enthusiastic students

The Power of Student Choice

When we do technological innovation with our students, it is important the we keep the proper objectives in our minds. We want students to learn the content, innovate, collaborate, and think critically. These are absolutes.

That being said, the way they go about it does not matter so much. Does it matter how they do it? Do they all have to create something in the exact same way?

Recently, I had two projects in my classes, one for Frederick Douglass in my ELA class, and the other for the development of the North and South prior to the Civil War. I had been struggling to motivate and excite my students about ThingLink, but with these projects I opted instead to give students the option of using it. In other words, I let them choose the format for creating the project. They could create a ThingLink, an iMovie documentary, a blog post, a tri-fold poster, a Minecraft village, or any other ideas they they had.

The results far exceeded anything I could conceivably create. One pair of students created a professional-quality documentary, while another used a statistical map of the U.S. as the backdrop for a ThingLink. Others created blog posts protesting slavery by using Douglass’ life as evidence of its evils.

To be sure, I doubt that I could motivate every student to create a ThingLink or a village in Minecraft. Some were excited to write blog posts, but many opted out of that. The standards do not require students to master ThingLink or iMovie or Aurasma or Minecraft. Even the ISTE standards promote creativity and collaboration, but not specific apps or products.

In other words, when we learn about a fancy new tool at a conference, not every student will enjoy it, and that’s okay. It is one tool at our disposal, one way to motivate students.

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Empathy Maps and Vivid Discussions

Last week, I tried some new ideas. Students did a two-day activity called empathy maps for the Britain and the Colonies, where they had to analyze how each side viewed the conflicts of the 1760s and 1770s, what they thought and felt, their prospective gain, and their possible pain. It was a great way to incorporate cooperative learning and keeping students engaged on the task at hand. After they had completed, they posted their maps on the classroom walls and viewed everyone’s work.

I then wanted to take a few minutes to debrief and allow students to share their reactions to their own work and the work of their classmates. I wanted to review what each side would see, hear, think, and feel during the turbulent 1760s and 1770s.

However, we didn’t have time to design a Socratic Circle or have students generate questions. Predictably, I had the same four or five students participating. This has always been a challenge for me, and I had to think quickly to elicit more participation.

An idea suddenly popped into my head: ask other students what they thought of the previous student’s comment. I had done in previous years, but this time, I did so in a completely unthreatening way. I did not ask in a way that said, “why aren’t you participating?” I asked in a way that said, “I am curious to hear what you have to say.”

When I called on a student to ask what he or she thought about the previous student’s comment, the student agreed without adding anything or questioning anything. On that level, this experiment didn’t yield any fruit. Surprisingly, however, it resulted in many more hands being raised and more eager participation.

Why was this? Perhaps it was because I was modeling for students that I was curious to hear what they had to say, rather than merely getting angry for not participating (which is what I have typically done in the past).

In the end, I don’t really know why it worked. But does it matter? Is there anything better than seeing people eager to participate in a class discussion?