Letting Go

Far from the sage on the stage mentality, giving students choice is, on many levels, letting go– letting go of the image of a decorous, well-oiled classroom, letting go of tried and true, familiar texts, letting go of neat, staid assessments with prescribed answers. In short, providing choice in a student-centered classroom requires us to widen our scope of what it means to be teachers and have faith that we, and the students, will survive, and perhaps even thrive.

I remember an old Billy Blanks Tae Bo boxing workout video in which Billy shouted out to his viewers, “you’ve got to give some to get some!” In the student-centered classroom, what teachers are giving is always changing, and what we are hoping to “get” is more engagement from students. Ultimately, we want to turn around the giving and getting, so that students receive intrinsic rewards from what they “give” or put into the learning process. All of this involves risk and uncertainty, meaning that we must open ourselves up just as much to the possibility of failure as we do to success.

In my four high school ELA classes ranging from freshmen to seniors, students have selected independent reading texts; they read and journal on these texts each week alongside our additional class reading and activities, and roughly once per quarter, they post book reviews to a class blog using Blogger. Using a Google Spreadsheet for each class, I also try to keep abreast of their reading choices as they change, whether students are rejecting or finishing books. Finally, I have a running survey using a Google form that students have been asked to take repeatedly throughout the year each time they finish or switch texts in order to keep general data on their preferences.

The “wins” have been numerous: from students who have cited this as the “first time” they enjoyed a book, to artfully composed, insightful, engaging blog posts, to groans and disappointment when independent reading day had to be rescheduled, there is no doubt that many students are both “giving” and “getting.”

Others, unfortunately, are not. When it came time to write our second blog post of the year, several students were still reading the same book with which they had started the year–some were genuinely still enjoying the book and were close to finishing, yet others had not used time effectively and had hardly made progress, thus, they had very little about which to write on the second blog post. Faced with the prospect of a shallow piece of writing, I felt forced to allow these students, for a lower grade, to complete their posts on classroom readings we had just finished. This is far from an ideal solution, but I do not believe in dishing out zeros when I can find some way for students to participate in the task at hand.

I also have students–many of them seniors–who, at this point in the year, are hard pressed to do any type of reading independently.  For this reason, I am exploring audio options such as audiobooks and quality podcasts for some students. Again, this is not my preference, but I feel that I must expand options in order to gain greater participation during the second half of the school year.

For the most part, Google Forms, Spreadsheets, the Google blogging interface, and Google Classroom have been helpful in disseminating, gathering, and organizing materials and data in this process with predictable glitches along the way.  At one point, our blogs were blocked by the school’s censoring mechanism, something our capable technology experts were quick to fix. At other times, spreadsheets open for students to edit and update were not accessible to all students since only freshmen and sophomores are currently one-to-one.  This required me to do a lot of “chasing down” in order to keep information current, as students frequently forget to update spreadsheets at home.

In the end, giving students choice is worth it, and I’ll keep throwing and blocking punches to stay in the ring.

The Efficacy of Student Choice

Students as Readers

I was afraid to pick up my coffee mug and flip the lid open for fear of shattering the calm concentration in the silent room.  Silent–yet teeming with mental activity.

Invariably, students requested the book I read to them–some even arguing over it, a heated round of rock paper scissors cropping up at one table to see who would get the book.

“I can’t wait to go home and read more–it really has me hooked.”

“I have other work to do at home, but this book keeps calling to me.  I feel like I’m discovering the joy of reading again.”

Above are some of the responses to the “students as readers” initiative taking place on Fridays in my ELA classroom this year. I read to students from a new text each week, one in which they may or may not show interest.  After this, students pick up their current independent reading choices, read for 30 minutes or so, and finally respond to what they have read in a journal entry. Granted, the adventure has not been without obstacles for some students, especially those with repeated absences or limited interests.  One student has already been back to the library three times in an attempt to find the right “fit.” This has made it difficult for some students to complete required journal entries, and it may prove challenging for these students to produce blog post book reviews at the end of the quarter if they have read very little of their books.  However, I still feel that I must emphasize the importance of persistence in searching for an ideal fit for each student, even if this absorbs time.  If I simply insist that each student makes a decision to meet a deadline, I fall into the same trap I wish to escape by shutting down the opportunity for student choice I am attempting to create.

Choices, Choices, Choices

Friday’s choice reading, journaling, and eventual blog post make up one component of the choice-driven, student-centered classroom I am trying to foster this year.  In addition, I am attempting to build choice into each assessment and vary my approaches to standard curriculum texts based on student input and formative assessment from the previous and current school year.

The Role of Technology

In what ways is technology integrated throughout this process?  Google Classroom has proven instrumental in both monitoring student engagement and simply keeping track of the many choices offered. One method of gauging student engagement and preferences involves poll questions through Google Classroom which are easy to post, answer, and the results of which are quickly and clearly reported. In addition, students may be unaccustomed to having so many choices, leading the choices to become overwhelming as opposed to liberating. By posting choices, resources, links, instructions, and multiple assignments and due dates for different components of the class, I can provide students with a single reference point to which they may return.  The Google Classroom application works well on most students’ phones as well; this can be a resource for students at any hour and was helpful in the classroom on a day when building copiers and the classroom LCD projector failed to function.

Moving forward

As I continue to move forward, I will evaluate the efficacy of providing students with ample choices and attempt to use both technology and face to face interactions with students to pinpoint the line between providing effective and excessive choices for students.