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.
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.