When I returned to in-person learning this past fall, I realized that some students had not (physically) attended a traditional school setting for 18 months. In an effort to reengage all students, I intentionally incorporated choice within my high school English classroom. From activity selection to determining discussion topics and summative assessments, I now focus on providing multiple opportunities for students to influence instructional decisions.
Providing choice directly aligns with trauma-invested instructional practices. In Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence, and Chronic Stress, Debbie Zacarian and her coauthors write that promoting student voice through choice can engage students, give them a sense of value, and contribute to competence development. Eric Jensen, in Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind, highlights the action step of “Make It Their Idea,” which can elevate students’ perception of control through content choice and allow them to write some rules.
Knowing that choice can support all learners—especially those affected by trauma or poverty—made it an easy decision to carve out increased opportunities to help students (re)engage in my English classroom.
Activity Selections for ‘A Raisin in the Sun’
Prior to beginning the play A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry, a student asked if the class could view scenes from the film version before reading the text; the class agreed. Students shared that viewing a scene first would help them visualize the characters, which would subsequently help them as they read the text. My observations indicated that students significantly engaged more during our reading of the text—after viewing the film scene.
One of my juniors also recommended using stations for students for vocabulary instruction prior to reading Acts I, II, and III. Each act’s list of vocabulary words was divided into four groups (i.e., stations). Student groups rotated through each station, contributing to a joint document that included student-identified synonyms, related words, sentences, and a visual to demonstrate each word’s meaning.
Anonymous feedback showed that students ranked the activity highly. More than 96 percent indicated that they “loved” or “liked” that the vocabulary station activity was incorporated based on a junior’s recommendation. Providing space for students to make recommendations for activities engaged my students more.
Determining Discussion Topics: Circles
Community circle conversations cultivate communication within my classroom, especially this year. One class selected beginning each class period with a circle conversation as part of their classroom contract. Each day we begin class with a list of prompts displayed on the interactive whiteboard for students’ selection. After a month, one student stated, “I’m glad we do these circle prompts each day. I feel like we really know each other.” Allowing students to decide how we interact as a class engages them; they can shape their learning environment.
More students are requesting circle discussions this year. For example, one student wanted to ask his peers a question about a nearby local school’s dress code decision. On other occasions, students have suggested having circle conversations to discuss weekend plans. Sometimes, I initiate circle conversations to reengage students.
For instance, during one activity, I noticed that students were not fully engaged. Through our circle conversation, I ascertained that students were (overwhelmingly) tired. I then asked, “What would it take to get you engaged through the remainder of this class period?” We mutually agreed on additional incentive tickets for committed engagement through the remaining half of the class period; after students provided input, active engagement increased dramatically. Giving students opportunities to decide discussion topics can contribute to open communication.
Summative Assessment Input
Another way to engage students is to have them develop the rubric for a summative assessment and determine the product. In one class, students examined standards, collectively compiling the rubric for their summative assessment. They agreed on a reading, writing, and language standard; they then self-selected their summative product. They decided to offer variability within the writing standard, depending on their selection of the summative product. Allowing students opportunities to determine the standards lets them feel ownership over the summative process and product.
Half of the class wrote—and answered—their own individualized essay question based on the topic “Women in the Workforce,” which was a topic they identified as being of interest. The remainder decided to select three quotes and explain why each quote was important. When surveying the students at the completion of the assignment, they overwhelmingly indicated that they liked having the opportunity to make decisions regarding their assessment.
Allowing students to make decisions in my classroom creates additional opportunities for student voice within the learning environment. This benefits everyone: Students feel heard and are more engaged in their learning, and teachers can demonstrate a willingness to listen and to be adaptable. Letting students lead instructional decision-making contributes to a stronger classroom community, which we need now more than ever.