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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Student Choice Leads to Student Voice

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia
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The way I understood school learning shifted the first time I was given an opportunity to design a project of my own. This high school senior project, an environmental audit of my school district, became my passion. I stayed awake at night researching, met with different experts, and ultimately presented a proposal for reform to our school board. For the first time in my life, school had not been about finding ways to meet requirements established by others -- it was about work that I believed in.

Why Choice?

Learning that incorporates student choice provides a pathway for students to fully, genuinely invest themselves in quality work that matters. Participating in learning design allows students to make meaning of content on their own terms.

There are times when students are able to pursue their passions and independently create projects, and other times when students can be given choice in smaller, yet meaningful, ways. The parameters of choice vary depending on the cycles of the school year, the specific students, the project, and many other factors. Regardless of the scenario, maintaining a focus on student choice helps to create learning environments of meaning where student voices matter.

Several of my colleagues at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia generously offered to share creative examples of different ways that they structure student choice in their classrooms:

Meenoo Rami teaches students English:

For past two years, during the second quarter of the school year, my 11th grade students have collaborated to produce a teen magazine. In my experience, students are more engaged and committed to their writing when they choose the focus of their piece. In order to balance variety in terms of topics covered in the magazine and giving students authentic choice in their work, as a class we held a pitch meeting. In this pitch meeting, students shared their ideas, and their peers helped refine each other's ideas by either broadening or narrowing the focus of the topic. In this case, students writing magazine articles covered art, music, murals, public space in Philadelphia, the upcoming gubernatorial election in Pennsylvania, and school lunches. While the topics varied based on student interest, each student wrote an engaging piece that would interest other teens in their work. When students have a choice in what they write about, they are able to develop a piece of writing that exhibits authentic voice, sustained focus, and clear purpose.

Brad Latimer teaches students math:

Student choice plays a central role in many of the larger projects that my Algebra 2 and Calculus students complete. For example, at the end of the second quarter, my Calculus students work with a partner of their choice to build a website focused on applications of derivative functions. (Here is the project description.) While I give students certain parameters for the project (they must include research and original example problems with solutions for specific types of functions, each illustrating a derivative rule that they have studied), both the format and specific content of each group's web page is completely up to the students. They have complete freedom when researching/creating examples of the different derivative applications. I am regularly blown away by the final products that students produce through this project. They are able to focus on various themes that are meaningful to them for each type of function, and to incorporate their own personal creativity in designing the web page.

Matt Kay teaches students English:

Both my freshman and sophomore classes have a free-choice reading unit. The students are given somewhere between five and seven choices around a class-wide theme. There are various difficulty levels for the books. Then I select the students' small learning communities -- these are groups of four or five that meet for book clubs every Friday. These book clubs have four jobs: the Kick-Starter (who gets the conversation going and records the conversation), the Devil's Advocate (who identifies conventional wisdom and disagrees with it), the Connector (who connects the text to the outside world), and the Literary Luminary (who locates and analyzes important quotes). These jobs rotate every week. We try to blend these jobs into an organic conversation.

A final example:

In my own classroom, my 12th grade American Government students began the year with an inquiry into democracy and education. The unit began by examining and unpacking different definitions and understandings of democracy. In groups, students then drew their visions of democratic education. The unit continued with readings, videos, and discussions designed to broaden students' vision of and knowledge about education, democracy, and the current crisis in Philadelphia public schools. The students then designed and created digital stories related topics of their choosing. (The collection of videos and a project description can be seen here.) The content in the videos demonstrates a range of student interests and passions. The different video formats provide insight into creativity that results from a project that provided flexibility and choice within a set structure.

Choice, Voice, and Passion

School works when students have opportunities to produce quality work about issues that matter. Education works when people have opportunities to find and develop unaccessed or unknown voices and skills. Audre Lorde poignantly describes this "transformation of silence into language and action [as] an act of self-revelation." Opportunities for flexibility and choice assist learners in finding passion, voice, and revelation through their work.

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Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Leah K Stewart's picture
Leah K Stewart
Founder of a Virtual After-School Education Club for Teens

I'm looking forward to when the joy and determination locked up within students and released though choice is less of a surprise to the world. Dear Governments; you impose detailed syllabuses and nonsense testing on students at the peril of us all. We need their idealism and curiosity. Don't stamp all over it! P.S. Bravo to all the teachers around the world who are being real-people and doing what they can to shield students from contrived exercises that sap the humanity out of school. We'll get there!

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Love the examples in your article. The connection to public audience is an important component that the Literary Magazine, Math websites, and History-based videos illustrate that potential. Great showing of how choice-based activities can lead to active student voice. Thanks for sharing.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I always like to hear about the great work at SLA. I'm curious, though about how you develop the skills necessary for kids to be successful with the choices they make? I see a lot of kids who want to take on a project of this scope and skill but they lack the executive function to succeed. I always want to learn more about the steps teachers take to get kids from beginner to expert.

Joshua Block's picture
Joshua Block
Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

Great question Laura. There is certainly no simple answer but I think modeling examples of student work, consulting with students about rough ideas, and allowing peers to give feedback on proposals are all strategies that help students to develop and refine an idea (or choice) that can work for them. While I firmly believe in student choice I also believe that teachers need to both consult and mentor students and there need to be clear supports for students that struggle when a path to follow has not been dictated to them.

Leah K Stewart's picture
Leah K Stewart
Founder of a Virtual After-School Education Club for Teens

Hi Laura, I've a different angle to add to Joshua's reply. The feeling I have about failing at something I've chosen is infinitely more positive than succeeding at something that someone else has decided I'll be doing, because they've decided that I need to succeed. I'd like to share the message that it's more than OK for students (and anyone) to have an aim that is bigger than them... an aim that seems impossible and maybe is impossible. But, by allowing the aim and project to grow, students (and anyone who tries this) will develop their executive functions in the process.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Leah! I agree with you, so I'm always looking for very specific, concrete strategies I can share with my colleagues and students (I teach graduate school) when they're trying to move this direction. Thanks for sharing!

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