Student Choice – Building Mindful Confident Learners

by Mary Anne Buckley, presenter at the 2017 Literacy for All Conference

At an early Parent / Teacher conference Jacob’s mom was telling me how much he liked art and science but he what really loved this year was writing workshop. Jacob’s dad then chimed in, “And I’m sure you know you get “Best Teacher” points for letting him sit wherever he wants.” I was a bit taken aback by the somewhat accusatory tone, as if it was purely an egocentric act on my part to not assign seats. I stumbled through a quick explanation of student choice but felt pressed to cover the other, more typical topics of conferences.

Mary Anne Buckley - low resThe comment stuck with me and I spent the next hour ruminating about parent conferences and why I don’t assign seats. Typically parents ask, “Is she making good choices during reading?” or “Is he making good choices with his friends?” We all want our children/students to “make good choices.” Learning HOW to make “good choices” is an essential component of education and it takes time, mindful observation and patience. I happily realized the rest of my conferences could completely revolve around how choice drives our K/1 multi-age classroom!

Often we confuse student choice with lack of “teacher control”. Teachers have shared with me the panic they feel if a student doesn’t choose an “easy” topic for non-fiction research so…they control the topics. They feel frustrated when Grace sits next to Joshua and talks the whole time so…they control the seating chart. A typical worry is that student choice will throw off the Pacing Guide so…they keep the students’ discussions focused on an “logical path”. (Personal Pet Peeve sidebar: try to remember folks, it’s a GUIDE.)

As educators we have an enormous amount of outside demands placed upon us. Standards that seem to change yearly (even though they don’t really change at all), progress reports, benchmark assessments, allotted time frames for language and math instruction – sometimes it feels like I’m barely keeping my head above water from November to May! And it’s easy to fall into thinking that more control will ease that overwhelmed feeling. I thought imposing more control on my class would gain me time but the contrived compliance (or lack of it!) only increased my frustration and created a sense of distrust with my students. Now to I stay sane by nurturing student choice.

Control belongs in our classrooms when it means nurturing students to gain control over strategies in reading or developing conversational control during math share or gaining self control on the playground. The goal of control needs to be for students to become more independent, more mindful and more invested in their learning. We want students to make choices, evaluate outcomes and make adjustments in reading, writing, math, science – all academic arenas. We can only get to those higher levels of control if students are given opportunities to practice them in real life situations.​ When we provide social and emotional choice opportunities and explore them through explicit discussions and instruction students begin to trust that their school cares about them, the adults respect their feelings and listen to their concerns. And after building that relationship we can extend choice opportunities to our academic endeavors.

​Here are some ideas for exploring student choice in the beginning of the school year:

Try starting with no seating charts – not at desks or tables, not on the carpet, not at snack. And then watch what happens. There will be favorite spots and favorite friends, there will be giggles and disputes, collaborations and hurt feelings. And this provides fabulous opportunities for establishing what it means in your community to make choices. Use these real moments to discuss with the whole class what it means to “include” and “exclude” people. Read a book about Martin Luther King Jr. or Jackie Robinson or Trudy Ludwig’s ​Invisible Boy​ or ​Red ​ by Jan de Kinder. Students easily identify with being left out but the discussion can also lead to admitting to being the one who left someone out. This discussion, in early September, instantly raises the trust factor in your classroom.

Next try to loosen the reins of your Reading Workshop control for two weeks. Open the library all at once and tell them, “Stuff your book box with any book you want.” And then watch what happens. There will be favorite books and favorite topics. There will be focused reading buddies and there will be jokesters avoiding work. Use these observations of student choice to discuss with your class what reading ​really​ is. Every class is different and by involving them honestly in developing their reading community you build trust and respect. (Looking back on my first years teaching I see that without these real life classroom examples my anchor chart of “Reading Workshop Is…” should have really had the title: “Do What I Want So I Can Teach.”) Try the picture book ​Reading Makes you Feel Good​ by Todd Parr or Patricia Polacco’s ​Thank You Mr. Falker​ to start the conversation about why we read and how we can help each other love reading.

Recess is next. Ahhh, the sigh of relief that is released when we get to the playground – by kids and teachers! It can be easy to let go of control here and let kids be kids. And they need that. There will be negotiating, debating, collaborating, disagreeing, arguing and compromising. Recess is filled with tremendous opportunities to help students develop the skills of learning HOW to make choices. Use the incidents on the playground to exchange ideas on what is a “real tag” or how to tell a friend you don’t want to play with them today. ​Recess Queen​ by Alexis O’Neill or Mo Willems’ ​A Big Guy Took My Ball​ are great books to open up deliberations on playing fairly.

Our students face tricky and weighty social and emotional choices every day and when we explicitly teach them the tools of HOW to make choices the skills will carry over into our academic conversations and problem solving activities. ​Ultimately teachers are the decision makers in many ways. Deciding to keep the essential learnings our focus, we can pose questions, provide choice opportunities, and step back to watch our students learn HOW to make choices, find answers, and share their learning with confidence and joy. It’s then we know we’ve made a good choice.

Mary Anne Buckley is presenting at our 2017 Literacy for All Conference, October 22-24th.  She will be presenting on Tuesday a session titled “If We’re Not Mindful, It’s Not Education (Grades PreK-8)”.  Click here for detailed information on all of our workshops.

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