7 Times to Put Students in Control of English Class

Sara: It's not easy to surrender control and trust middle school students to make decisions that will impact your curriculum, classroom, or content. 

But squeezing too tightly to your control can also choke their learning, especially in middle school, a time when students need to learn independent problem-solving. 

Writing with me today is Darlene Anne (the ELA Buffet), a fellow middle school ELA teacher.

Why share control?

Darlene: Put yourself into the typical day of a middle school student for a moment.

You wake up. You’re immediately told that you have to leave for school ten minutes early because the carpool driver has other kids to pick up. You find out that after school you’ll have to do your homework in the dentist’s office because your brother has an appointment before you all have to go to Grandma’s for her birthday. You finally get to school and you’re told where to sit, what to write, and… you know where this is going.

Our middle schoolers get bossed around a lot. This powerlessness can result in poor relationships and lack of motivation.

By giving our kids choices, we’re giving them a chance to exert some control over their overly controlled lives. We’re also helping them develop life skills. Making choices requires them to think critically and practice problem-solving.

How can teachers promote choice in the classroom? Here are some ideas I use in my middle school ELA classroom that can easily be tweaked to apply to other content areas.

1. Make assignment parameters negotiable.

Darlene: Present ideas to students, and allow them to negotiate a decision with you. This can be as simple as asking students to decide a due date for a project, or as complex as deciding on which technology tools should be used to facilitate a unit of study. When choices are presented in this way, students present an argument and solve problems, so even the process itself becomes a learning opportunity.

Sara: Even if you can’t give students total control over a decision, you can give them options for things like due dates or tools. For example, when we do writing assignments, I have often given students an “early bird deadline” with a reward (such as Friday) in addition to the “final deadline” (i.e. Monday). This way, I’m rewarding students who work ahead without punishing the students who need more time; it’s also time management practice for students to make the decision.

2. Allow multiple note-taking styles.

Darlene: Allow kids to choose what kind of notes to take during lessons. I encourage kids to choose between guided Cornell notes or interactive foldables. Some prefer not to use guided notes and will instead create their own doodle notes. As long as they have the information they need, the format really doesn’t matter.

Sara: I firmly believe this applies to graphic organizers and brainstorming, too. Even if you’ve built a GREAT brainstorming paper to help with writing, not all students might think that way. It’s helpful to either give several templates (a web, chart, etc.) or allow students to deviate from your method.

3. Provide more than 1 writing prompt.

Darlene: Provide a choice of writing prompts. I often embed choices in an assignment like this, which is a screenshot from my Independent Reading Response Journal.

Sara: Allowing more than one question or prompt is also really important for differentiation; changing the verbs, the level of critical thinking, or the depth of knowledge required helps students enter the topic wherever they are.

4. Let students impact your classroom’s appearance.

Darlene: Before school even starts, control the urge to get the classroom d├ęcor Pinterest-perfect. Ask kids what they find inspiring. Give them a selection of colors and themes and have them vote. If that’s not possible, leave one bulletin board blank, and allow the kids to decide what the display should be.

I currently have a “Wacky Wall” in my room. When kids find a funny joke, book quote, or cartoon, they pin it up on the wall. Right underneath, I have a display called “Books Guaranteed to Get a Giggle.” Those books never remain on the shelves for long. It’s the equivalent of the impulse-buy section at the register in the supermarket!

Sara: I’m terrible at making pretty bulletin boards, so most of mine have been displays that show cumulative progress, such as adding names to the Million Word Reader wall or coloring in a giant thermometer to show progress toward a goal. Students can help you update a progress-oriented display, OR they can help decide what they want to show off.

5. Trust peer instruction & discussions. 

Sara: We sometimes ask students to do a lot of listening and quiet time in a school day, so letting them lead a discussion OR do full-blown peer instruction can make engagement so much better. In addition to Socratic Seminars or panel-style presentations, we've had a lot of fun with this Grammar Video Project, in which students get to put creative spins on a grammar topic to show their understanding. (I've also let students peer teach short stories.)

6. Mix in choice texts alongside assigned ones.

Darlene: Allow students control over their reading selections by encouraging independent reading over class novels. I like to allow kids free choice within a genre. This ensures that our similar experiences will allow for rich class discussions and pointed lessons.

Sara: If you have an independent reading program, resist the urge to overly control their genres and permissions. For example, if a student wants to re-read a book from the past, let them. They’re likely to get more out of it the second time.

7. Give options to show learning on summative assessments.

Darlene: Encourage kids to choose their preferred method of demonstrating what they have learned. I recently assigned a research project in which students had to research an era, as a way of “priming the pump” before a reading unit. I taught all students how to use their Chromebooks and Adobe Spark Video to create short movies, and this is what I had in mind as a means of presentation. After some class discussions, I did allow students alternate means of presenting their research. And I am so glad I did! One group created a graphic novel style piece, with the research embedded in the text. Another group created a “time-travel” brochure. Their creativity far surpassed my initial ideas about the assignment.

Sara: Don’t forget to think creatively about the content of a quiz or test. In the past, I’ve given students 5 short answer questions and told them to answer at least 3 of them. As long as they show you mastery of a particular standard or goal, slight variations of what questions they answer doesn’t really matter.

What other suggestions do you have?
Tell us in the comments!

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