In an earlier post, I discussed the value of student voice and the benefits for individual students and the school as a whole when students have meaningful voice and leadership opportunities. When I talk about the concept of student voice at professional development workshops for educators, I explain it this way: we want students to have a voice in what, how, where, and/or when they learn.
My teaching certification is in Special Education, so I originally learned some of these ideas through a differentiation lens, adapting the content (WHAT), process (HOW to take in new learning), and product (HOW to demonstrate what has been learned) for different student needs. Here, we’re taking that idea a step further to say 1) let’s enable students to make these decisions for themselves, and 2) let’s do this for all students, not just for students with IEPs.
Now that we know what we’re trying to do, what does that actually look like in a classroom?
Choice boards are a great option for teachers who are just starting to offer more choice or may be nervous about giving up some control. Teachers have more control over a student’s choice because they are the ones determining which options are on the board. Let’s break down each of these four elements, one by one, keeping in mind, we do not need to offer all four elements of choice at once. Some days, you can offer choice in the WHAT, other days the HOW. Try one piece at a time!
CHOICE IN WHAT TO LEARN
Let’s say I’m teaching a History class. I want students to understand the theme of Global revolutions. If ultimately what I want from the unit is for students to understand the basic ingredients of a revolution and the different types of revolution, I could present students with a choice board that contains links (or page numbers to read in a physical text) to different revolutions. Students could choose WHAT they are learning about.
Side note for teachers freaking out about teaching history thematically, not chronologically: Once I switched over to thematic teaching during my third year of teaching, I never wanted to go back to chronological teaching. It takes some guts to make the shift, but my students understood core historical concepts much better this way. Also, choice boards don’t require thematic teaching. You could teach one revolution and have students dive into different “ingredients” of the revolution or players in the revolution.
Side note for teachers who don’t teach history: Choice boards are not just for History. For example, in Math, you could have students choose in WHAT context they want to see a mathematical concept being applied.
The point about a “WHAT” choice board is that we can increase student engagement (and relatedly, student learning and retention), when we give students opportunities to explore what they’re most interested in.
If you’re brand new to this, start with 2-3 choices. You don’t need to fill up a tic-tac-toe board with 9 options. That’s a lot for you as a teacher and sometimes when I try to offer too many choices, it’s either overwhelming to students or some of my choices are just not as high quality as others. (If you find yourself thinking “I don’t want them to choose that option,” my suggestion is take out that option!)
CHOICE IN HOW TO LEARN
Let’s take the same History example. Maybe letting students pick which revolution to explore is just way too much choice for you to offer as you start to experiment with choice boards. Instead of proving the choice in WHAT they learn, try offering choice in HOW they learn. So, I want students to learn about a particular revolution, but I offer various means for taking in the information: text, video, interactive game or app, and live small group mini lesson. (These options are pretty content agnostic, so you could do these in any subject.)
CHOICE IN HOW TO DEMONSTRATE LEARNING
Let’s say you want to teach the same way you always have, but you’re interested in giving more choice in how students are assessed. You could give students a choice board with different options: record a video (e.g., giving a mini lesson, solving a problem, analyzing a text, or narrating the steps of an experiment), create a slideshow and present to the class, write a song, interview someone in podcast format, write a paper). Again, these are content agnostic choices.
Ready to get started with choice boards?
Google Image search “Choice Boards” and you’ll find lots of ideas to get you started! Just remember, a lot of these will have 9 choices, don’t start there! It’s too much for you and too much for your kids! Pick 2 or 3 options to start.
If you’re a teacher who loves a good template, I have one for you! (Note: It does include 9 boxes, but you could use 2-3 boxes corresponding to the column headings or 2-3 boxes corresponding to the row categories.) Click the link below to get your hands on it. It’s a Google Doc template, so you can make a copy and adapt it as you wish!
I’m cheering you on as you design those opportunities to amplify student voice and choice in your classroom, and I can’t wait to hear how it goes!
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Lindsay Lyons (she/her) is an educational justice coach who works with teachers and school leaders to inspire educational innovation for racial and gender justice, design curricula grounded in student voice, and build capacity for shared leadership. Lindsay taught in NYC public schools, holds a PhD in Leadership and Change, and is the founder of the educational blog and podcast, Time for Teachership.