Saturday, January 4, 2014

#CEL13: Choice

During the 2013 Conference on English Leadership in the Transforming Decisions session lead by Gordon Hultberg, English teacher and department head at Intermountain Christian School in Utah, we discussed the concept of choice in our ELA classrooms.  How often do we give students choice and how are teachers' own personal preferences represented in the choices we allow?

The session prompted participants to examine the ways in which we offer choice to our students: the texts they read, the assignments they complete, scoring, grades, participation.... The list goes on to encompass all facets of our classroom activities and procedures.

Aptly named, this session forced me to reflect on the choices I provide for my students and how I can transform the decision making process.  When I reflect on the choices I offered students during the first years of my career, I usually provided them with options that I would have wanted as a student, but here in lies the problem: I was providing the choices I wanted. I was not really walking in their shoes; I imagined myself as I WAS as a student.  My intentions with providing choice were sincere, but who I am now is much different from the student I was 20 years ago, and who I was then is much different from who my students are today.

In the past 2 years, attempting to offer my students choices that are not biased or preconceived, I offer a "Show Me" option instead of an assessment I design for unit tests. Students "show me" that they know the material by synthesizing their knowledge and skills into some kind of product. I want to see that they can be an expert in their own right. The students have complete choice to show me that they know the material, and I grade it using an OSU rubric (Outstanding, Satisfactory, Unsatisfactory). Instead of taking a test on the Trojan war, one of my students last year chose to write a multi-scene screenplay of the Apple of Discord episode. Amberlynn's writing was captivating and she showed me she knew the origins of the Trojan War without ever selecting A,B,C, or D on a multiple choice test. Amberlynn trusted herself to take a risk and try something new, and my supportive classroom environment enabled her to take that risk.

Despite promoting student-centered learning, I will state that I'm not able to offer every opportunity for choice. For example, our district curriculum dictates which books are taught, and we engage in whole-novel study as a class. The curriculum content is selected by the teachers with approval from administration.  This make me wonder about curriculum design in general.  Yes, there needs to be a plan so that instruction is purposeful, but does the curriculum need to have content and/or skills standardized?  Why do all teachers in a district need to teach the same book at the same time?  I can see both sides of the argument for a standardized curriculum. But, is the bigger issue about trust?  Is a standardized curriculum merely a system of control?  What are we missing out on by having a standardized curriculum? How is the standardization limiting risk-taking and exploratory learning?

I'm fascinated by literature circles and how to implement Donalyn Miller's & Penny Kittle's ideas about reading in the classroom. While I like whole novel study because it gives me a focus for class, I'm still wrapping my head around how to do it differently. ELA teachers, what is the design of your reading instruction? Do you, your students, or the district choose the texts being read in class? Please share your experiences!

This tweet has me thinking, as well:

How/why/when my students and I can choose has got me thinking: there is a hierarchy of choosing.  Much like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, the more we control internal and external factors, the more opportunity we have for choice and the more power we have in choosing for ourselves and others. Perfection implies that mistakes cannot be made or were never made--everything is perfect. Yet, we cannot explore and learn without an element of risk. But in order to be willing to try something new and risk making a mistake, we must get out of our comfort zones as our needs are met at each level. As we move up Maslow's hierarchy, we constantly make choices at every level and our circle of loci expands. If our needs aren't met, we won't move up the hierarchy and seek that opportunity for risk.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Pair Maslow with a hierarchy of choice,  and we can see a relationship between the types of choices we make and the ability to make the choice. When we are focused on our physiological needs, we are concerned primarily with ourselves as individuals, but as we become self actualized, we are capable of making choices for the greater good.

Image made using PowerPoint.

Bringing this into the classroom, I need to be mindful of where my students  are situated on the hierarchy. Are they ready for choices that affect the entire class or do I provide choices that are focused on the individual?

I've been working on this post for a few weeks now, and my mind is still swirling with ideas that I'm trying to get on to the page, but I'd like to hear from you, dear reader, what drives the choices that are offered in your class and how do you get your students to be self-actualized? Do you encourage your students to be risk takers? How can you create a school culture that allows risk taking for the greater academic good?


  1. I have been doing Pride and Prejudice and Grapes of Wrath with a two whole classes, but after a time, since students determined the readings for each week, both asked if it would be possible to split. (Both titles are on a core list that we can choose from) They proceeded at two paces, met with me frequently, and we held all class lessons or activities once a week or so, including some background study. In the American novel class, students planned journal response formats, essay criteria; in the Eng class, they collaborated as groups on vocab, journal topics, and acting out scenes, planning end of unit demonstrations.

  2. Always tense about relinquishing control, I am more conflicted this time about grading, and trying to find some balance: one student works well ahead of all the others because a parent wanted him to get it all done before the break; there is bulk, but not necessarily quality. Others clearly demonstrate leadership, while a third contingent have minimal output such as ELL. I am hoping the grade can reflect individual learning, with input and self evaluation from students.
    The next unit in the Am Lit class was to be small group study of student selected books, but I have trouble just getting half the class to vote for one, in order to establish groups.
    I love your post! The past few weeks have given me much to think about, too.

  3. Kate: I've been working on a blog that responds to this thoughtful post (coming soon at'll tweet when it's ready). Thank you for keeping the conversation going after #CEL13 and #NCTE13!

  4. @ICS English, based on your first comment, it looks as if your class is run in an asynchronous manner: students know what they need to do and work at their own pace. How do you manage it all? And what does your administration think of this set-up? I wonder how the student-centered classroom is perceived from the outside and how it aligns (or doesnt align with) teacher-centered evaluation methods--- ut-oh, I think I just stumbled upon a topic for a blog post. :-)

  5. @Dr. Forman, Thank YOU! I enjoyed meeting at #CEL13.

  6. I teach sophomore Language Arts in Southern California and, I too, struggle with the demands of the powers at be on a district level and my desire to give students a love of literature and freedom of choice. One of the ways that I've been able to get around this is that I teach the district curriculum Monday through Thursday and then make Friday independent reading day. On Friday students may bring in any grade level, school appropriate book of their choice. From there I have created literature circles on Edmodo for students to join. Sometimes students will all read the same book and create their own book club of sorts, some students are reading within the same genre. To level the playing field I've also joined one of the groups and participate not as a teacher, but as a fellow lover of fiction. When it comes time to book test students they are able to choose the method of assessment. I've seen everything from trailers in iMovie to self-created exams. It's amazing what they come up with.