Getting some perspective: Choice and Authenticity in the Learning Process

When I think of increasing student choice and voice this leads me to think about increasing student motivation and happiness. And when these ideas coalesce I can’t help but think of Malcolm Gladwell’s Ted Talk (I realize this is a strange connection to make, but hear me out). Gladwell discusses how Prego, back in the ’70s, took over the sauce market by flooding it with CHOICE – what a concept! By offering people a multitude of sauces, everyone found something that they needed and it all came through the simplicity of making a choice. 

We already know that giving students choice increases engagement – and yes, happiness, too! And that there are multiple ways to give such choice: who they collaborate with, the resources that they use, how they will share out their knowledge/skills, the topic they will connect to, the text type they will follow, the standards they will be assessed on, deadlines, etc…

But knowing and allowing for opportunities where real choice exists…those are two different things. Accessing a student’s intrinsic motivation automatically increases accountability for their learning, and it is this accountability that can make all the difference.

Student choice isn’t the only driving force in overall engagement. There are other factors that connect to this sense of intrinsic motivation. Allison and Rebekah in their book, “Beyond Literary Analysis”, cite the importance of authenticity in this process, as well: The necessity of students to be given opportunities to write for the real world.

Opportunities to engage in real-world writing are endless.

Teachers need to be able to let go a little bit though; we need to be able to see that there are multiple paths. Because through a combination of choice and authenticity, students can find their own path; they can find more meaning in their learning. And this leads to teachers becoming a guide. Leading each student through their learning journey: sometimes walking beside them, sometimes in behind, but always there to navigate the obstacles and high-five when a mountain is conquered. 

Jim Bentley of the Buck Institute of Education (rooted in project-based learning) confirms student choice as redefining the position of the teacher from knowledge authority to learning guide.

Engagement is a fire that can quickly die out when things get challenging. That’s where it’s important to build in student voice and choice… With student voice and choice, teachers are managing the work of students not controlling it.

Letting student choice guide my way…

In grade 10, we  just finished our second unit:

  • Unit: Film/TV Show Review (film must be based on a social issue)
  • Deliverable: Film Review Script & 3 min. video (emulating The Idea Channel)
  • Analytical Rubric for the formative process.

The Film/TV Shows ranged from “The Help”, to “Black Mirror” episode, to “Slumdog Millionaire”. Students had full ownership over this choice (there was, however, some guidance given when a movie was not going to be able to develop a strong implicit claim such as “Get Out”).

Through a process of watching and analyzing their show, students were ready to begin their writing process:

Step One: Build some content

It is important that students get words on the page. If they don’t have visible ideas (and lots of them), then I can’t help them in the revision process. All that brainstorming and analyzing and outlining ends up on a page (paper or digital). And it might be messy and unorganized and be way too much – but that is okay. First drafts should be that way.

The messiness of the first draft of the reviews was a beautiful thing – all of those beginning ideas that could be silly or insightful or anything in between. Because when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter what is written, it matters that they write. (They can determine importance later). Building content early gives students an opportunity to play with their writing; it gives an opportunity to craft it with purpose.

For me, this early content creation is the hardest part of the process. Where does the initial investment come from? How can we get students to want to build it early?

Answer: It comes from the ability to make choices and to self-regulate their learning process…to see the relevance in what they are doing. 

(This is a work in progress – but it is a battle that I am determined to win).

Because we all like to feel in control, and students are no different. When we are able to shift the focus away from what we, the teacher, wants them to do and toward what they, the students, are interested in doing … then the learning becomes an opportunity for growth (through their process) rather than an indication of their worth (through a summative grade).

Step Two: Find some mentor texts

This is where the fun begins: sentence study and emulation for the win!

I use NPR and The AV Club for the most part. Both of these sites provide reviews from all sorts of movies and TV shows and present a multitude of voices from formal to conversational in tone.

(If you search the MovingWriters site for sentence study resources, you will find many. Allison’s post on reading like a writer has some great reminders and practical applications though)

Students need to read better writing and practice mimicking better writing in order to build new writing habits. And this takes time. And it takes consistent practice. Once a student learns these skills of reading like a writer – of identifying what a sentence is doing in order to emulate it – they start to take more ownership of their writing. They start to see that they have a sense of control over what they say, how they say it, and how it is received.

And it is this manipulation of language that they start to appreciate. Once they feel the power of it, they tend to start to build their content earlier since they know that the fun part comes after.

Here is an example of a first draft and emulated final copy of a student’s introduction:

First DraftEmulation of First Draft

[I am not sure of the exact mentor text that was used, but you can definitely see the change in tone, style, and language from her first to final draft.]

Using mentor texts from the real world also adds to that sense of authenticity. This student’s reflection on their process of emulation was that she was able to see the relevance of what she was creating. She also commented on the fact that she could choose the tone of voice she wanted and the punctuation that she wanted to use. She feels that the skill of emulation makes her look “more professional” (she blushed as she said these words – my heart!)

Step Three: Make it Multimodal

All of my students use technology. Every day. All day.

Recognition of this digitally immersed generation is important when considering how they are going to demonstrate their learning.

The written word is important, and students need to be able to demonstrate an ability to express themselves in a variety of contexts by controlling language for purpose and audience. However, if we only rely on the written word as a deliverable (either on paper or in a google doc), then we are missing opportunities to engage students in relevant contexts (relevant mainly to them, but still).

A parallel aspect of this film review unit was to emulate PBS’ The Idea Channel. Here is one example of what a student created. [He is talking quickly because (1) the Idea Channel host talks quickly, too]

Upon reflection, students enjoyed taking the words off their page and into a video context – some of them wished they had spent more time adding effects, but this goes back to the building content early thing – sigh.

Step four: Amplify the learning

If you are not already familiar with the New York Times Student Contest Calendar, then you want to be. I definitely don’t plan every unit around this calendar, but there are multiple opportunities for my students to submit to it whether it be through a class unit (such as this film review), through the free writing time (currently working on the editorial cartoon), or working one-on-one with students who appreciate a certain mode of writing.

Students submitted their reviews to this contest and they are excited to find out if they or any of their peers will be acknowledged. It is this excitement of putting your work out into the public realm – knowing that someone beyond a few peers and a teacher are going to look at it (or judge it!) – can help students to engage more purposefully in their learning.

Increasing motivation and engagement is what we strive for on a daily basis, and by giving choice and by raising student voice, this goal can be met. For without motivation and engagement, there is no push to learn, and without choice and voice, there is no authenticity in the learning.

How do you find ways to increase voice and choice? Where do you find opportunities to amplify learning? What are you finding are the challenges and advantages of navigating a students path of choice and voice?

Share your ideas with me on Twitter @readwritemore

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