What REALLY happens when you give students choice & voice in the classroom

Recently, my district has been making a shift toward a more personalized learning structure for our students. As part of this, we have implemented a variety of pieces of the personalized learning honeycomb. As professionals, we are each implementing new aspects into our classrooms, moving at our own paces.

To be quite honest, I’ve been a little slow on the uptake. I have a tendency to be a bit of a control-freak, and my classroom has been no exception to this. The idea of allowing my students to take the wheel and be in charge of the majority of their own learning was a little frightening. Not to mention my fear that in 6th grade with little to no background in doing this, they would be woefully unprepared to take matters into their own hands. I had visions (nightmares) of off task goofing around and a lot of students struggling to master the difficult learning targets for writing and reading.

I continued supporting my students in the classroom this year with our writing assignments and reading units by individualizing and differentiating my instruction per their needs, and began to weave some choices in where I felt they would be successful. We started small with flexible seating during independent work, which was a huge success. The time on task skyrocketed, and I was inspired to try more little by little. Eventually, I found myself reflecting on the way my students felt about my class. I was inundated with groans when I announced a new essay we would be writing, plagued with the same struggles of keeping students engaged in a whole class novel, and my favorite comment that kept cropping up, “Well I like you, I just really hate ELA/your class/this subject.” Even though they were learning and we were plowing ahead, I couldn’t help but think, There’s gotta be a way they can learn this AND enjoy it.

I kept coming back to the principles of student choice and voice that are hallmarks of personalized learning. I also thought about the few pieces I’ve written on how grammar instruction should be infused into the writing classroom and contextualized by using students’ own work. Well, if the students don’t care about the piece they’re writing, let me tell you, they still aren’t going to care about how clearly the message comes across. They aren’t going to invest themselves fully into what they are writing unless it’s something that inspires them or has peaked their interest. Through these reflections, I decided that I was going to do a self-paced literature circle unit, accompanied by an open-ended narrative and a culminating final project… with no specifications outside of the learning objectives. They could determine the process, product, and presentation as long as they showed me how they met the intended targets.

Thankfully, I have wonderfully supportive coworkers who were more than willing to share ideas and resources, and a dream team co-teacher who was game to try this with me.

Teacher friends. It was INCREDIBLE. My students had choices from the very start of the unit, where they did a book tasting to choose novels, to the very end where they worked with their teams to develop a final project of their choosing. So. Many. Ideas. They had a voice during discussions because I did not structure them with roles or required questions‒I just let them talk to one another about what they were reading, with a nudge to discuss their annotated notes.

The focus of the unit was on culture, so all of the books had diverse settings and unique character perspectives. All my kids were able to experience a culture with which they were previously unfamiliar, and then for our final project they had to compare it to their own. Our fabulous social studies teacher had just finished a unit on the United Nations list of basic human rights, so we infused this knowledge into the literature circles as well, and my class was enthralled with how different kids’ lives are throughout the world.

Let me say this: my group of kids this year are not fans of reading. But y’all, the engagement while reading these books was effortless. They had chosen their books, they wanted to read them, and they were interested in completing the tasks to meet their learning targets because they got to decide how and when to get them done. Each week I gave them a scaffolded planner, the learning targets, and the tasks they needed to accomplish. These tasks aligned with narrative techniques (dialogue, figurative language, developing point of view, etc.) and helped them to use their novels as mentor texts. The narrative they started at the beginning of the unit was written however they liked, and I encouraged them to be as creative as possible. The excitement for this writing unit was palpable, and unlike any other writing assignment we’d done all year. It was theirs. Their characters, their setting, their details, their voice. I had students inquiring about their stories in a way that I had not yet seen, and asking me questions about how to incorporate different writing skills into what they were working on. A student even walked up to me and explicitly asked if his switching verb tenses clearly showed that the character was having flashbacks. Say what?! A kid demonstrating full understanding of how verb tenses shift? I’d gone to English teacher heaven.

This much was abundantly clear: They were learning.

It was through this narrative and the final project that I really got to see my students shine. Don’t get me wrong, they did a phenomenal job throughout the unit, and there were infinitely less students off task than I anticipated‒because they actually wanted to do the work! They collaborated to determine a plan of action every week, and some groups even assigned themselves homework because they wanted to be able to read ahead or keep writing their narratives. Many of those pieces were some of the best writing that I have seen them do all year, and their projects were immensely creative and well put together. My students showed me skills and talents that I had not yet witnessed, and to say I was impressed would not do it justice. I was enthralled with how they had chosen to demonstrate their learning of the objectives, intrigued by the unique ways each of them chose to compare and contrast their own culture with that in their books, and excited to see them actually interested in doing research to find out more! Each one of my students had the opportunity to play to their strengths, and they most certainly did.

When I had them fill out a survey on Google forms, the feedback I got was overwhelmingly positive. Students were quick to tell me how much they learned, what helped them be successful, and why it worked. Most comments were marked with, “I liked working at my own pace”, “I liked feeling like I had a say in my homework and what I did in class”, “It was less stressful to decide for myself”, “It helped me be more organized”, and the like. Many told me how it helped them stay more on task during class, be sure what they had for homework, and get their items in on time‒all skills that some of them have struggled with all year, and ones I was worried would be negatively impacted by this structure!

This unit showed me the potential in taking a more personalized approach to the learning in our classroom. I stepped back and allowed my students to take an active role in their own learning. And man, it was powerful. All the fears and drawbacks I was focused on ended up being unimportant or non-issues, and my students were capable of a lot more than I gave them credit for! Their progress was enormous, and my kids not only grew in their learning of language arts skills, but they came out more prepared to take an active role in their futures. What’s more, I heard them talking about how much they enjoyed reading and writing. They were finding a passion for the subject I love, and discovering how meaningful it can be. They didn’t just learn, they actually enjoyed it. And I can’t imagine a better outcome than that.

All materials for this unit can be found on my Teachers Pay Teachers store!

4 thoughts on “What REALLY happens when you give students choice & voice in the classroom

  1. This was a really good idea and it seems to have worked phenomenally! I think many school systems tend to forget that it should also be a nurturing place for students to grow in their personalities and learning. I think you have perfectly allowed the students to grow in their personalities and in their learning!

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  2. I love how you connected so much and let them choose their paths! It sounds like such a positive experience for you and your students. I’m curious if you still taught a mini lesson or small group lessons. Thank you for sharing!

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    1. I did do quite a few mini lessons or small group lessons! We’d typically start with a ‘theme’ for the day and I’d spend a couple minutes going over it before sending them off to work. After that, students who felt they needed additional support could conference with me for more instruction. It was very fluid- I loved it!

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