George Lucas Educational Foundation

Schools That Work | Practice

Humboldt Elementary

Grades K-6 | Dewey-Humboldt, AZ

Small Group Work With "I Choose"

When teachers began asking for time to work with students in small groups, Humboldt Elementary found the time for them. In addition to adjusting the schedule, they empowered students by mixing scaffolded supports with a variety of student-friendly elective enrichments.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Student-Driven Differentiated Instruction with "I Choose" (Transcript)

Jamy: It's all about time. Good teachers know that they need to differentiate. It's just something that we have to do, but finding the time and carving that time out of the day to meet with those small groups can be very, very difficult.

Jamy: So to have it actually built into our day where there's a set time for half an hour to pull those small groups, it's wonderful. So I know that it's working and I know that there's so much growth going on in this class. We're seeing huge gains, gains that we wouldn't normally see with just a whole group lesson once a day.

Cole: Teachers kept coming to me and saying, "Cole, we need to have time to be able to work with these kids in small groups, but I have classrooms of thirty-two to thirty-seven. How do we do that?

Cole: We put our heads together, we started looking at the schedule and providing opportunities where kids were going to other places while leaving some to do some response to intervention or small group differentiation with. We have our fourth, fifth and sixth graders who have the opportunity to, if they did their homework, they were doing well, they got to choose. This is where the I Choose comes from. They got to choose between going to PE or computer lab or library or music. Now where the teacher had the I Choose, they get to take a small group in which she's identified or he's identified as needing a specific skill, then being able to work with those students during that last 30 minutes, where they have specific skills that we're trying to progress monitor, benchmark and move them forward with.

Jamy: So in my classroom, the kids at the end of our math lesson have formative assessment and it's usually four questions, and it covers the concepts that we did that day. And I grade them very quickly and I'm able to determine who understood what we were doing that day and who didn't. So the kids that got usually an eighty percent or higher, they go to their I Choose for that day. The kids that didn't will stay here with me.

Alyssa: We do a pretest and sometimes if you get one wrong, she helps you on it.

Jamy: Okay, so I'm here to help. We're going to play some blackjack. And we usually just go over the same lesson over again. I take out the manipulatives, we play games. It's visual for them and kinesthetic.

Alyssa: Last time 'round I didn't get the decimals right. She helped us on the homework part and she taught us how to do the decimals in an easier way.

Cole: The teacher I Choose is actually a great time to close those skill gaps and make them proficient and make them successful, which makes everyone happy. The ebb and flow of I Choose changes every single day based upon not only the performance, but how they did in class and what the teacher feels is best for the child. We even have kids in fifth and sixth grade who take their half an hour and their I Choose is going to help out first graders in the RTI process, whether that's doing flash cards to help them with their sight words or letter names or whatever it may be. The teachers are happy because they were the push for it. They were the ones that wanted the time. We were able to find it for them. What we're hearing from kids is they absolutely love it. Byproduct is, they're paying attention more in class, they're pushing themselves to make sure that they get to choose where they want to go. Those kids that are struggling, we're able to now create proficiency, move them forward. That's what lets us know it's working.

Get Video
Embed Code Embed Help

You are welcome to embed this video, download it for personal use, or use it in a presentation for a conference, class, workshop, or free online course, so long as a prominent credit or link back to Edutopia is included. If you'd like more detailed information about Edutopia's allowed usages, please see the Licenses section of our Terms of Use.

  • Producer: Kristin Atkins
  • Field Producer: Megan Garner
  • Managing Producer/Editor: Julie Konop
  • Editor: Megan Garner
  • Production Coordinator: Julia Lee
  • Camera: Brad White
  • Sound: Steve Filmer
  • Graphics: Cait Camarata, Doug Keely


Small Group Work With I Choose

Humboldt Elementary made time for small-group work through a program called I Choose. This 30-minute block of time allows fourth, fifth and sixth grade students to rotate through various interventions within RTI or attend their choice of electives including peer tutoring, library, physical education, computers, or music. The program allows teachers the time for small group work that they'd requested and gives the students a mix of valuable supports and enjoyable enrichments.

How It's Done


I Choose is a 30-minute block of time during the day that allows fourth, fifth and sixth grade students to rotate through various interventions within RTI or attend their choice of electives including peer tutoring, library, physical education, computers, or music. The program allows teachers the time for the differentiation they'd requested and gives the students a mix of valuable supports and enjoyable enrichments.

Generating Motivation

"We knew when we got together that motivation is a huge aspect to student achievement," says former Principal Cole Young. "We all do things for reasons, and we are asking kids to jump grade levels in a year in regards to just their academic proficiencies. And so in knowing that, there also had to be some things that would have to push them, that would motivate them, that would have to be a part of our process."

By allowing students to choose how they wanted to spend the last half hour of their day, Humboldt empowered them in terms of both their activities and their learning. "You have to have a hook for every kid to do the best that they possibly can," Young says. "When we talk about reaching your potential, we want you to exceed your potential and you be the one doing it. It's not the teacher doing more work than the child, it's the child wanting to do it and meeting the teacher at least halfway, if not more."

I Choose is part of a comprehensive motivation program that "not only pushed the top, but also pushed the bottom."

Finding the Time

The leadership team began looking strategically at the school schedule and amalgamated spare minutes to form a 30-minute period at the end of the school day four times a week. "We're asking actually more out of our elective teachers because they teach a certain number of periods a day," former Principal Young says. "We're saying, 'Can you give us half an hour more?' When they saw the big picture and we started to talk about it, it made sense to them. They understood this was helping school-wide."

Another way that Humboldt worked out scheduling kinks was by collaborating among the teachers to spread the subjects and work across staff and grade levels. One teacher may become a math teacher when it's time for I Choose, working with kids from other classrooms on their math skills, while another teacher may work with a group on reading or science.

Ebb and Flow

The ebb and flow of who stays in interventions and who goes to an elective will change day to day, based on several factors:

  • Teachers can determine whether a child needs more help in a certain skill, or extra attention to master a concept.
  • Parents can request that their children stay in for interventions as well, if they notice their child needs help with a particular skill.
  • The school's intervention team can also identify kids who are struggling with a particular area and group them together during I Choose for additional support.
  • Students can choose to stay in their classroom if they want to finish their homework or some additional classwork.

I Choose also varies depending on what skill is being examined that day. Some days the teacher may choose to check students' reading comprehension, while it may be math on other days. This ensures that all kids get some opportunities to choose an elective, and that all kids get opportunities to receive additional dynamic instruction in a smaller group.

Assessing Progress

Humboldt students are continually monitored for progress so that teachers have regular feedback on where students are. This includes the interventions happening during I Choose.

From the benchmark exams that all students take at the beginning of the year, teachers develop an idea about which groups of students may need additional help on specific skills, such as math or reading. Once the students who could benefit from intervention have been identified, they are given a pre-assessment, which both records where they are before intervention and drives the teacher's instruction of their group throughout the intervention. Teachers can then look at the pre-assessment results and group students even further depending upon the academic gaps that have surfaced.

Students then receive interventions for six weeks before they are tested again. The six-week intervention is organic in nature. There is no predetermined grouping, as all data needs to be used in a timely manner to effectively administer small-group instruction based upon students' individual needs. When identified, each student is given an individual learning plan customized to their learning and specific academic needs.

After six weeks of the students receiving specific interventions during I Choose based on their academic profiles, a post-assessment is given, which is identical to the pre-assessment. From comparing the results, teachers verify the credibility of their interventions as workable solutions that they can use again for other students experiencing the same academic issues. Throughout the six-week period, teachers are evaluating student progress as they check for understanding through informal and formal assessment. This way, teachers are not required to wait six weeks to determine whether their researched-based instructional practice is working. They can change their practice quickly to maximize their time and efforts with students.


Logistically, giving fourth, fifth and sixth grade students the ability to transition between classes on campus was "scary" at first, says Young. Initially, there was no list of who was going where, and the aides on duty during the transition had a tough time figuring out how to monitor where everyone was supposed to be. Now, the classroom teachers send the office a list of who is going to what elective by lunchtime so that the enrichment teachers will have a roll they can check against that afternoon.

Young also faced initial pushback from teachers concerned about losing valuable instruction time in their already-busy schedules. Keeping a close eye on data and sharing the measurable gains in student achievement is what eventually got everyone on board with the program.


For Young, the proof of the I Choose program's success is in the data. Humboldt Elementary has seen rising success rates for their students across the board, and the pre- and post-assessments of students show teachers that the interventions in I Choose are working.

The byproducts that Young didn't anticipate, however, were the school-wide improvements in positive behavior and the sense of ownership and power that the students felt from knowing they has a choice. "We pushed all these kids, not just the ones who needed intervention," Young says, "and they benefited from knowing they had ownership in what they were doing at the end of the day."


Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

eilene315's picture

This sounds like a great idea. It gives the students autonomy in choosing what they like.

Sarak's picture

This is the worst attempt at differentiation I have ever seen. There is so much wrong with this program 'I Choose', that I don't quite know where to start.
1. You do not carve out a time of the day to differentiate. That is the whole idea of differentiation. The teacher plans lessons that are differentiated. Setting a time aside is remedial work. Call it what it is and don't use diff. to portray it as something innovative.
2. The fact that the teacher uses whole group lessons during the day is at the heart of the problem. Again, differentiating the curriculum is adapting the content, process and product to the needs of the students. To teach the whole group without focusing on groups of students is unprofessional and unfair.
3. My experience has covered up to classrooms with 42 students. If you get to know your student's strengths and weaknesses, differentiation becomes second nature.
4. If you do your homework and you are a good student...guess what kids? You get to go have fun, and you can choose what you want to do. Not doing so well? Bad luck kid. Stay and go over the content again. What century is this? This is an example of poor practice and is at the core of the failure of schools.
5. Differentiation is not 'going over the lesson again.' Holy mother of god. Differentiation is changing content and process that suits the child. More of the same, produces results...more of the same.
6. The headline 'Student Driven Differentiation' is at best disingenuous. Students who are doing well can choose, but as it is based upon not only the performance, but how they did in class and what the teacher feels is best for the child, it is teacher driven. Let's be honest here.
7. Not only do students stay back and get remedial work, they are targeted by their peers as needing help. Don't think for one minute that students don't know they are being set apart.
8. The Byproduct as explained by the principal is an interesting one. "They are paying more attention in class." This implies it is a teacher-focused classroom with whole group learning and NO differentiation.
The concept of 'paying attention' in class belongs to the 1950s. Engagement, student-driven learning, Personal learning Maps, and Inquiry-based learning doesn't require 'paying attention.' Students drive learning and are responsible for learning, with the teacher as coach.
"they're pushing themselves to make sure that they get to choose where they want to go." The old external rewards trick! Do well, you get to choose a fun activity. If you have a different learning style - you get to work more on the same thing with your teacher. Students are penalized for having difficulties. Students who may well breeze through their work are doubly rewarded.
Intrinsic motivation has been shown to out live any external motivation. As educators, we need to foster learning how to learn skills, and nurture students who ask questions, test theories, solve problems and think critically.
9. Lastly, it is disappointing that Edutopia should feature this program. It merely empowers teachers to see differentiation as an add on. Differentiation requires a whole different mind set. This is not it.

Andrew Frishman's picture
Andrew Frishman
Co-Executive Director at Big Picture Learning

I was glad to see the educators here beginning to give students some amount of choice, however, I wonder if you surveyed students on the "10 Expectations" laid out by Elliot Washor and Charlie Mojkowski in "Leaving to Learn" whether the students would respond that they really felt like they were truly empowered? -

Jwsessions's picture

Thank you, sarak! Putting this example on a pedestal as a model of "differentiation" is terrible and could be a hyge step backwards in the effort to create learning environments that try to meet the needs of all kids. I applaud the idea of incorporating choice into the day for students, but the fact that it's only a choice for the high achievers makes this interpretation of RTI incredibly and deeply flawed. Ask one of the low achievers how they feel about "i choose".

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Sarak, thank you for the feedback. You're perfectly right--the post was mislabeled and is much more about small group instruction than differentiated instruction. We've now corrected the mistake.

If you're looking for resources on differentiated instruction, you'll find them here: I especially recommend the series by John McCarthy, which begins with this post:

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Jwsessions, the teachers rotate what they're assessing on their exit tickets so that all students get "I Choose" time weekly. For example, sometimes they might just be "assessing" who did their homework, a specific kind of behavior, or maybe participation in class.

The strategy helps with facilitating small group work, and the small group composition can be anything, including "high" achievers.

judyd123's picture

I like the article for the students having a choice. Students do not get to decide things for themselves.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.