Monday, April 23, 2018

Making Bad Choices

I am in favor of student voice and student choice. I believe that my kids will be more invested if I give them the option to choose what they want to learn (always within the borders of what I want them to learn and within reason). 

I also believe that my students will make some really goofy choices that might end up blowing up in their faces, and I have to accept that in order to keep the whole Student Choice edifice from falling down around my ears. 

For the last few years I have done a version of TEDtalks (that link takes you to the assignment) in my class wherein my kids are allowed to pick anything they want to talk about, research that topic (don't do it off the top of your head, yes I know you think you know it but that's not the goal or purpose), and then give a five minute talk about that topic without any notes of any kind. When I introduce the lesson I say in italics "you may choose ANYTHING you want. Yes anything. Can you talk about what? Is that an anything? Then yes. Still yes. Also yes. BUT-" and then I include guidelines like it's your job to make us as the audience care about the thing you're talking about, you're not to just spit facts and figures you found on the internet at us, but relate it to yourself and, if possible, to us in some way. Choice, within boundaries. I give you the end point and a map, you choose how you get there. 

Here's the thing- some kids will choose to get there by airplane, making the trip as quick and easily as possible. Others will choose to go by rusty one-wheeled bicycle (not an actual unicycle, but a bicycle that is missing a wheel). 

And I have to let them. 

That's when the project gets hard for me. I have to choke back the urge to say "Umm, this topic you've pick. It''s gonna be really hard and you should pick something else. I'm not saying you have to change topics, I'm just saying that you might want to change topics." I can't do that. That destroys the structure of choice because then the student starts bringing me ideas and looking for approval. Then who is doing the choosing? I am. 

I can guide once the choice is made though. Nudge, staying within my boundaries and their choice. "Ok, you've chosen x. What do you know about it? Why should I care? How can you talk about it while talking about something else?" I love that last question. It's really hard to answer. I push the kids to think about layers. We watch a ton of TEDtalks, like this one by astronaut Chris Hadfield called "What I Learned From Going Blind In Space". I ask, "What was that about?" They say, "Him going blind in space." "No! Well, only kinda. He spent maybe five of the eighteen minutes telling that particular story. What's the talk really about?" Eventually we get to "It's about fear, and dealing with being afraid." YES! That's the Big Goal. Use your TEDtalk to talk about a sport, sure, but talk about something else by talking about the sport. Again- I know this is really difficult. It's supposed to be. I let them pick the topic to make it easier. 

Let's look at the list of topics my students this year have chosen. See if you can pick out who is flying to the goal via airplane and who is trying to pump up a flat bike tire.

Movie- lessons about never giving up
Dodgers- history of
Gymnastics- moves
How to drive a Formula One car
Fortnite- mods and online
Football- Julio Jones
Squishies- how they're made
NBA- Boston Celtics, Kyrie Irving
softball- history of
ballet- Missie Copeland
Minecraft- learning through
space- how the planets work together
magic- tricks
Five Nights a Freddy's- game design and mechanics
Astros- failure to success
Splatoon 2- why is it good?
MLP- Magical Mystery Cure- Being true to yourself
Soccer- you can play it anywhere
Contortion- what it is and means
How sports helps students academically
Benefits of reading and why it's not a punishment
animal body language
professional wrestling
Great Wolf Lodge- MagiQuest, failure is good
graffiti/conquering your fears
Soccer- equipment and how to play it
astrology- your sign doesn't matter

There's sports and video games and tv shows and all kinds of things fifth graders are obsessed with. I had to talk to each of these kids and aim them at their goal without changing their vehicle. 

Teaching is hard. It's also incredibly exciting. These two states exist simultaneously all the time. I can not wait to see how My Little Pony becomes a TEDtalk. I have no idea how squishies will be related to the rest of the class in a way they care about, but I'm very interested to see what happens. Am I worried they won't work? Yup. Do I want to step in and say, "Come here and let me do this with you so it can be done right, because we can make this work." Yup. But I'm not going to. That will come after. I want the students to do this on their own after our initial meeting. I have to play Ivan Drago, stand back, and say, "If he (metaphorically) dies, he dies."

That's the part of student choice that doesn't get talked about enough. Student choice sometimes means student failure. Student choice means letting students choose poorly so that they might learn to either choose better next time or make their poor choice work. Which means teacher fears about student choice are completely founded. There is no room for mockery or looking down on teachers who hesitate to invest deeply in student choice. Easy to say when they aren't your kids, when it isn't your job, your classroom. Investing in student choice means letting your kids fail, and fail hard, until they learn not to. There's a lot of pressure on teachers to have our kids succeed. You need some combination of the right admin, the right team, the right mindset to make it work and to stick with it for the long haul, watching kids get better at choice, watching them learn to fail faster and earlier in the process that they might revise before the finish comes. 

TEDtalks start tomorrow. Like the night before any project I'm more nervous about what's going to be presented in a few hours than I would be if I was doing the presenting. I've given over control and am running on trust and faith that this way will serve my students in the long term, no matter how it does now.

And if they fail then we talk about how to do it better. We reflect and revise and (they don't know this yet so don't tell them) I'll let them do it again. I don't tell them, by the way, because they'll use that as a Get Out Of Jail Free card. I want the initial pressure.

I'll be in the back of the room tomorrow sending thoughts to my students like I always do. Please be good. Please find ways to layer your talks. Please be relatable. Please be rehearsed. Please have learned and show it. Please trust me, I know it's hard. You can do it. 

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird TeacherTHE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher


  1. Can’t wait to hear how this went. Voice and choice sounds easy.... but it is hard to watch the crash and not step in like a superhero to save the day. Enjoyed your post!

  2. Ohh, can hardly wait to hear! However it goes at the presentation, it’ll be great.

  3. I do this in upper HS classes and struggle with allowing students to thrive/fail/walk that fine line. I cannot imagine how it feels to do that in elementary school. Good luck to all your little TEDs.

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