Look Like?

Here’s a sampling of ways I offer my students choices:

• After writing several essays, all of which earn completion grades, students choose one to revise for a test grade.

• In persuasive writing, I ask students to pick a columnist from the newspaper or online to follow for four weeks, turning in the column and a rhetorical précis. They can choose among sports columnists, movie, fashion or theater critics, car or product reviewers, or right- or left-leaning political commentators. Their follow-up assignment is to mimic the columnist in an essay on an issue of their choice.

• In silent reading, I let students choose a nonfiction title from a list provided. They later write personal responses to the reading.

• For summer programs, students must read a required book for class to earn a C. Then they decide what grade to earn by choosing one additional title (from lists provided) for a B, or a third title for an A.

• For a personal essay, story or sketch, I ask students to choose the topic, genre, and audience from the material they’ve accumulated in their writer’s notebook.

How Does Choice Help Students?

Choice returns responsibility for learning to the student. Most of my students choose surprisingly well for themselves, selecting texts and assignments that follow their interests while meeting curricular objectives and pushing skills to the next level. The first year I offered a reading list, I was amazed to see how students gravitated to titles reflecting their cultures or family histories. The scientists, sports addicts, adventurers, and budding social scientists all found acceptable books they were willing to tackle.

Giving students the power to choose has other benefits. For example:

• It requires that students make a number of decisions they’d otherwise concede to us. As teachers, we have vast decision-making experience already. Why not let them gain some?

• It’s not difficult to arrange tasks so students cannot even make a choice without doing a little outside research (as with the columnist assignment). Extra critical thinking is always a plus.

• Choice creates opportunities for students to showcase themselves. My students start with what they already know and move into unfamiliar territory by applying a new skill in a zone of relative comfort.

• Often, by making choices that matter to them, students discover that school can have an immediate application in their lives. Also, other students begin to see peers as in-house experts on certain topics and learn to know their classmates beyond a surface stereotype.

How Does Choice Help Teachers?

• It’s differentiation at its best.

• Choice helps me see my students as individuals.

• Choice makes reading and grading student work more interesting. You’re not plowing through a seemingly endless stack of papers on the exact same theme.

• The choices students make can help me direct outside reading and thinking. Handing a student an unexpected book review, Web resource, or newspaper article in their area of interest often surprises them, but it may spark further study or open the door to an adult conversation around their topic.

• Every time an assignment involves choice, the “chatter-level” in the classroom rises. Choice releases energy and increases buy-in. They learn more and you manage less. As an added bonus, in an era when we’re always looking for ways to engage parents, students frequently carry their assignments home, discussing possibilities with family members.

How Do You Manage Choice?

Before my students run off into the broad landscape of choice, we set some boundaries and guidelines.

• For longer-term projects, each student must request permission to follow a particular subject. I use a memorandum addressed to me (a chance to teach a little business writing) in which they request class time to pursue their stated interest. I explain, like in the business world, time is money and they need to account for their time. The students present a rationale, what they know already, what questions they intend to pursue, and what they hope to gain from the project.

• If the choice is approved, I note it on a grade book printout kept in the classroom. In a written response, I point students to sources or ask questions they may not have considered.

• Occasionally a choice is not approved—most often because the student has not understood the assignment goals. After a side discussion, the memo is resubmitted and approved. (The memo’s secret purpose, of course, is to serve as a tool for focusing student inquiry.)

• There are stated deadlines for various aspects of the assignment. I provide other rubrics and in-class lessons to help students focus on quality and curricular goals.

A Few Cautions

Offering teenagers a choice unsettles two kinds of students. The high achievers adept at following “rules” are flummoxed by a wide-open field. “Which choice will give me an A?” can be their overriding concern. On the other hand, highly scripted low achievers often lack the skills and knowledge to make good choices and will flounder unless supports are in place. Instructors should be prepared to scaffold these students into the process of inquiry.

I always devote class time to helping students brainstorm for possibilities, explore options, and share ideas. Several professional development resources can assist in structuring the brainstorming sessions in class. Writing teacher Barry Lane’s books often include a chapter on developing questions that can help teachers guide productive classroom discussions and jumpstart student interest.

The Front Door or the Back Door?

Choice, it turns out, is a beautiful thing, whether you’re a “terrible two” or a teen on the brink of adulthood. Pump life into your curriculum by letting kids decide. Once they find a question they want to answer, they’ll be outside exploring the wide, wide world before they know it.

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