Choosing Choice

Integrating academic choice into a prescribed curriculum

Several years ago, the school at which I was teaching adopted a new series of teacher’s manuals for reading and spelling and asked that teachers use them to guide their instruction. The manuals included “red check” skills that students needed to learn each week. When I packed up my school bag on Friday afternoons for my weekend thinking, planning, and reflecting session, I felt loaded down with those manuals.

I was so frustrated! I felt boxed in because I thought that my school’s new reliance on textbooks and manuals prohibited me from giving my students choices in their academics. I wanted real books in the hands of my students; I wanted spelling lists that came from their own writing; I wanted them to own their learning.

I knew my students could handle choices. I already gave them lots of opportunities to take charge of their classroom lives. They used the bathroom tag when they needed to go to the bathroom. They chose whom to work with on projects. Each month they decided what classroom job they wanted to do. They decided how we would celebrate Grandparent’s Day and other special events. They’d even done self-selected academic projects at the end of thematic units in social studies and science. But I wanted choice to be part of all their subjects. How could I infuse it into the framework of a prescribed curriculum?

I know that my experience isn’t unique. Most elementary school teachers need to meet curriculum expectations; the degree of flexibility they have in how they meet those expectations varies from district to district, state to state. Many teachers face my dilemma: How can I give my students choices in their learning if I don’t feel as though I have choices about what I teach?

I decided to talk with other teachers who had used these manuals successfully to create choices for their students. Dialogue with my colleagues often opens me up to possibilities and gives me confidence to try something new. After these conversations, I began to look at the manuals with new eyes. Yes, the manuals mandated mastery of specific skills but they also offered a wide variety of useful activities to reinforce those skills.

Tony’s Bread

My class was reading Tony’s Bread by Tomie DePaolo and I wanted the children to respond to the book in writing. This helped them practice their writing skills as I monitored their comprehension of the story. Using suggestions from the manual, I designed an academic choice lesson that offered four choices, each speaking to a different learning style:

  • Create an advertisement for Tony’s bread, including language as well as drawing.
  • Write a sequel to the story.
  • Create an interview with Tony, including questions and his possible responses.
  • Act out a favorite part of the story.

The children loved the lesson; they worked hard and created thoughtful responses. When individual students shared their efforts, the rest of us clapped and laughed. Then, as a class, we reflected on what went well in this experience of academic choice and how we could do better next time.

As I grew more comfortable working with the manuals, I realized that I didn’t have to stick quite so closely to the activities that they suggested. Although the activities were interesting and appropriate, I wanted to move to a new level with academic choice: I wanted the students to create their own list of choices.

Chicken Sunday

When we read Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco, the children and I worked together to create a list of activities from which they could choose. They brainstormed possible ways to represent a moment from this delightful story and I charted the ideas that came pouring out. They wanted to create a puppet show, make an audio tape of a scene from the story, draw their own version of a decorated egg, create a conversation between two characters, write a letter to the author, act out a scene from the story, and on and on. Their ideas were so much more interesting than what I had in my mind! As the list grew, the ideas got better and better.

They could work alone, with a buddy, or in small groups. Before any work commenced, everyone was responsible for doing a planning sheet that helped each child focus on the project and the materials needed. The expectation was that the children would work rigorously to complete their project; with choice came a responsibility to achieve excellence. At the same time that they worked on their planning sheets, I developed evaluation rubrics so they’d know what was expected of them.

Some children did a rough draft or a sketch to get started. If they worked with a partner, the two shared in the work as they listened and gave feedback to each other. Thus, academic choice became both an academic and a social learning experience. As the children worked, there was an electric feeling in the room. The children were “charged up” with their ideas.

Spelling

With this success under our belts, I felt we were ready to try another academic area, spelling. Our spelling series had weekly lists that focused on particular skills. So far, we had stuck pretty closely to the book. But now I wondered what the children could choose to do that would strengthen their understanding of the focused spelling skill. How about creating their own practice page?

That week’s skill was combining vowels with “r” sounds. Together we charted supporting activities from the book, such as looking at phonetic components of the words, using the words in context, understanding guide words in a dictionary, moving letters around to change words, and proofreading and writing using the list words. Children chose from these activities to create their own spelling practice page. Again, each child did a planning sheet.

I met with children as they worked, focusing on those who needed support to develop and complete their plan. Some children created their own paragraph that needed spelling correction and editing. They wrote directions about how many spelling errors needed to be fixed and how many editing errors needed to be corrected. Others wrote their list in alphabetical order. Still others created their own picture dictionaries with sentences for each word. Many chose to write their list in script since they knew the spelling test would be in script. It was their choice.

Another success story! Children were engaged and empowered by choice. They were enthusiastic and independent. They “owned” their work. This was learning at its best.

Through these experiences, I have learned that choices are possible within the pages and pages of teacher’s manuals. But instead of getting stuck inside the box of someone else’s structure, I need to think outside the box. Next, I want to integrate choices into homework. That will require a lot of thinking and conversation. But wherever I go from here, I’ve learned that the more choices I can offer students, the better.

by Rosalea Fisher

Tags: Academic Choice

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