Structuring for Choice—The Teacher’s Role


A film about native Californians, written, acted, and filmed by 3/4 graders. They made most of the costumes, sets, and props. I did the editing.


UPDATE  January 18, 2016
Angela Watson has an excellent article about helping students become more effective at managing their own learning.  Hope you’ll take the time to check it out.  Her suggestions are always very direct, clear, and easy to use.

In the last post, I wrote about the steps I took as I gradually gave students a greater stake in their learning.  In my experience, giving students more choice requires a great deal of structure.  Today I want to talk a little about the teacher’s position in this environment.

Knowledge:  Teachers have to have know what they are supposed to teach. 

  1. I changed grade levels almost every year during my career, so I had a good knowledge of the district objectives at each grade level, and across grade levels. I could clearly see how the objectives spiraled over time, and that the differences in objectives from one grade level to the next were very small.  This gave me great confidence in allowing students to choose which skill groups to join.  (I’m not sure this is the case with Common Core standards!)
  2. Each summer, I spent a few days studying the objectives for the next year’s class. I organized them for thematic instruction, and roughed out the themes for the year.  I grouped the skills according to the themes and the language arts units I wanted/needed to teach.  For example, in a previous post about interest groups, I used a study of the state’s land regions to teach a unit on reading “how to” information.  This planning was essential to providing the structure I needed to give my students greater choice.  (See these posts for more information about the planning process:  Integrating Instruction–Getting Started, Identifying Themes, Organizing Themes, Integrating Themes–Language Arts Standards.)  I wasn’t bouncing from one skill to another in a haphazard way—I was moving consistently and carefully through the curriculum.
  3. Students have to know what they are supposed to learn. Explaining and sharing the objectives that students are to learn at their grade level was surprisingly empowering to them and to me.  The more access I gave them to the “givens”, the more accepting they were of the tasks.  It was really astonishing to me how giving students the list of objectives at the beginning of the year, and spending some time in discussion and questions about it, changed the tone of the entire class.  It was like a magic key!

Classroom Structure:  Teachers have to establish clear and high expectations.

The other important ingredient to successful student choice is developing consistent classroom routines and expectations, and sticking to them with an iron will.  It’s essential to maintain high expectations.  Here are a few that I found most necessary:

  1. How to get the attention of the whole class when they are all actively working on a variety of tasks.
  2. How to use and maintain the materials students are allowed to use, and how to identify materials they may only use with permission, or not at all.
  3. How to clean up and store classroom materials.
  4. How to get help when the teacher is working with other students.
  5. Where, when, and how to do different types of tasks.
  6. The quality of the work required.
  7. The types of interactions allowed between students (collaboration is in, “clique-i-ness” is out, etc.!)

I’m sure there are a hundred more, but these are the ones that were most important to me.  Once you have set the expectations and boundaries for your students, and they know you mean it, you can begin to see a beautiful, happy, humming community of growing people who really know what they are doing and what they plan to accomplish, and what they can accomplish is really something!

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