How to Infuse Student Choice in Secondary Grades, with Examples


Most people like choice. When is the last time you went to a restaurant and there was only one thing on the menu? That would be bad. You can, however, have too much choice. And so, too, can students.

Marketers traditionally believed that more choice meant more sales. Teachers are marketers as well. We “sell” education to a very difficult customer base! Psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper published a study that concluded just the opposite can be true.

In this study shoppers were offered 26 flavors of jam on day one and only 6 on day 2. Which day sold more jam? You probably guessed, buyers were one-tenth as likely to buy from the larger display. The buyers were overwhelmed.

Allowing students to decide various components of the learning process can greatly enhance the class experience for both you and them. This process can be quick and easy or take some time and planning. I’ll suggest some of both.

Adopting the practice of allowing students to choose various components of their learning can take many forms. You can infuse student choice at any point in your lesson, for the entire lesson, or any combination in between. Learners can choose what they read, which questions to answer, an activity, or how to engage in their work (individual, pairs, groups).

Start Small with Bell-Ringers

If your scholars are not used to student choice in your classroom take baby steps. Most teachers utilize a 5-minute bell ringer to start class. Start offering 2 questions or 2 documents and let them choose which to answer. It can be as simple as the same question asked in a different manner.

These two questions cover the exact same topic but are differentiated and allow for student choice. The first question asks for a definition, which is a lower level than the second which asks for more analysis. Both require students to recall, and therefore review, an important term.

Another method is to offer two documents. If your warm-up is a political cartoon, show two and let the kiddos decide which to interpret. Once again, you are differentiating and giving student buy-in.

Do the same thing with quote analysis. Or headlines. Or short readings. You get the picture. This is generally quick and easy.

For a more in-depth article on creating crusher bell-ringers head over here.

Exit Slips

To incorporate student choice into the conclusion of your lesson is similar to creating bell-ringers. The difference is that a good exit activity involves student reflection upon the lesson they just experienced.

My favorite two wrap-ups for a lesson are student-assessment or a reflective question. Student assessments can be a short response or a self-grade, based upon particular criteria. Once you create a couple of these they can be used over and over again.

Let your scholars decide to either self-assess their class work for the day or peer-assess. Perhaps you give them a three questions to measure their work by and they choose any two.

If you want to see if they understood the actual content of the lesson pose a “what if” question. This is a subtle student-choice because they can approach the answer from different perspectives.

Example: Based on your knowledge of Joseph Stalin do you think his character was nature (in his genes) or nurture (a result of his upbringing)?

Another approach would be for the student to create a “what if” question themselves, or with a partner. These types of questions forces everyone to revisit what they have learned and really synthesize it in order to answer the question or create the question.

Reading Material

There are sooo many ways to offer choice when planning your reading passages. Following are some ideas to get your juices flowing:

Some of these models take very little time to plans, others are a pain in the #@$%! Modifying a reading passage can be as simple as pre-annotating important points for struggling readers. If you want to read more about differentiating reading passages check out this article.

Culling information in various forms can be very timing consuming and will not work for some content areas. It would, however, work well with lots of great music-art-poetry material for periods like the Roaring Twenties (Show a video on how to Charleston; fun!) or Civil Rights Era of the 1960’s (especially if you like rock and roll — ahem).

Choice in Questions

So you were “old-school” and had the whole class read the same thing; no problem. Embed the choice in the question portion of the lesson. One way I do this is with Tic-Tac-Toe. Students pick any three in a row. Here’s one I did for a passage on detente during the Cold War.

Another teacher I know uses the “menu” variation of tic-tac-toe. Students pick an appetizer, entree and dessert from a menu of activities. The appetizer and dessert are shorter and the entree is the main activity.

If students are working in a group offer a list of questions/activities and they can negotiate who does what.

Another engaging way to give kids ownership over their work is the “what if” method of responsive writing. Students choose any point along the passage and change reality by asking: What if? Here’s a few possibilities when they’re learning about World War II:

“What if Hitler had gotten into art school instead of being rejected?”

“What if Adolf Hitler had married a nice woman and had a few children?”

“What if Hitler had been raised by his (probably) Jewish grandmother?”

You get the idea. It allows for creativity and lets them go down a path they’re interested in. Of course, using evidence from actual facts must be part of the activity so they’re interacting with necessary content.

digital dice main

Digital Dice

Digital dice are the bomb! Use them for all kinds of ways to gamify your lesson. A digital die is simply a PowerPoint based die that you click on to roll and click again to stop. For ideas on using them as well as a download of your own dice click here.

Projects

It’s often easier to give variety and choice when assigning a project than it is within a lesson. You can offer a variety of topics to gain buy-in. Have the kiddos reflect their research in either PowerPoint, video, audio, essay format or song lyrics.

The caveat when assigning a project with multiple modalities is that you have to clearly state parameters for each one. If a poem is one option you’ll get a smart aleck that writes a one stanza Haiku unless you mandate otherwise. I really try to ensure that the same amount of effort goes into most choices.

Homework

Here’s an area that you can give lots of leeway with a minimum of effort. You can use the same variations used in projects, just on a smaller scale.

If the class is studying the causes of World War I a homework assignment might be to research any one of the causes and analyze its effect. Or they can all read the same passage and assess each cause as to its importance using a flow chart, graph, pictogram or political cartoon.

Homework assignments give you more freedom to experiment with all kinds of possible learning modalities. There are more constraints in the classroom vis-a-vis supplies, time, student progress variations, noise level, physical space to name a few.

You can also try out ideas for homework and see the results. If students seemed to engage with a particular form of activity and created good results then you can bring it into a future lesson.

Conversely, if an assignment had abysmal results you can save the pain of an awful lesson by steering clear of that form of learning. Or perhaps it will highlight a weakness in skills that needs to be addressed.

Too Much Choice

At the beginning of this article I alluded to be leery of too much choice. I have fallen victim to this and it was a hot mess. Students need scaffolding, even when it comes to choosing what they like.

In the beginning of the year I generally use the bell ringer or exit choices to acclimate my students. After a couple of weeks, not only do students choose their bell ringer, but a student-of-the-week teaches it.

After I have modeled several times: calling on people to read the learning target, someone else to read the warm-up question, eliciting answers, etc. they can volunteer to “teach” for the week and gain extra credit. Generally, the kids do really well.

A few weeks later I start assigning the student-of-the-week by picking a random name. (Students write their names on popsicle sticks the first day of class, so I just pick one). I use discretion, of course, and won’t force anyone. You would be surprised at how some of the quiet ones rise to the occasion when given a little prodding — and extra credit.

Another way to guide students in their choice is to give a short assessment at the end of a unit. It can be a ten-question multiple choice at the beginning of class. Based on the results of the assessment students now have an idea where they need reinforcement. Now they will use that knowledge to inform them which station to visit, or which handout to work on.

Let’s Get Real

Okay, here’s the thing: planning a lesson that includes student choice ALWAYS takes more time. And time is a commodity that most teachers lack. If you want balance and sanity in your life, and I hope you do (that’s why my site is called Teach ‘n Thrive!) you cannot do a lot of this stuff every day.

Just being cognizant of the possibilities helps. Sometimes you’ll think of an easy twist to your lesson that affords choice to the kids. If you offer two questions for the warm-up every day for a week it will become second nature and take less than a minute. I swear.

Don’t forget not to reinvent the wheel. A little googling will result in sites that offer primary source documents and other resources where you can grab several and let students decide which to work on.

Try ourdocuments.gov for milestone documents in history

The Public Domain Review is a site that curated tons of books, documents, pictures available for public use.

Archive.org has pictures, music, speeches, all kinds of cool stuff.

And don’t forget Teachers Pay Teachers. Yes, I have products there, but I also use it all the time as well. There are lots of freebies (every seller has at least one). I just find it’s a no-brainer to spend $2-$3 for a lesson that’s completely done for you.

Many of the stressors of our job — like rigorous, engaging, differentiated lessons every day — are also the creative and fun parts as well. Remember: you are not a brain surgeon, if you try something and it fails nobody dies. Whew!

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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