Giving students choices speaks to their wants and needs.
Similarly, teachers usually are the drivers of their classroom instruction. While national, state, or district standards guide the ultimate learning destination, teachers decide the lesson pace, instructional strategies, and forms of assessments. Teachers seek input from students, but ultimately the final decisions are theirs.
But what if we change our perspective? What if we put the students in the driver’s seat while we serve as the navigation system to help them reach the ultimate learning destination?
Students in control of their own learning sounds great on paper, but is it possible in a middle school classroom? Here, we share how we changed a traditional classroom into one that empowers students to become the driving force of their own education.
Just as novice drivers read the driver’s education manual to learn the basic rules of the road, students must have a working knowledge of content vocabulary to reach subject mastery. By offering students a choice in vocabulary activities, we motivate them, tapping into their preferred learning styles.
For example, we use tic-tac-toe boards to incorporate choice as students build their vocabulary knowledge and skills. The boards offer a wide range of activities as students choose three adjacent or diagonal tasks to complete. Choices may include
- Making paper or digital flashcards, crossword puzzles, or student-created assessments.
- Telling a story by creating a comic strip, graphic organizer, and application.
- Playing Content Words with Friends on the chalkboard—a variation of the popular Words with Friends.
- Creating a song or rap using the vocabulary terms.
- Playing a vocabulary catch-and-throw game, which incorporates brain-stimulating movement.
When we created the tic-tac-toe boards for our units, we were able to modify activities we were already using. When you construct your boards, decide whether to design your classroom into stations or have a materials center for students to pull from. Also consider whether to limit how many students are completing an assignment at the same time.
Establish classroom norms and expectations for using the tic-tac-toe boards. Once the activities begin, your role becomes the facilitator; you keep track of the class time, troubleshoot issues, and check in with students
on their progress.
Choice Content Delivery & Assessment
The route traveled, stops along the way, and in-car atmosphere can be different for each driver, even if the final destination is the same. In a choice classroom, the same principles apply.
Students can choose to listen to your recorded lecture and complete fill-in notes, read from the textbook and use an outline to record information, or watch a series of video clips and use a graphic organizer to summarize what they learned. Just like a driver makes the decision to stop at a rest area or to fuel up, students in a choice classroom can choose where to stop to demonstrate their learning.
The tech-savvy students might create a digital tutorial to demonstrate their knowledge. The artists might choose to design a visual composition. Kinesthetic learners may choose a live demonstration. Some students may opt for a more traditional path, but ultimately every learner develops his or her own strategy to demonstrate knowledge.
Even though the general classroom atmosphere is managed by the teacher, in a choice classroom, students have control of their personal learning environment. Having the freedom to listen to music, work with a partner, or choose a workstation is important to them.
When considering note-taking options to offer your students, begin by giving them just two choices: a graphic organizer or a fill-in note page. Once your mutual comfort level increases, incorporate more options, including technology. Try video recording a lecture for your students to view at their own pace instead of making a whole-group presentation. Or, with the popularity of the flipped classroom model, you may be able to find a pre-recorded video that is engaging and would work well with your curriculum.
For many middle school students, this is the first time they’ve been given full autonomy with regard to note taking; therefore, it is important to model and set expectations. For example, make it clear that listening to music, sending text messages, or just skimming the video for answers does not benefit their learning. Role play a correct and incorrect note-taking session with your class and establish norms.
As your students independently maneuver their learning path, you have an opportunity to talk one-to-one with students to assess their knowledge and provide clarifications and interventions as needed.
With regard to assessment, review the projects you have implemented throughout the years to cover a specific topic and make these your choice projects. For example, when learning about an electrical circuit, students might have the option to illustrate with a diagram, demonstrate with actual manipulatives, or write about circuits. Chances are you’ve had your students complete all three of these in the past; now you’re letting the students select the option that fits them the best.
Good Driving Habits
To set the stage for a well-oiled choice classroom, it is important to start small. Choose a unit that you are comfortable with to begin the journey. Decide whether you are offering choice in vocabulary, content delivery, or assessment. As you grow more confident, add another choice option to your curriculum.
Keep your class dynamics in mind. You will always have students who want to choose the easy option or an option that may not be a good fit for them. Allow them to make mistakes. Remember, in your role as the navigator, you are helping them shape their own path and you will be there to help them learn from it.
Make sure that after a choice activity has been completed, students have the opportunity to reflect on the growth and the decisions they made. Did their choice display their best abilities? Did they put forth their best effort or were they off task? Did they accomplish the learning objective?
By conferencing with students, you steer them toward a strong work ethic and establish a learning identity through each choice opportunity. Not only does offering choice build independence in middle school students, it increases their self-esteem, creates a collaborative relationship between teacher and student, and empowers them to grow into life-long learners.