Ruth’s Memoir-ish Monday: Give Choice a Chance

So we’ve been studying persuasion in my ninth grade English class.  Since my students were required to write a persuasive piece, I placed the same expectation on myself.  I’m “getting away” using this as my Memoir Monday post because I used a narrative scene as evidence to support my claim.  I was inspired by my November 2007 Memoir Monday post about a former student, written in response to Stacey’s challenge of writing about someone who has changed us.   Below is my editorial, “Give Choice a Chance.”  (It is long, so if you want to skip to the memoir-ish section, it is in green.)

 

Give Choice a Chance

By Ruth Ayres

 

Sitting in a cinder block white walled room, fluorescent bulbs pulsating and a voice droning on, “This is a classic piece of literature, everyone should read it . . . “ Meanwhile, all you keep thinking is, Great, another easy A. All I have to do is sit in class and listen to what I should think. Tonight I’ll hop on Spark Notes to find out what else I should think and then I’ll take the test to prove all of my good thinking. I won’t even have to open the book. And with that, you check out, smiling to yourself about that great party you’ll be going to on Friday night.

This is the life of American high school students. They go through their school days being told what to think, what to do, and how to do it. Our top kids are able to regurgitate information to please the teacher. The others fall through the cracks.

In English, the one class that is most about making sense of life and our place in it, student choice is often limited the most. As choice is limited, so is motivation. When motivation decreases, so do the number of successful students. It is time to begin offering more choice in English courses in order to empower students to make their own decisions about writing, reading, and making sense of the world. By doing this, our students will become thoughtful, active, and productive citizens that will change the world for the better.

Learning happens when students understand what they are going to learn plus have the motivation to learn it. Yvette Jackson and Fred Cooper explore this idea in their essay in Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise Into Practice (edited by Beers, Probst, and Rief). Until students are given more choice in their everyday worlds, learning is going to stagnate. When students never have choice or control over their learning, then there is very little motivation to learn. When teachers spend their time always telling students what to think and do and never listening, many students check out.

According to Alan Sitomer, 2007 California Teacher of the Year, one U.S. high school student drops out every nine seconds. By the time you finish reading this sentence, another high school kid will have dropped out. Ask him why – he’ll tell you no one cares. One more just decided to quit. Ask her why – no one cares. The top reason for dropping out? Teachers don’t care.

Why would students think this? Primarily because they are never given any choice or control over their learning. When students don’t have control over their learning, they feel no motivation to continue. They feel as though their thoughts, ideas, and opinions don’t matter. By giving more choice, teachers show students they care about them. This simple adjustment makes a big difference.

Reading about the importance of giving students choice and being appalled by the drop out rate both impact my belief that it is important to offer as much choice as possible. But it is Bo who makes me boldly speak out in support of offering students as much choice as possible. It is Bo who taught me the importance of relinquishing as much control as possible about writing and reading decisions to students.

Bo and I met during the last block of the first day of seventh grade. He sat in the back of my classroom, shelled up in a black hoodie. It was clear that English was not his version of a good idea. He began making his judgments of me, just as I had of him. And just like his, mine were all wrong. I had him pegged as a kid who didn’t care; a kid who wouldn’t try. Perhaps he thought the same of me: another English teacher who didn’t care; who wouldn’t try.

We began our first unit of study on memoir. Bo would write a little in his writer’s notebook. His final piece was about the death of his hamster. I was surprised to read about this moment in a tough guy’s life. He also completed a writing analysis about his writing process. I was again surprised, surprised to read that he didn’t have confidence in himself as a writer. With these two writings, he let me in.

I learned that he wanted to write well, but somewhere along the line in his school career he had gotten this crazy idea that he couldn’t write well. (Sadly, Bo isn’t the only student who believes this. In fact, in seems more students think they can’t write well than those who believe in their writing abilities.) Due to the years of being told what to write and how to write it, Bo fell short of his previous teachers’ expectations. Looking closely at his situation, it probably had less to do with his ability as a writer (which has been proven to be quite strong) and more to do with him simply being too creative and too smart to conform to any set of stringent rules in regards to writing.

Over the course of the year, we wrote daily and Bo gained confidence in himself as a writer, while at the same time I grew stronger as a teacher of writing. By closely analyzing Bo’s growth, I was able to learn how to teach students to become better writers. What I learned was the more I could empower students to make their own decisions as writers and the more I could orchestrate opportunities for them to make their own choices, the faster and stronger they grew as writers.

Recently Bo told me, “Because of Writing Workshop, I’m not concerned about having to write for classes. I know how to write well.” Now when Bo is told what to write and how to write it, he can do it and do it well. All because for one year a teacher gave him control over his learning and allowed him to find the confidence and unique process needed for him to write well.

That’s the power of giving students choice. That’s the power of good teaching. Bo taught me the lasting power choice can have on a student.

Once a teacher believes in the power of choice, it is through simple measures that a class can be transformed. Allowing students to choose their own novels to read, opening topic choice on writing projects, and empowering students to make a difference through their words all are strides towards empowering students. When students are given choices in their learning, they feel in control and motivated. Once a student is motivated, they will begin making sense of the world and their place in it. They will question and reason and analyze important ideas. And, most importantly, they will rise up and change the world for the better.