Student Engagement

Classroom Routines That Support Students’ Voice and Choice

A sense of predictability can help facilitate deep thinking, and teachers can also use routines to promote student agency.

July 3, 2023
WinnieVinzence / iStock

Routines establish a sense of predictability in the classroom that supports students’ learning. By knowing what to expect, they’re better able to engage in curricula without being thrown off by unexpected activities or scheduling shifts.

Below, I share instructional routines used in my practice that are relatable to teenagers, require higher-order thinking, and kindle voice and choice. They’re applicable across educational frameworks, from project-based learning (PBL) to Common Core and International Baccalaureate (IB) standards.

Meme Monday

In China, where I currently teach, memes are ubiquitous. To leverage students’ interest, I created Meme Monday, a routine in which two students work together for a week to find a meme that needs editing. The pair keeps some considerations in mind while searching: Is this meme appropriate for school? What message is the meme sending to readers? How can this meme be improved? What are the meme’s strengths? 

Students send me an image of the meme and a brief response to each of these questions. The following Monday, they display the meme, and a class discussion ensues. 

First, the class discusses the meme’s message. How effectively is the message conveyed? Who is the meme’s target audience, and how do we know? Students provide feedback from the perspective of the target audience or from the perspective of an editor considering options to enhance the meme’s message; feedback includes image selection, word choice, and tone.

After students share feedback, those who found the meme edit it—an activity that lends well to formative assessment. We display the finalized meme and pick a new pair for the following week.

Spiderweb Discussions

Alexis Wiggins, international IB and AP educator, created the spiderweb discussion, in which teachers have two options: remaining silent or tracking student-led discussion. I’ve found that the first approach motivates students by putting them in charge, but some drop non sequiturs. When teachers track discourse, they introduce a level of accountability and create documentation that facilitates group reflection. 

Tracking means that each interruption, comment, joke, and textual reference is documented using Wiggins’s coding system. I’ve made slight adaptations, such as using the model to provide instant feedback via a Smart Board spiderweb so that students can make real-time adjustments as they talk. You might ask students if they are comfortable having feedback displayed or prefer to receive private suggestions. To further promote agency, you might nominate a student to draw the discussion web and/or provide feedback.

Save your spiderwebs as tools for reflection; showing students their first spiderweb alongside their most recent provokes rich discussion and writing about their growth.

Sustained Silent Reading

Reading can expose students to more robust vocabulary than screen media, and repeated exposure to robust vocabulary can facilitate greater retention, moving complex words from short-term memory to students’ working lexicons. 

Sustained silent reading is one way to promote this process. It involves making time during school for students to read. Protect time during class, preferably one day a week, for students to bring a book they enjoy and wish to silently read. 

Fridays work best for my students, and I’ve found that they’re more eager to engage when they’re allowed to select their text (within reasonable grade-level parameters) and have access to many genres—exposure that helps augment analysis skills.

Wonder Wall

Author and educator Kelly Gallagher assigns his students an article to read every Monday morning, an important literacy routine. I practice a subtle adaptation of this method by creating a wonder wall. 

Students pose a question related to our unit question (for PBL educators, this would be the driving question). Students pen their questions on a section of the bulletin board (I’ve found that black paper and white crayons or glowing markers make the wall unique).

They then try to answer their question by finding a related article, pasting it into a Microsoft Word document, and providing a link to their source. Students send their documents to me, and I print them for annotation. Or students may choose to print their own or annotate electronically. 

I provide an exemplar for annotation by penning my own question on the wonder wall and doing the assignment myself. I give students a copy of my annotations and share the following questions as guides (aligned with Middle Year Programme (MYP) IB frameworks):

  • What argument or purpose does the creator have for writing this piece?
  • What text features are used by the creator, and how do these features aid meaning and/or impact the audience?
  • How does this article compare and contrast with a reading in a different genre?
  • How does word choice impact readers of this text?
  • How does the organization or structure of the text impact readers?
  • What opinions do I have about the section I read?
  • Which textual evidence supports these opinions?
  • What section(s) of the reading did I find difficult, and why?

I ask students to engage in the same process with their articles for homework or invite them to bring articles to class for group annotation. Once they’ve done so, they present their annotations using guiding questions to support metacognition and critical thinking:

  • How did the article answer (or not answer) a curiosity or question you had?
  • What reading strategies did you use?
  • What was one difficult word in the article, and what did you do to aid your comprehension?
  • Which annotation are you most proud of, and why?
  • Would you recommend this article, and what makes you say that?
  • Who in this room would also like this article, and what makes you say that?

Once students are comfortable with this routine, I enhance the process by asking them to compare and contrast their current articles with previous articles.

This routine, like those above, empowers students’ voice, choice, and higher-order cognition while keeping learning interactive and rooted in predictable structures—lessening extraneous processing and facilitating students’ deep thinking.

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