Contemplating Student Choice in Learning

In one of our recent teacher meetings I riffed off a classmates phrasing when talking about students and choices, coming up with “It’s hard to have a voice if you don’t have a choice.” It ran out of my mouth before I could really stop it. I think it’s because I really believe it. Plus, since becoming a teacher, I have succeeded and failed at affording students choice a lot, but I keep trying to find ways that allow and encourage student choice.

This is not always an easy objective. Certainly in more traditionally conservative pedagogical models, there is little room for student choice. In the English department, choice is often relegated to elective classes like creative writing. Yet even in elective classes, apart from choosing the course, there can be remarkably few options in terms of assignments or lines of inquiry. Fortunately, there seems to be a groundswell of change in the air in the field of education. All I can say is that is a long time coming.

After attending graduate school in pursuit of a license to teach, the university I attended was deeply influenced by progressive, constructivist theory. Student choice was something we regularly discussed in classes. It seemed like this was the way things were to be. Upon entering the profession I was surprised at how little opportunities students had to demonstrate their understanding in self-selected ways. Of course, making arrangements for this kind of assessment is a challenge, and I am by no means expert at doing so. However, I continually challenge myself to find ways to accommodate student choice in my practice.

On a grand scale, the first element of choice entered my practice almost as soon as I started teaching, when I began employing a portfolio approach with my English classes. While there are some universal elements, such as formatting and self-reflection that all complete, students are required to choose samples that best represent their work in the class. This portfolio of work typically contains pieces that have gotten feedback and been revised multiple times. The portfolio is the single most significant grade for any given term. I do this so the student controls what is included and what is subject to such a major assessed. I have been using portfolios in nearly every class I have taught since the second semester I began teaching.

Still, a portfolio is only one aspect of choice. Often it is selecting from a lot of options that are similar for every individual. The outputs fro given assignments may not always vary as much as I would like. To me the real challenge has always involved building options into individual assignments, which has proven far more tricky.

On an assignment scale, one of my favorite examples of student choice is the I-Search paper. Originally created by the late Ken Macrorie, in a 1988 published work he coined as the first context book, The I-Search Paper, it is a writing-to-learn spin on the typical research paper assignment. I-Search is a framework that focuses on student interests and the process of real research, the kind researchers do. Part narrative and part inquiry, students must develop their own research question that guides their investigation and answer. It took me three years to convince my colleagues to implement it in my current school, replacing a previous literary based research paper that produced semi-plagiarized faux research and a hackneyed paper.

What is encouraging is that the trend toward student choice seems to have gained genuine momentum in the last year or so, particularly in the realm of English. More and more references to student choice are being presented in the field. In fact, while I was in Orlando for the National Writing Project Annual Meeting, an educational organization that has long been advocating student choice, a colleague of mine mentioned that it seemed to be the theme of nearly all of the presentations that she had seen at the simultaneously occurring National Council of Teachers of English Convention.

So there is definite reason for hope. Nevertheless, I will keep trying regardless of the trend.

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