Homework this week: “free-choice time”

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.”

* * *

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!

21 responses to “Homework this week: “free-choice time”

  1. I LOVE this idea! I’m not sure my fifth graders would know what the possibilities are, though. Maybe a bingo board like you mentioned would help. Do you have an example? @msnorthrup

    • Justin, Anna, and I have a google document with TONS of options. I would be happy to share this with you if you can send me your email. I started out by giving them only one option from each category. (except problem packets. (We haven’t made them yet.)) I plan on spending a little time during the week introducing things they might pick up for their free-choice time. They can expand the list this way or with their own ideas.

      You can find the bingo card document and some more stuff on Justin’s site.

      I’m happy to help with anything you need!

  2. Paul, I would love to see your files on Google docs. My email is shannondeford [at] gmail.

  3. Elizabeth Sheridan Rossi

    I totally get what you’re saying about the benefits of giving kids personal choice, and I think it’s great that you’ve already seen all these positive things come out of it. You’re methods are clearly very thoughtful and organized, and I’m sure that will have a huge impact on how efficient the kids are. But how do you feel about “losing” one of your four precious days every week? It seems that your options are often “off topic” from whatever you’re doing in class. Do you worry about having trouble keeping continuity with the topics you’re covering/discovering? Three days is less than half the week, after all. For me I think that would feel like a big sacrifice. It seems like once the kids learn the games and activities available to them, that it’s not totally necessary for them to be engaging in them during your class. Why not just assign more “free choice” homework instead of having kids work on these activities during your precious 45 minutes? Especially considering that if every student is working on something different, you can’t be working with any one kid for more than a few minutes. Also, are you at all concerned about children who may “need” to spend more time working on things but just never choose to do it? It’s hard for me to believe that a 5th grader could have full reign over what their homework “should” be every day… Just some thoughts. You asked for it :)

    • Firstly, thanks for commenting. I love getting push back on my posts. Plus I totally respect your opinions (She is an awesome teacher.)

      It’s amazing, it occurs to me, how much more skeptical people are of free math than free writing. It’s surely a core principle of our English department, and we both know independent reading is omnipresent in the lower school. I think we need the same for math, but your points are well taken.

      Certainly, the options are potentially only tangential to our central content, but I feel really good about what’s going on. I am absolutely going to hit all of our core material, so it feels like sharing the best math I can find is what I need to be doing with some of the rest of our time. I would certainly be doing lots of this stuff anyway. If I increase the amount of mind-blowing, memorable, and personal math experiences for these kids, I definitely won’t regret it. I really don’t think i could do better with an extra day of content. The two free-choice days we’ve had so far have been the best by far! Kids have been more excited, motivated, and active, even on standard material!!!

      In regards to “needing more time,” giving them exciting opportunities and resources that they can carry on on their own actually gets me more time. They will spend more time thinking mathematically, because the act of choosing mathematical pursuits makes it personal, so it will follow them inside of their own heads. I am going to be discussing their goals with them, and when I perceive a lacking in their approach or a way in which they could benefit from growth or positive experiences, I am definitely going to be encouraging them this way. So far, though, I have no worries about this. I’ve been reassured by the seriousness of these kids.

      I don’t plan on doing free-choice for homework every week, but I like showing the kids that they don’t need me to grow and learn as a mathematician. That’s what this is about.

      Thanks again for your comment. Hope you don’t mind the long reply.

  4. Have you used a product called Geometer’s Sketchpad? It’s a really cool product to play around with and explore anything from shapes and geometry and Pythagorean Trees, to plotting equations and seeing how they change when you animate one of the values in the equation, to graphs, algebra, trig, etc.

    I am a homeschool mom of fraternal twin boys who are 13 yo (8th grade) and think math is “lame”! A disappointment when I have always loved math! I just purchased Geometer’s Sketchpad and I am going to introduce it as “Friday math” so they can have some fun playing around in a math program that can do so many cool things without a hugh learning curve. After they have spent several weeks going through mostof the introductory activities (decidedly NOT free-choice – they would never explore it enough to find out what it’s all about otherwise!), I plan to have it on my list of Friday math choices, where they can choose a math activity (different math book like Life of Fred, Speed Math for Kids, etc., logic puzzles – KenKen, Balance Math, Balance Benders, and the like, Geometer’s Sketchpad, Khan Academy, and maybe some ideas from your free-choice math day :) ) to do instead of their regular math program. I know they enjoy having some choice, and while they still hold grudges that it’s “math!”, at least it gives them some variety and a little fun! Maybe someday I will break down that walls of “lame math” for them, too! Great post!

    • I have played around with Geom Sketchpad. It’s very good. You should also look into Geogebra, which is free, and works over the internet. It’s a very similar program. I would also suggest a host of computer games that take on mathematical concepts and computer programming. Light bot is terrific, and Gate is a tougher version in which you actually create logic circuits. Bloxorz and Dublox are both good, but less mathematical, more puzzle-like. Finally, Scratch is a really cool computer programming language (really built for little kids) but they might get into the possibilities there. Writing your own computer programs can be really exhilarating experience. Keep me posted on how it goes. I would be happy to offer advice.

      (Also check out James Tanton’s videos. These are really good.)

      • Both my boys have played with Scratch, but found Alice more enjoyable – for a while, anyway. Both my husband and I are software engineers with probably about 40 years experience between the 2 of us, so we have tried several times to get the boys excited about programming. I will check out Light bot and Gate (and Bloxorz and Dublox) and add them to our Friday Math list! Thanks! Off to search for James Tanton on YouTube…

      • I haven’t heard of Alice, but I’ll look into it. I had really valuable experiences with LOGO as a kid. Can’t seem to find the perfect version of it these days.

      • http://www.alice.org – we used versions 2.0 and 2.2. The version 3.0 gets more serious about teaching real programming concepts – classes, objects, properties, etc. – and uses the SIMS characters, but they have yet to get it out of the Beta stage – for the last 3 years!

  5. Thank you for sharing this excellent practice that you have implemented in your classroom! I love to see ways that students are becoming excited about and engaged in mathematics. I went to the other blog and looked at the guide students could use to come up with things to do during their free time, and they were all wonderful activities that are interesting and engaging at the same time as being educational. I, too, believe student choice is extremely important in school and can make a whole lot of difference in student motivation. It lets them know that you value their opinion and take into consideration their goals, individual wishes, and needs.

    • Thanks for the comment, Heather!

      Yes, I’m already seeing the powerful positive impact that choosing math activities can have on students. They feel so much more connected to their work, and the excitement is carrying them through our more traditional work as well. I hope more teachers can find ways to listen very closely to their students and flex accordingly.

  6. I would love to see your docs if possible? I’d love to share with my son’s teacher, as well as with my son. Thank you!

  7. Pingback: [Grades]: More recent experiences | Lost In Recursion

  8. ‘Free math’ / ‘Free writing’.
    Brilliant. I’ll cajole, promote, and encourage. In the meantime, I’m a Language Arts teacher.
    But honestly, I love the notion of ‘free math’.

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