High School Students Thrive When Given Choices in English Class
ELA teachers can engage students by encouraging them to challenge themselves and discover the joy of learning.
In college, I was assigned to read Paradise Lost. What a slog! But instead of requiring me write an essay in response, the professor allowed me to create a poster displaying my points as images (this was before PowerPoint). The only reason I remember anything about the book is because I was afforded the opportunity to respond in a way that interested and challenged me.
The professor was also memorable because of his delighted encouragement as I struggled to visually communicate amorphous ideas. That project significantly shaped my approach to teaching and learning. In my own English classroom I’ve embraced the principles of choice, challenge, and joy to create meaningful experiences for students.
Student choice is widely acknowledged as a tool for engagement and meaning, and there is ample research to support this idea. When I first started teaching in 1995, though, choice was not really operational. Back then, in my traditional college prep school, all students were expected to read the same books (written by old, dead White guys plus Harper Lee) and write the same five-paragraph essays their parents had suffered through 35 years prior. Any variation was considered outlandish.
The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t take into account student engagement. Eventually, I discovered that allowing students choice about what they read and wrote was critical to their buy-in. During a unit on adventure, when I told my students they could write a fictional adventure story, a personal narrative about an adventure they’d had, or an essay about the qualities of adventure, they were far more invested. I didn’t care how students showed me they understood the theme of adventure… I simply wanted evidence of their understanding.
This shift also meant that I needed to teach kids the principles of various styles of writing so they could marry form with function. While every student needed to learn how to describe action with clarity, I taught the fiction writer about foreshadowing to build tension and the narrative writer about prioritizing access to the protagonist’s thoughts as a way to deepen understanding.
I extend choice to books as well. Although I create a list of recommended books, I encourage students to read any book they might like. Then, I invite them to share their takeaways through assignments like book covers, marketing campaigns, dioramas, and slide shows. Students love being able to select their own reading material and always indicate that it was their favorite part of English class.
Challenge is also, ultimately, a question of engagement: What is challenging for one student is often either too difficult or too easy for another. Allowing students to choose their own adventure in terms of writing and reading solves the challenge issue. Giving students writing assignments in which they could choose the desired format also created a choice in terms of challenge. For example, an annotated fan fiction format was more challenging to write than a personal narrative because the annotations and fan fiction required a deeper understanding of the source material.
I am also transparent with students about which choice provides the most challenge—I want the kids to know what they are getting into. In my experience, once students are comfortable in the classroom, they seek work that hits in their zone of proximal development: hard enough to be exciting but easy enough to be manageable. Indeed, I find that when students choose the level of challenge, each student learns far more than they did when I set all the assignments, as they push themselves to excel in their chosen format.
Another way I add challenge is through constraints that are silly even as they serve a purpose. For example, in the annotated fan fiction mentioned above, students wrote fan fiction for a novel they’d read, but they also had to annotate thematic points of connection between their story and the book. Other times, I’d ban students from having characters cry in their stories: They’d have to devise other ways to show a character’s emotional state (this was a response to every story I read for a few months having characters who were “hysterically crying” or being shown with “a single tear rolling down her cheek”).
These challenges were meant to be playful but also to encourage students to employ creative description. And that worked. Not only were my students engaged with the assignments, but they pushed themselves in new ways. A student who told me he disliked every English assignment ever ended up writing a Western adventure story that he loved and enthusiastically shared with the class and, most tellingly, his parents.
Joy of Learning
Finally, I try to infuse every moment of class with the joy of learning. I recognize that what is joyful for me is not necessarily joyful for all, so I’ve learned to ask what each person in my classroom thinks is fun, and I use that information to mold assignments, learning experiences, and jokes that appeal to my audience.
If 100 percent of my students liked dogs, I’d bring my dog into the classroom as a live model and ask the kids to write about her. Animals = joy! If a few students loved video games, I’d include writing the plot of a video game as a choice in a particular unit. Or if my students enjoyed mysteries, I’d give them a mystery to solve—complete with police investigatory files and visual evidence-–then ask them to write their own mystery.
If you were to ask me, “After 27 years, what do you know to be true about teaching?” I’d tell you that fundamentally, learning should be filled with joy. Only in this way can you truly know that you’ve reached and helped to improve the skills of every single person in the classroom.
This understanding, by the way, is in opposition to lots of advice you may receive. I’ve heard many administrators and mentors say, “Well, you can’t please everybody,” in response to disengaged students. But you can please everybody. Not with every single assignment or lesson, but through an approach that values each child’s sovereignty, their unique gifts, and their capacity for fun. There isn’t a formula for creating joy, but getting to know your students, offering them choices, and devising interesting challenges for them is an excellent start.
At the end of each year, students marvel at their growth. I try very hard not to assign my students the middle school equivalent of Paradise Lost (hmmm, would that be Lord of the Flies?), but I am grateful to that professor because from that project I learned the value of agency, challenge, and joy.