Before I started teaching, I envisioned what it would be like: A classroom full of eager learners, raptly listening to my every word. My teaching would be so engaging that classroom management would be effortless. Then I started teaching…
As entertaining as I felt I was, my students didn’t always agree. I remember one year in particular, when I had several little guys who really didn’t care for my brilliant suggestions. They liked their ideas better – even if those ideas included breaking crayons, crumpling up papers, and fighting at recess.
I learned a lot that year: how to problem solve with trusted co-workers, the need to think about why a student might not be cooperating, and the importance of providing student choice in the classroom. I discovered that this choice was especially crucial for students who were seeking power (for whatever reason). Several co-workers (including an experienced first grade teacher and the school psychologist) really impacted my thinking about this. We worked together to find easy ways to provide student choice in my classroom – and I’ve learned even more ways to incorporate student choice since that year.
The Power of Student Choice
I’d like to say that offering student choice completely turned around the behaviors of those little guys. It didn’t – at least not completely. But offering choice did help – it helped them see that they could be in control of parts of the day. And it helped me learn to partner with my students, rather than fighting against them. Over the years I have honed my skills in offering student choice and empowering students. As a result, I have minimized challenging behavior and feel more equipped to problem-solve disruptive behavior when it occurs.
Offering student choice in the classroom doesn’t have to be overly-complicated. Start with some small, simple steps. Incorporate choices in ways that don’t cost you anything and don’t require intense planning on your part. Here are a few basic things to start with.
Soft Starts for the Day
Start your day off with student choice by creating a “soft start” to the school day. After students complete basic morning tasks (unpacking backpacks, lunch count, etc.) provide a choice of enjoyable activities for them. My favorites include puzzles, quick games, books and drawing. Allow some socializing as they catch up and re-connect with classmates as they play.
We all know students complete tasks at different rates. Instead of preparing an additional worksheet or center for kids who finish early, allow them to choose a simple activity to engage in. At different points in the day, allow them to choose:
- between independent reading and free writing
- independent reading or partner reading
- whether to add details to illustrations or starting a new writing piece
- one of 2-3 familiar math games to play with a friend
In addition to empowering your students, you will also have lighten your load by providing early finishers with tasks that take no additional prep time.
Choice in Partners
There are times when you need to be intentional with partner work (for instance, when students are editing writing or for differentiated tasks.) But there are other times when students just need a partner. At those times, allow students to choose their own partners. You can still control the situation in subtle ways. You can name the first 1-2 students and those students chooses a partner. This allows you to avoid mass chaos of 25 kids looking for partners at once. You can intentionally start with a child who tends to get left out or two students who are “frenemies.” This ensures the more timid child has a partner and that the “frenemies” are not together. But students still have a choice within this controlled structure.
There is so much power in letting students choose their own writing topics and genres! It can be difficult to it this into your writing curriculum. However, there may be some small ways to allow for writing choice:
- allow “free writing” when today’s piece is finished
- include 2-3 days of “free writing” between writing units
- provide early finishers the chance to do any kind of writing they want (including comics, notes to friends, etc.)
- instead of writing to a prompt, focus on genres of writing with topic choices within the genre (or make the prompt optional for students)
Adult writers don’t go about writing the same way, so why should students? Sometimes one kind of paper feels to contsricting or open-ended to some students. Allow them to choose from several types of writing paper, such as:
- blank paper
- paper with fewer lines (2-3 in younger grades, half a page by 2nd grade)
- paper with more lines (6-8 in younger grades, a full page by 2nd grade)
You may even find that a child chooses a different writing paper depending on their writing plan that day – how powerful for them to have that choice! They may even create the paper that fits their needs that day, like the little guy below.
As adults, we typically get to choose the books we read. Even some graduate level courses allow controlled choice of books. Students crave this choice, too. Engage students in decision-making about books. Some ways you might do this include:
- gather student input on the books to add to the classroom library
- allow students to have 2-3 books of their choice available for independent reading
- at the beginning of a guided reading lesson, set out several recent books and permit students to read from a favorite for 2-3 minutes
You can provide choices in seating even if your classroom only has traditional classroom furniture. When students work independently, give them the choice of working:
- at a desk
- at a table
- sprawled on the floor
You might even let them stand or sit at their desks, depending on their preferences.
As I have explored ways to provide student choice in the classroom, I have discovered that my day often goes more smoothly when I can release some power in small ways. Students feel more motivated and engaged in their work and don’t need to seek power in fewer unhelpful ways.
Are you unsure about letting go of control? It is hard! Start by incorporating choice in one small part of your day. Choose something that doesn’t take extra work on your part and won’t require a change in your instruction. I find that allowing students to choose their partners and starting the day with a soft start are easy places to begin. These routines allow choice for all students, not just ones who finish their work quickly. You can slowly add more choice into your day, until your day is filled with student choice from begin to end!