How much choice is enough?

021B1FBF-C5F2-4A1D-B87D-5F1A1BA67F86I often hear from students that their favorite thing about sixth grade is how they are more independent and have more choice. The choices that I gave students from my first few years of teaching appeared obvious to me, so it seemed like such a weird response. How was I giving them more choice than they had in 5th grade? I could easily see how they had more independence in 6th grade than in 1st or 2nd grade, but just from last year? Don’t they just feel like they have more independence because they’re the oldest in the school? It really baffled me that they actually felt so autonomous, so I tried to think of the ways I gave them choice. At the time, I only taught reading and writing, and I gave a lot of choice within writing class, which is definitely what my students associated me with. Still, I just felt like it was obvious to give choice of what to write, so most of the choices I provided related to topics. 

Here are some things I allowed choice with my first year teaching:

  • Weekly choice of student jobs
  • Prizes for completing jobs accurately
  • Website versus commercial for any type of business they created
  • Freewriting for 10 minutes on anything they wanted
  • Topic for memoir
  • Topics for 6 required poems in poetry unit
  • Genre of short story
  • How to decorate their notebook
  • Culminating activity with their assigned novel
  • Topic of research paper
  • Input on seating arrangement
  • Free time at our 4 day, 3 night camping trip (about 2 hours/day)
  • Goal setting
  • Roles in the 6th grade musical (through audition and application process)

Maybe, like me, you’re baffled that students think this is a lot; or, maybe you’re jealous that I have as much flexibility as this. Now, to me, this previous list feels constricting.  I love giving more choice to students, but sometimes I wonder if it’s too much  

Here’s a list of some ways I lrivide choice now:

  • Quarterly (at least) choice of student jobs through an application
  • Math stations (1 out of 4 is sometimes a choice between 2+ options)
  • Homework (I give a tic tac toe for math where they choose 5/9 squares; They Make their own reading calendars)
  • Quiet Time (10 minutes nearly every day to do anything quiet and independent per Responsive Classroom)
  • Classroom Expectations (We created them together at the start of the year)
  • Which novel they will read within a book club unit (prioritize between ~6 books)
  • Pacing of the reading of the novel (they start making a calendar as a group ½ way through the year)
  • Responses to reading (some are required; some are limited choice; some are open choice)
  • Note-taking structures for research paper (variety of options)
  • Structure of research paper (choose number of paragraphs, whether to include a counter claim, if format needs to be modified to include charts, diagrams, or pictures)
  • Technology use (different website creators or software or ipads)
  • Movies we watch for popcorn party days (whole class reward)
  • Games we play when we have spare time
  • Morning Meeting (100% student led/chosen when I’m not there; certain components chosen through voting in the message at random)
  • Review sessions (attend what you need throughout a class period)
  • One-on-one conferencing (kids set the agenda)
  • Input on classroom setup
  • Input on books to get for the classroom library
  • Input on which math stations they want to keep/toss
  • Input on which units I should adapt and/or keep for future students

When kids have as much choice as I now give them, I have seen two main problems. First, they often get worried that they will do something wrong because they want to comply.  Second, they start to see everything as a choice and can become flippant about some hard core expectations I have. 

For an example of the first problem, just the other day while conferring about a student’s outline, we had this conversation. I was mostly talking to Student 1, but students 2 and 3 were next to him and listening in.

Student 1: So how many paragraphs do we have to have?

Teacher: You can have 2, 3, or 4 body paragraphs. Whatever you need.

S 1: So which is it? 2, 3, or 4?

S 2: Which would be the best choice? What do you want? (directed towards me)

T: It depends on your topics. The 4th counterclaim paragraph in the template is optional, so you could do that, or you might not. 

S 3: What’s the counterclaim again?

T: You would explain the other side of the topic. You might only have 2 main reasons why energy drinks are unhealthy, and then one counterclaim explaining why energy drinks might be considered healthy, but then you disprove that thinking. That would be 3 paragraphs total. 

S 2: Oh, yeah, yeah, I want to do that. 

T: You could also do 3 different reasons and no counterclaim. Student 4 only has 2 main reasons why coffee is healthy, but she decided to split her second reason into 2 paragraphs because it would be too long otherwise.

S 1: Oh, okay. 

I also conferenced with Student 4 again that day, and she STILL was worried that she wasn’t allowed to split her second reason into two paragraphs even though she already had checked with me. Students really are often surprised at the level of choice.

In response to the second problem, it helps me to remember that the choices I’ve provided are privileges. A logical consequence for misbehavior is loss of privilege. When I remember to use my logical consequences consistently, things are great. See the problem is usually not that I’ve given students too much choice, it’s that I’ve forgotten it was a choice in the first place

Even so, I’m still learning how to be intentionally clear with students on what I NEED them to do and what they CAN do.

The choices sometimes overwhelm them, especially with our first big project of the year. While my class this year is compliant and eager to please, this means that the risk involved with choice is more difficult for them.

Sometimes they get so used to my flexibility that they’re surprised when I actually do require something, and I find I have to be exceptionally clear that they MUST do it this way at this time. I’ve gotten better about stating when that needs to be the case. There’s usually a point in the year (like now, in February and March) where they start testing those limits more again. I have to remind them that I do have high standards, clear expectations, and just about anything is a privilege. I just took away our flexible seating options the other day. A couple weeks ago, we no longer could socialize and move around while packing up. They need reminders of limits as well as choice. As I said before, this usually comes down to me being the problem and not taking away a privilege the first time I notice an issue.

Another challenge I’ve noticed is that students start to complain to me when they don’t receive the same flexibility from other teachers (specialists, substitutes, etc.) and they can start to rebel against rules that others set in place. This is difficult for me to handle at times, but I try to spin it as an opportunity to learn how to deal with multiple personalities. There will be teachers, bosses, coworkers, and classmates that frustrate you or don’t mesh with your personality, and that’s just the way life is. You need to figure out where you have flexibility and where you don’t.

I still find more choice is better. Here are the benefits I see:

  1. I find choice helps foster independent thinking, which is going to take them much farther. They’re still meeting the requirements of the paper or project or assignment, but decision making is a great skill to teach students. When they have choices, they have to think for themselves. What am I interested in? What do I need to work on? What’s the best use of my time? What do I need to prioritize? I know I ask myself these questions as an adult, and I have to make choices about what to cut, what to shorten, and what to spend more time on. This is vital to their future. 
  2. They develop a power of questioning. The more choice I can give, the more possibility they can see. This can become problematic as I shared in the challenge about questioning other adults who don’t give as much choice or who are trying to provide limits with a purpose that might be unclear to students, but mostly I think it’s good. As a citizen, it’s a good skill to inquire after power and authority and to analyze systems. I had a student tell me that the sub I had probably wasted 30 minutes of the day by only letting a few students come in the classroom at once, dismissing by table, calling students 1-1 to get computers, and not handing out papers until everyone was silent to the point that some students never even got the math packet they needed to work on. That is not efficient, and I am glad that students could see why that system is not beneficial even if it sounds more orderly or disciplined in general. I want them to ask “Why?” in life.
  3. Choice makes things interesting. What I have learned is that students are astonished by the power to choose. They get so excited! When I offered options for their Health Fair project related to their paper, I explained that they could do a video, a news show, a poster, an infographic, a flyer…basically anything. Students came up to me after I laid out the options and shared examples and asked, “So I can record something?” When I said yes, their eyes just lit up with surprise. “Really?!” They couldn’t believe the fact that they would be allowed to record using their phone or using a school ipad or set up in the hallway.
  4. Their buy in increases. When I asked a previous year’s class for feedback related to their book clubs, they responded, “We’ve never been allowed to pick our own books before. These were the best books I’ve ever read.” Do I think the books their previous teachers chose were bad? No! I know the books they read, and they’re great books! Their investment just increased.

 There are so many different ways to provide choice to students, and I believe the benefits far outweigh the challenges. The challenges in themselves have some benefits in teaching students more skills of discernment, and offering choice has sharpened my own classroom management in helping me decide what is necessary and what is not. Even small choices are powerful. What a gift we can give to students!


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