Kristin Rusinko, Second Grade Teacher and Lower School S.T.E.A.M. Facilitator
"You get to have an idea to make up your own [activity], and I think that's pretty cool." says Second Grader Rocco during a recent classroom discussion. We are talking about a new learning activity during reading time - choice boards, or "think-tac-toe," and Rocco and his classmates are sharing their thoughts to help me understand what choice means to them.
Offering students choices has always been a part of my classroom practice – letting students decide what to read and where to read, which partner to choose or project to complete, what writing topic or learning activity to explore. The structure and routine of an elementary school day are important for young learners, and invariably there will be certain teacher-directed tasks to complete and non-negotiable knowledge to acquire. But, within this structure, I believe that providing students with choices allows them to engage in learning more actively, as well as to develop their sense of responsibility, and the skills of decision-making and problem-solving.
Recent professional development focused on MBE research supports this idea, but has also compelled me to take a closer look at not only the quantity of choice I am offering students but its quality. Specifically, is there enough real and meaningful academic choice in my classroom?
According to Paula Denton in Learning Through Academic Choice, "academic choice in the Responsive Classroom approach is limited to two kinds of choices that students can make – what to learn (content) and/or how to learn (process)." Looking at the idea of choice through this more focused lens, I decided to pay more attention to what stronger academic choices might look like during our reading time.
In my typical Reader's Workshop approach to literacy instruction, each day we share stories and mini-lessons on genres or reading strategies, then students read and apply skills independently, in small book clubs or partnerships, and in guided groups. It can be difficult to hold students accountable for doing "real" reading during independent or collaborative reading time. It is critical they learn to engage with texts actively and demonstrate comprehension through discussion and/or written responses, but reading logs and worksheets rarely provide the opportunity to delve deeper - to infer, evaluate, and extend knowledge.
Based on my experience with Responsive Classroom and our school's work with MBE research, this winter I introduced choice boards into our reading time. Choice boards offer students a range of activities, varying in content, process, and product, as a means of demonstrating understanding. Each activity on a choice board should take into consideration the key concepts and learning goals of a particular unit, with modifications based on student interest, ability, and learning styles. Ideally, this form of assessment also allows for students to present their project ideas for teacher approval, another key incentive for students to choose what and how they learn.
I presented the class with their first choice board during our study of biographies, and found that they rose to the new challenge capably. When sharing the next board with students, I anticipated some fading enthusiasm, but to my surprise, as we went over each possible activity centered on the novel The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, the class lit up with excitement. Within a few minutes, they were hurriedly circling the projects they most wanted to try, scanning the room for possible partners, and eager to begin work at once.
Denton writes that "when teachers use Academic Choice to structure lessons, children become purposeful, competent learners who connect to each other in positive ways." Likewise, Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher, educators and authors of Neuroteach, emphasize that "research also shows that providing students with assessment choice enhances attention and engagement – and confirms the arts can help deepen long-term memory consolidation." It is a testament to the power of choice that my students were so keen to begin immediate work on their projects, to engage with one another in new and creative ways, and to further reflect on the text we'd read so far in order to complete their assignments.
Over the course of the next few days and weeks, I watched as my students buzzed around the room at work on various activities. Some students preferred the more quiet or introspective choices, such as comparing themselves to a character or reflecting on the story's theme and pulling evidence from the text. Others were excitedly making groups to prepare scripts for a news report about an important event or write a song about a main character. I was thrilled to hear students talking about books and characters in the ways we so often practice together, but now they were taking ownership of the skills and discussing books in meaningful ways without my support.
"I don't think Lolly would actually say that here," said one student to his friends, explaining what he knew about the character and how they might respond in a new situation. Not only were my students engaged in the projects, but they were also independently applying our reading strategies and discussion skills to agree or disagree with one another respectfully, to make predictions, connections, and inferences, and to draw conclusions about characters. Their focus was not on a grade or reward, not on or their limitations or self-doubts – but rather on their intrinsic desire to learn, to express themselves creatively, and to demonstrate understanding.
"It's nice to do the projects because if you can do your choice board, you can do some fun activities," remarked Isabella, while Elizabeth reflected on the larger goal of the projects by noting "Maybe you read a book, but you didn't think about it. If you have a choice board, you can think about your book." We often talk in our classroom about how reading is thinking, and now the Second Graders have more enriching ways to bring reading, thinking, and fun together.
Moving forward with a renewed, and more informed, commitment to academic choice, I plan to find additional ways to integrate it into other subjects. I am working to improve the choice boards by adding differentiated layers to each activity, providing simple rubrics to help students assess the quality of their work, and allowing time for reflection at the end of each unit, a step that brain-based research shows is critical to the learning process.
In just these first few months of implementing choice boards in the classroom, I have already seen my students respond with great excitement for this part of their day, and their stamina for reading, thinking, and working collaboratively and successfully with peers is increasing. Moreover, in observing, listening, and witnessing them flourish, I now better understand just how important and empowering academic choice can be for these young learners.
"Differentiated Assessment." Western Carolina University, last modified August 1, 2011, http://ccnt4.wcu.edu/WebFiles/WordDocs/August_1_2011_WCU_Manual.docx.
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