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My hardest year of teaching involved a sixth grade self-contained class about four years ago. Somehow, I got off on the wrong foot. I had just been an instructional coach and I felt, on some level, that I could handle any classroom situation.

I was wrong.

I had never had a group interrupt me, yell at each other, and throw things on the first day of school. They weren’t naturally bad, but they had been together for 3-6 years and had experienced two years with a string of subs and no permanent teacher. I responded poorly. I yelled at my class; which is embarrassing now and felt even more embarrassing back then. I remember apologizing to the group and they didn’t really know to respond. I had moments when I simply checked out, paralyzed by my inability to lead this group. It was humbling.

In the process, I restricted student choice. We scrapped the Geek Out Projects and the Genius Hour after they talked over me during directions and used the independent time to talk to each other and cause trouble. I cut our first design thinking project short when I decided that they couldn’t handle it. I switched to highly structured assignments. Things got worse. Still, I didn’t want to provide choice with a class that couldn’t handle it.

However, two weeks later, as we began blogging, I noticed something. They were fully engaged. They were on-task. They weren’t perfect. A few of them were playing games on their devices instead of learning. But there was a difference. They were buying in. It was the first project where they had any kind of choice. They were choosing the themes, the topics, the ideas, and the multimedia elements.

The entire room felt different.

Slowly, I began adding more choice. We did a cardboard challenge and a design project. I added a few MacGyver-style projects to push divergent thinking. The class remained difficult for the entire first semester. I still had moments when I lost my cool. And yet . . . the more they felt empowered, the better they behaved.

Choice Isn’t a Privilege

Looking back on this experience, I realize a critical mistake I had made. I had treated student choice as a privilege that I could add or take away depending upon the behavior of a class. I assumed that it was better to start with more restrictions and slowly “give” freedom as we moved along. Students responded with resentment, anger, and defiance. I responded poorly to their response.

The truth is I was afraid of student choice. I knew it could work with a typical classroom. But what about a hard class? What about a group where I am regularly missing 4-5 students a week for suspensions around playground fighting, graffiti, and drug possession? I was scared that autonomy would lead to anarchy. I was also proud and even a little arrogant. I had a positive reputation in my district and suddenly I was struggling. I didn’t want to be found out. I felt powerless and so I tried to micromanage.

And yet, when I began to incorporate student choice, things started to change. It began with little things, like the design projects and it grew into having students select their own strategies, choose their own interventions, and engage in self-assessment. It took time for them to adjust to this freedom but it took even longer for me to trust this idea that student choice was the solution and not the problem.

I no longer believe that choice is a privilege. I believe it is a fundamental right. It’s something that all students need. But more importantly, it is something that works. It can feel risky to empower a student who misbehaves. However, it is worth the risk. I’ve learned that so many students, labeled for years as being the “bad kids” do amazing things when they feel empowered to own their learning.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • Karen C. says:

    Thank you for your honesty. I find that all too often, we do not freely admit mistakes or when we are having challenges in the classroom. I, too, have fallen into that horrible trap, and it is a miserable cycle, isn’t it! It is interesting how taking away freedom and choice is the first we think of in those times: no partner work, no talking, no noises. Nothing! That just exacerbates the problem and punishes the teacher while the kids have fun acting as ventriloquists (I would have done the same!).

    Letting loose in the classroom was difficult for me to do, but I always found that when I did, things went much better. I recall a principal coming into my room once asking why it was so loud. She came into my room and I asked her to just listen to the conversations. She was listening to students debate about a variety of decisions they had to make for their Shark Tank project. She seemed satisfied, left and I rarely saw her again!

    Thank you great reading!


  • Self reflection is so important because you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. You made the changes necessary to provide choice and in turn were rewarded with student engagement. Engaging any class can be a challenge, but a difficult one would definitely be the one to feel better about their surroundings with some reason to buy in to learning.
    Choice as a person is so important, especially in a classroom where creativity is encouraged. I try to provide my students with as much choice as possible because I know that means they are choosing what they want and are taking ownership. When we own it, we care about it and take pride in it. My literacy block is modeled after the Daily 5 program because it is based on choice. Students choose books that interest them, they choose their reading partner, and they choose what order they do their tasks. It is remarkable to see students motivation change with choices.
    Giving choices to my students has spread to so many areas within my classroom day that I think it’s important to share with others so that they too can add a different feel to their classrooms. So I’ll leave a few suggestions here for others who may want to try something new. When I sign up for artist’s in the classroom, I have my students vote on their choice. When it’s art time, my students choose their colors as well as the color of the pages that mat their work. Students get to vote on what we play for PE, and they vote to choose which book I’ll read to the class next. I do all of this, and share it with you because the end result is that relationships and trust can be built when students have a voice and some choice.

  • Pam Landy says:

    I truly appreciate your honesty and ability to acknowledge you were wrong. I am a fellow teacher and feel that some teachers think they always have the right answers. They are not willing to own a mistake and learn from it. It’s what we do with our mistakes that makes all the difference. You found such a valuable solution in your original mistake!

    One of the best pieces of advice I was given (before I had my own classroom) was to speak to students as if their parent/guardian was standing right next to us. Now that’s not to say everything in my classroom is always picture perfect, but it has always helped me stop and think about the words and tone I use with my students.

    Nine years ago, my first class was filled with behavior issues (as they had started the year with a revolving door of substitutes). Like you, I also tried to restrict the “fun” activities and lessons if they had misbehaved, and it also backfired. I soon realized I would need to change my mindset and help our classroom become a community that was built on respect. Then we would be able to have a classroom that was able to handle choices and actively engage in lessons. Those “fun” lessons where students had autonomy to make decisions was a breakthrough for me. I also realized my students were captivated and the major behavior issues fell by the wayside.

    My current students are loving the following student choices:
    – the freedom to choose three books from the school library every week (within their reading level)
    – the place they want to read during independent reading time
    – the freedom to stand or sit during lessons (as long as it doesn’t disturb others)
    – the order their group completes collaborative assignments
    – the freedom to show me multiplication in the method that makes the most sense to them

    Your words, “I no longer believe that choice is a privilege. I believe it is a fundamental right. It’s something that all students need. But more importantly, it is something that works” deeply resonate with me. I wholeheartedly agree with you. Every day, my students’ overall good behavior and engagement remind me that choice is imperative for students to achieve their academic potential. Thank you for sharing your experience and solutions. I can only imagine how many teachers you’ve already helped!

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