At Fenn, I often talk about the importance of choice reading in schools. What I particularly love about choice reading is it allows a student to follow his interests and passions while simultaneously practicing and improving his reading skills. Ultimately, choice in anything--books, writing topics, projects--leads to engagement, and once a student is engaged, real learning can take place.
Just as choice reading is imperative to reading growth, so is choice in other areas of school. Just recently, my fifth grade class had the opportunity to choose how they wanted to complete a project. At the conclusion of reading The City of Ember, my class brainstormed a variety of project options from which they could choose. The only requirement from me was that their project be related in some way to the book. Some boys used Legos to create settings from the book. One student’s Lego creation even included working LED lights for his city. A couple of boys created board games where players advanced by rolling a die and correctly answering questions about the story. Many of the boys chose to use Minecraft to create visual representations of different settings from the book.
In doing so, these boys created their own cities of Ember. One boy even chose to research electricity, learn how it works, and present his information to the class. He even attempted to generate enough watts to light a bulb using potatoes. It didn't work, but the class learned about amps, watts, and ways to measure energy. The choices were varied and the project became less about the final product and more about the process each boy needed to undertake to complete it.
First, students needed to decide upon a project and then find the answers to the following questions: Why do I want to do this? Can I complete this project? What materials do I need? How can I get them? Will I be able to finish it? In letting students own their project choices, it forced them to come up with specific answers to these questions based on their choices, not mine. When given this freedom and choice, the boys were able to follow their passions and play to their strengths. They took off. Everyone was focused and engaged and our class space became a workshop of Legos, computers, and board games. Each boy assessed his progress along the way, and many of them, if not all, had to make adjustments to unforeseen setbacks, changes, or time constraints. I saw more resilience, perseverance, productive use of class time, and sheer enjoyment during this process than I had seen all year.
While watching the boys engage in this work, the importance of choice became even clearer to me. Whether it is reading choice, writing choice, or project choice, choice leads to engaged learning and investment. By offering choice, a teacher is in effect saying to a student, “I trust you in this learning process, and I value your insights and decisions.” By giving students the opportunity to take their learning into their own hands, students have the chance to own their learning. Students feel validated, trusted, and empowered to shape what their learning looks like in the classroom. When a teacher has the chance to validate, honor, and accept students’ choices, she should take it, for the potential and possibilities for growth and learning are limitless. And, in the process of her letting go, students are given a safe and supportive environment to practice taking risks, failing, being resilient, and succeeding. A partnership between teacher and student develops and the classroom becomes a collaborative work space where everyone learns.
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