Meryl Ironson is an eighth grade English Teacher at Black River Middle School in Chester, NJ. She is also an adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Reading at Centenary College in Hackettstown, NJ. Meryl is dedicated to creating a positive climate where students are empowered through connectivity, and the momentum of their own passion for learning.
“Ok, here we go.” I position myself so everyone can see. Palms open to the ceiling, I begin; “Your choices are…” and I pause. There are few phrases in my middle school classroom that yield the same profound, collective attention. Eyes wide open, laser focused, and knowing they will have a personal say in what they do, or how they do it -- my kids are empowered.
Who doesn’t like choices? The 1970’s Burger King slogan; “have it your way” encouraged burger-eaters to customize their food. Go ahead, they challenged, throw in extra tomatoes, add cheese, pull off the onions...we don’t care, we’re still selling you a burger! After generations of eating hamburgers someone else’s way, the consumer finally felt validated.
Admittedly, I enjoy the power, too. At any given restaurant, I scan the salad options in order to assess what kind of choices I’ve been given. I look for my favorite greens combined with the right balance of accoutrements. Seldom, do I find myself satisfied with someone else’s version of the perfect summer-salad. I end up traveling off the menu to include sliced sun dried tomatoes, ripe avocado or chopped walnuts--and always ‘dressing on the side’. Truth be told, most cookie cutter salads, leave me flat.
When it comes to our students, we tell to make the work -- “their own.” We teach them to understand that the individual work they produce reflects well, or ill upon them. But what does that mean when they are filling in a worksheet, or completing a template-based project where the assignment is created and assessed in a way that is anything BUT individualized? All I’m saying is that we have to find the balance between channeling our energies towards a common standard, and a less common way to teach. Sure, we can have a standardization of assessing, but we also have the power to reject the idea of a standardization of learning. As teachers, we own this power to offer choice in product and process. By becoming the captains of this ship, we encourage our students to do the same--after all, isn’t that life?? (virtual high five!!)
Don’t misunderstand, I don’t equate choice in product, with meaningless diorama work, glitter encrusted posters and weeks where the dining room table overflows with crafty paraphernalia. This type of work, tends to present less scholarly value. But gone are the days when every unit must end with a multiple choice test, or a true or false quiz. Many units of study lend themselves to more creative strands of assessments in order to see if what has been taught, has also been learned. By offering choices in the product, we can allow students to create an end result driven by individual learning styles, capabilities, and interest.
For example, let’s look at a unit taught on character analysis. The unit focuses on static vs dynamic characters, direct characterization and internal and external conflicts. Now the teacher wants to see if students understand the components of the unit so she provides a specific rubric outlining the criteria for the product. Enter...choice. Some student may use the vehicle of technology to create a movie trailer of the character that depicts the components of analysis using music, video clips, audio clips, and animation. Would this student be able to demonstrate understanding of how dialogue reveals character traits?? Sure! Would they be able to demonstrate how the character’s actions depict a static or dynamic persona? Absolutely! Maybe the student creates a (fake) facebook page on a character illustrating friends, music or, favorite quotes that reflects personality, thought, and actions. Could these elements illustrate an understanding of direct characterization based upon a page that actually highlights a personality?? Without question! The vehicle can make the difference as to how the content is presented, but if the vehicle is motivating and drives the processing of information presented, chances are--criteria won’t solely be met, it will be exceeded. If we give the parameters and the time, we are encouraging our kids to become problem solvers, we are trusting them to the complexities of a task where they are personally invested. Talk about ownership.
Framework, guidelines, and routine in daily class structure can jacket the freedom of process choice--and this is key. After a direct teaching lesson of an ‘I do’, a practice segment of a ‘we do’, it’s time for the ‘you do’. I have a saying in my class when it’s time for independent work; “Go where you want, but work where you go.” As if on cue, some grab cushions and bolt to the corners of the room to plop down on the floor, while others spread out on the side table. Some stay where they are, while others snag a friend and head for the round-reading table for a quick, collaborative confirmation of instruction before settling in. Even the choice to sit where they want is an empowering motivator...they have a personal say in the process of their own learning.
While many believe that we have become a society more concerned with the outcome rather than the process of education, I remain convinced that for my kids to learn, to truly learn, they must be personally invested in both. After all, learning is the ultimate outcome.