Does that title shout “paradox” to you? It certainly did when I said it aloud, but it’s true. “You pick” was the homework I actually assigned every day this week. On purpose. I didn’t even write it on paper.
I’ve been talking a lot about the importance of student choice and control in posts like this, this, and this one, but I’m not alone. On his own blog, Steve Miranda has described time and time again ways in which student interest controls almost everything at his school, and has lead to incredible growth and ability in its students. Saint Ann’s bestie, Justin Lanier, is posting all sorts of goodness specific to implementing student choice in his classroom. Check out his blog, I Choose Math, for more of the same. In my case, “free-choice time” is very quickly becoming the most invigorating, most engaging, and most successful part of my fifth grade math class.
This weekend, Anna Weltman, Justin, and I are offering a session on student choice at EdcampNYC. I figured it was time to put up or shut up, and I am very proud to share what’s happened so far.
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How does it work? [The Specifics]
Themes of experiential learning, identity, choice, differentiation, exploration, and personal insight have been playing in my head for a couple years, but this year, they’re starting to harmonize. Justin gave me the structure I needed to feel really good about allowing more student freedom, so now every Friday is “free-choice time” for my fifth graders.
This amounts to a quarter of our class time, so it might seem like a terrible idea to let kids do this much whatever they want. Another math teacher and others have voiced concerns along these very lines, and I expect parental skepticism, but here’s what’s making it work so well.
“If you were the only person in charge of what math you learned, what would you spend your time doing? What goals would you have?”
That’s how I introduced free-choice to my fifthies, and they got it. It isn’t about doing whatever they want. It isn’t about doing what I think they should. It’s about figuring out what they think is good to do. What kinds of math make them happy? What kind of math is hard? How do they want to grow? Where do they want to improve? What do they want to create? How do they want to share their work?
These are the questions they take on in their journal each week as they prepare for Friday, setting specific goals to pursue during their time. These goals fall into categories like toys and puzzles, making community, problem packets, making art, computer programming, games, online problem sets, and reading and writing. They’re arranged in bingo card fashion to give kids some visual record keeping for their year and accomplishments.
I am lucky to have enough autonomy that these are all things I’ve spent class time on in the past. I am even happier to have students take them on by choice. In fact, it makes the time spent much more directed and efficient, because everyone is personally connected to their work.
Over the weekend, students write a reflection in their journal, telling the story of their experience, considering their goals, and setting new ones. During the week, I read them, take notes, and share my thoughts privately with each student. Lather, rinse, repeat – the feedback cycle goes to work – and on and on we go.
So far, I would say it has been a wild success. If an administrator called me in to shut it down, I would literally beg for a chance to continue.
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So what’s happened so far? [Highlight Reel]
Lots of people are getting into programming by playing lightbot. Having difficulty knowing which way to turn, one girl walked through the room as the light bot and improved her spatial intuition. Another student (who said she hated math) walked around the room helping her classmates with light bot while I made cuboctohedra with three others.
One kid watched youtube videos to make an origami dragon. Another spent the last ten minutes watching Vi Hart videos. We talked about how I could help him make a video of his own.
Lots of people are using Khan Academy to speed up their multiplication or practice other computations – proof that when kids are asked to take control they won’t just waste their time. This is especially good, because I’ve seen goals on everything from exponents and times tables to decimals, percents, and algebra.
Last week a student logged on to try some three-digit addition. “Whoa!” he said, seeing how hard these problems were, “well this is what I asked for!” He took a deep breath and dove in. Now THAT is personal investment! I couldn’t possibly have designed an arithmetic lesson that would garner focused determination the way this simple choice did.
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What are the kids saying? [Journal Excerpts]
“I feel like I have learned so much about math in the past two weeks.”
“I’m pretty sure from now on I will do something math-related every night.”
“I always thought math was the worst subject, but I’m beginning to think I was wrong.”
“I really felt like a mathematician this week, but it was hard.”
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For these students (many entering the year disinterested in math) class has been completely transformed. It’s fun. It’s hard. It’s different. It’s what they want it to be! They are realizing they are mathematical, and they can choose to amplify this part of themselves.
That’s a flipped classroom!
This week was three-days long, and no Friday means no free-choice time, so I assigned it as homework. I’ve done this in years past, but inside the framework we’ve set up this year, it’s going so much better! They came to me with proud stories of accomplishment and improvement. The types of problems they solved, their Khan Academy streaks, the levels they reached on lightbot, etc.
These are their stories, and I’m so proud to be helping my students live them!