Challenging Students through Choice

My daughter has been learning how to read, so we’ve started her on some of those steps into reading books. Since she’s in love with everything Disney, she has all kinds of Disney reader books. From Belle to Minnie Mouse, The Incredibles to Ratatouille, you name it, that book is probably somewhere in our house.

The books are leveled 1-4, one obviously being beginner readers and four being more independent readers. I noticed recently that my daughter has been picking books based not on the level but the story. She obviously struggles through the higher-level books. There are some really tough words in them, and we have to help her through them. She struggles, for sure, but she continues to work through them because she loves the stories. She is willing to go through a tougher challenge because the content is more engaging to her.

I remember doing similar things when I was younger. In elementary school, I would check out some more high school level books about space because I was really interested in learning about quasars and black holes. There were a lot of difficult scientific concepts, and I’m sure I didn’t completely understand everything I read. I read it because I wanted to learn more about the subject not because of how difficult it was.

Often, when we give our students choice over content, we can actually challenge them beyond what they may normally do. I’ve seen this play out with a couple of different things in my class. The first is independent reading choice. For at least half of the year, I let my students choose which books they want to read. Sometimes it’s completely independent choice, and others it’s a choice from a selection of four or five books that they read in groups. When they have complete autonomy over the content that they are reading, I push them really hard with some of the tougher literary analysis concepts. Symbolism, motif, and theme are often like pulling teeth when I’m trying to get them to do it for a literary classic, but let them pick a horror story and suddenly how and why the dark setting help create a tense mood and how it can be symbolic of the darkness inside the killer. You can use this to then build into those tougher classics that you teach and bridge the gap. As a side bonus, I have seen students who “don’t like to read” devour a Stephen King or Dan Brown novel. Students who you wouldn’t pick up a short story read a thousand page book because they are into Stephen King’s suspense or Tom Clancy’s political thrillers. They may not completely finish the novel, but they are challenging themselves. They are learning and growing.

Often, when we give our students choice over content, we can actually challenge them beyond what they may normally do.

Lee Tucker

I’ve seen similar successes with research writing. I’ve always hated teaching research writing because for some reason it’s hard to get students to understand citation. A couple of years ago, I started doing multi-genre research projects where students choose their research topic and create a variety of writings on it. Students are often reluctant to do research in class, but they do it all the time at home when they look up YouTube videos about how a new wrestling move they want to learn or search on Google for information about a level they’re stuck on in a game. Once they find the topic they are interested in, suddenly the research process becomes relevant. Then I drop in lessons about credible sources, in-text citations, and the work cited entries. I had a student who struggled to write single paragraphs create a research project of over 1300 words on ADHD because she wanted to learn more about herself.

Think about ways that you can offer students a choice in order to help them engage with the skills that you want them to develop. What options can get them? Whether it’s content, product, or process, what kinds of things can they have freedom over? Then, find ways to push them into more rigorous and challenging activities.

What are some ways you’ve been able to incorporate choice into your content? How did you use it to push your students beyond what they think they can do? Leave a comment and let me know!

Published by Lee Tucker

Lee Tucker is a high school English teacher who not only teaches literature and writing but also creates it himself. Lee is a huge fan of fantasy and science fiction, video games, comic books, and all things nerdy.

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