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Liven Up Your Lessons by Giving Students Choices

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Last summer, I went to the Fourth of July celebration at a lake in San Antonio, Texas. While my family and I waited on the shore for the darkness to signal the start of the fireworks displays, we were intrigued by an enterprising young man working his way through the people sitting in folding chairs and on picnic blankets.

He was a balloon artist, and his simple business plan was proving to be very effective. He would ask a child what he wanted, and he would create it for him. We watched, amazed, as he made flowers, swords, poodles, Spider-Man (it was awesome), scepters, and crowns. There seemed no limit to what he could create with simple balloons.

He had no want for customers, as they flocked to him rather than the other way around. He probably made enough money that night to cover much of his monthly living expenses!

Same Old Same Old

This experience got me thinking about another balloon artist I saw on television. On an episode of the sitcom My Name is Earl, the main character, dressed up as a balloon-making clown, is gruffly asking all the boys and girls at the party, "Do you want a snake, an eel, or a worm?"

It's clear that Earl was either unwilling to tie the balloons into the typical dogs, giraffes, and butterflies, or perhaps he didn't want to expend the effort, or maybe he didn't know how to create the shapes. So, instead, he just made long, straight balloons in a lame effort to give the children a choice.

In differentiating our instruction and student learning in our own classes, do we sometimes play the same trick? Rather than provide a rich variety of learning activities, do we simply stick with our favorite -- a tried-and-true strategy -- and maybe dress it up a bit by having students answer the odd-numbered questions in the book rather than the even-numbered ones?

If we do that, in essence, we aren't even asking students, "Do you want a snake, an eel, or a worm?"

Could it be that we don't know how to tie the balloons, or that perhaps we just don't have the energy to make them interesting? Heaven forbid that we might be reluctant to make the attempt, yet in many cases, I am afraid that some teachers praise the virtues of snakes, eels, and worms far too much.

The truth is that bookwork, copying notes, listening to lectures, filling in the blanks on worksheets, and coloring between the lines make up a large portion of the schoolwork in our classrooms. No wonder students are unimpressed when teachers try to engage them in these passive, uninteresting activities. Snakes, eels, and worms are boring!

Engage with Variety and Choice

Recently, I asked a 14-year-old student why he was struggling in school. He explained that it's because school is boring. To be blunt here, when I took five days recently and followed one student each in first grade, third grade, sixth grade, eighth grade, and ninth grade all day long through each of their classes, I was bored most of the time. I found it hard to sit still for so long, and I wondered how the students got through it.

I think you get the picture. As teachers, we need to start creating more elephants, giraffes, and swords -- and that awesome Spider-Man.

Let's say it's Monday, and the goal is to get students to read a textbook chapter for content and understanding. As a resource, textbooks have lots of information, but they are not the only source for information and learning.

I'd like to suggest that you offer something like the following selection for your students to choose from:

  • Create a slide show presentation to illustrate the major points of the chapter as if they were teachers teaching younger students.
  • Develop a newspaper article or a journalistic TV report about the chapter as if it were breaking news.
  • Prepare a debate on the chapter's main points and pose as either politicians or lawyers presenting their persuasive arguments.
  • Write a drama about the contents of the chapter and perform it to their peers and parents.
  • Construct an encyclopedic database of vocabulary, terms, and concepts included in the chapter, as well as prior knowledge that needs to be understood, and questions that are yet to be answered.
  • Design a virtual field trip to study topics and concepts to be learned based on the content of the chapter.
  • Invite experts to visit their classroom and ask them questions about their expertise based on the content of the chapter.
  • Use the contents of the chapter to devise an experiment to prove or disprove the assertions made in the chapter.
  • Fill the walls of the classroom with essential questions gleaned from the chapter and challenge the teacher and other classes to a content quiz show.

In each of these options, not once is it necessary for the teacher to say, "Open your books to page 37 and answer the questions at the end of the chapter." We want the students to love the content as much as we do, not to hate it. If we can get them to love it, then they will continue to learn.

Just as I saw the children's faces light up on the Fourth of July when they saw the balloons transformed into flowers or Spider-Man, I have seen students light up when the teacher takes a passive activity and makes it an active one.

Please share some ideas that you have found effective in transforming boring activities into energetic learning adventures.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (25)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Andrew Pass's picture

I'm just wondering: But, what about the possibility of asking students how they think it would be most effective to learn this material. Of course, in order to answer your question they'll have to start learning the material. But, that's ok, right?

Andrew Pass
Current Events Blog

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

I think this is an interesting topic. Many will say that being a successful educator is an art. Part of that artistry may include entertainment skills to keep students engaged.

But just how much of teaching should be centered on entertainment?

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Yes, Yes, how do they want to do it? I like that. I use that with my third graders. My little dudes almost always have some sort of choice. Now, with little guys you need to keep it on the playground a bit. I mean, the choices need to be limited or they just keep going round and round and round and nothing gets done. However, going round and round and round is a lesson in itself. Trying to figure out how to learn the material/present it is a good place to start. Maybe do some teaching on how to present an idea/concept/topic. How do you communicate it? Share it? My kids love using WIKIS. They do some research, post it on the wiki, learn some stuff from each other, write comments, talk about it.

Dwight Carter's picture
Dwight Carter
Principal, Gahanna Lincoln High School/Gahanna Jefferson Public Schools

You raise some interesting points. Todays Digital Native most definitely wants choice, like all of us. Think about it: we have a choice of nearly everything now and we also have input on the outcome of some television shows. We can vote for the top news stories and respond instantaneously via Facebook and Twitter. It's all about choice and engagement. No longer do we have to be passive participants watching the process unfold. With that said, we are actively engaged and thus more interested.

In order to get a quality product; however, a teacher must spend time at the beginning of the year explaining expectations of quality work, modeling it for the students, and start with a few choices. As the year progresses, continue to provide more choices. Blogs, wikis, digital storytelling, digital images, music- all great ways for students to demonstrate their learning based on their interest.

As I write, I just had a interesting thought: "am I giving my staff choice during staff meetings or are they passive participants?" Ouch!

Mike Morgan's picture

The challenges facing these big ideas are common for a vast majority of classrooms: the resources are lacking or the time to find or create the resources is non-existant. MY school has the one computer for the class, mine, with blocked access to teachertube, google images, and a wide variety of other useful internet sites. Our student to computer lab ratio is far too inferior to establish any sort of continuity in using the lab for lessons. The kids are not wealthy enough to obtain the resources on their own.

I love the sound of so many suggestions idealistic people like to make. They can work very well in some cases. I have tried a variety myself. I would like to hear suggestions from people who have actually worked through the transition from "traditional" to modern project-based and faced the same kinds of problems and can share their solutions for overcoming them. Also, feel free to let me know how you managed to balance your family/personal life, professional development and advanced coursework, etc.

That's what i want to hear about. Not the same old grand ideas drawn up in the dreamscape.

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