Education Opinion

Our Choices Determine Our Destiny

By Justin Minkel — October 30, 2013 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

There’s a reason Starbucks customers revel in reeling off “Venti half-caf extra foam soy latte, two shots sugar-free vanilla” instead of “Large coffee, please.” Put simply, the “pleasure region” of the brain lights up when we get to make a choice.

Providing choices also makes kids smarter. A study of 10,000 young children in 50 countries identified four key elements of the most successful classrooms:

1. The skill level of the teacher
2. The kids’ access to materials like a rich class library, science equipment, or math manipulatives
3. Increased time spent in 1-on-1 or small-group settings, as opposed to whole-class lessons
4. The number of choices the students got to make in a given day

A few months after I began teaching 4th grade at P.S. 192 in West Harlem, it hit me how few choices my students got to make during the seven hours they spent in school. All day, adults told them when to go where, what to do when, even what time to go to the bathroom. These nine- and ten-year olds had roughly the same degree of control over their time as inmates in a federal prison.

I had a poster of Rosa Parks on my classroom wall with the caption, “Your choices determine your destiny.” I had thought about the obvious meaning of the poster--Rosa Parks chose dignity over compliance, her convictions (and jail) over the path of least resistance. I thought about the poster’s words relative to the kids, too--I wanted them to know that working hard makes you smarter. If Esmerelda wanted to go to college and become a doctor, she could choose that destiny for herself beginning in 4th grade.

What I didn’t think enough about was the poster’s implication for my own teaching. How could my students learn to make good choices if the only decision they made between 8:00 and 3:15 was whether to pick the orange slices or the banana rolled in red Jell-O powder for lunch?

Beginning that year and continuing for the 12 years since, I learned to implement daily structures that build choice into our students’ days.

My next blog post will focus on ways to build choices into writing and math. For now, here’s a simple example of how to do it in reading. It sounds comically obvious, but it’s amazing how many schools and classrooms have cut this simple joy from the school day in the fit of madness that followed No Child Left Behind.

Independent Reading: Build half an hour into the day for students to choose books they want to read and to go read them.

I tell my students every day, “The best way to get better at reading is to read.” Again, comically obvious, but it’s amazing how much class time kids spend in reading-like activities as opposed to actually enjoying a good book. This is especially true in schools desperate to raise their test scores.

Phonics, word work, shared reading, and all the other pieces of literacy have a place in helping kids learn to read and comprehend. But time spent actually reading is critical, as researcher Richard Allington wrote in “The Six T’s of Effective Elementary Literacy Instruction.” The first “T” is “Time.”

[Exemplary teachers] had a "reading and writing vs. stuff" ratio that was far better balanced than is typically found in elementary classrooms (stuff is all the others things teachers have children do instead of reading and writing). In typical classrooms, it is not unusual to find that kids read and write for as little as ten percent of the day.

One of the easiest things to do right as a teacher is to build a magnificent classroom library. I make sure to have 15 to 20 baskets of books kids like to read, many of them bilingual, labeled with genres like “Nonfiction,” “Fantasy,” “Realistic Fiction,” and “Class Read Alouds.” I have a couch in the classroom, bean bags and camping chairs, and a couple of tents, along with a menagerie of reading buddies--stuffed animals like Lily from the Kevin Henkes books, several Wild Things, and Mo Willems’ Piggie and Elephant.

Reading should be fun, it should feel good, and it should involve the choice of which book among thousands to read. I understand the desire to direct kids toward books on their level, and one of the first mini-lessons I teach each year is how to pick a “just right” book. But if we restrict our students to the guided reading sets labeled 18-20, or if our “class library” is a single shelf of tattered paperbacks with yellowed pages, we’re not teaching kids how to figure out on their own whether a book is too hard or too easy. More importantly, we’re not helping them learn to love books.

A friend in Teach For America told me about the advice his mom, a career teacher, gave him during his first year: “Bryn, your main job as a 4th grade teacher is to get your students to love reading.” At first he scoffed at her advice: “Come on, Mom, there’s so much more to it than that--we have all these diagnostics, and reading software, and tier-two vocabulary study...” A few years further into his teaching career, he called her and said sheepishly, “Umm, mom? You were right.”

I feel self-conscious sometimes when my principal comes into my room with a clipboard to do a classroom walk-through and I’m sitting on the couch with a kid, both of us giggling as we read Piggy and Elephant’s lines aloud in “There’s A Bird On Your Head.” But my principal knows that all the other pieces--the vocabulary instruction, the targeted guided reading, the detailed assessments--are in place for my students, too.

Every year, I’m able to show her that all 25 high-poverty English Learners in the class made reading growth ranging from solid to remarkable. Those moments spent reading about tropical snakes while lounging in a tent, or laughing at the Big Friendly Giant’s soliloquy on “whizzpoppers” while reclining on a beanbag, brought about that growth. The kids worked hard to become better readers, but they also enjoyed the work. I quoted Philip Pullman in my last blog post on perseverance, True Grit: “Responsibility and delight can co-exist.”

If we make all the decisions, we’re not just robbing kids of the intrinsic pleasure that comes with making a choice. We’re taking away the learning that comes with considering thousands of possibilities, committing to one, and then finding out where that choice takes you.

The opinions expressed in Teaching for Triumph: Reflections of a 21st-Century ELL Teacher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.