Three Little Words


This past week was Valentine’s Day and so you may be thinking that the three little words I’m going to write about are “I love you.” You’d be wrong. Before I get to what this week's three words are, imagine that you are in a situation where you are not given an option of where you’re going to eat, what’s on the menu, or what you are served. As an adult, this is likely rarely a situation that you’re in, but let’s say it’s your first time going to eat at your new boy/girl friend’s parent’s house. Let’s also say, for the sake of this analogy, that you’re a picky eater and they are adventurous. They’re serving escargot, puffer fish, and chocolate covered grasshoppers.

You could choose to not eat at all. If you were a vegetarian or vegan, that could be a good excuse for being non-compliant. You’re an activist and no one can make you eat something that was once alive. Surely they could understand that right? Certainly, there is the relationship factor at play here. You don’t want to insult your new boy/girlfriend or his/her parents. That’s definitely extrinsic motivation for you to be compliant. That said, these foods are really unappealing to you.

Now imagine you are going to be going out to dinner and you’re asked, “Where would you like to go to eat?” That is voice. You are able to weigh in on what will happen. Now, when you get to the restaurant, you are handed a menu of options to select your meal. That is choice. These three little words, "voice and choice" are the way to say I love you with regard to engagement.

Voice and choice are similar in that both allow input, but voice means that you create the option(s) and choice means you select from the available options. It might happen that you are given both voice and choice. For example, it’s Thanksgiving and you create multiple side dishes to go with the turkey—a smorgasbord of mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, creamed corn, buttered rolls, and gravy. You will be able to choose any or all of the options that you decided to offer. If you are in either of these situations—you are going out to eat at a restaurant you’ve chosen or you are making dinner and have made options you enjoy—you would be excited about the prospect of eating.

It’s easy to think about choice and voice when it comes to food options. It is less easy to think about choice and voice in school settings. Most of us did not have much of either when we were in school, and since so many teachers teach like they were taught, we create situations for our students where we are in charge of determining the assignment. Further, when we think about choice and voice, we think about differentiated instruction (DI). DI, most often associated with Carol Ann Tomlinson, is “an approach to teaching where you actively plan for students' differences so that they can best learn.” This active planning for students’ differences has somehow come to mean that one teacher is supposed to create a different lesson for each child in the classroom. This, my friends, is engagement as a unicorn because this misunderstanding of what DI can be is mythical. No elementary teacher has time to create twenty or more different lessons for each of their students for each of the subjects taught. No secondary teacher has time to create a hundred or more different lessons for each of their students. This is crazy.

So what is DI as a narwhal (meaning real but not very common)? How can choice and voice happen in classrooms every day for every student? For choice, it can mean designing a menu of tasks that would achieve the learning even if the tasks are different. This means focusing on what the learning is supposed to be (the standards and the skills) and then designing at least two (but it could be more) options that would achieve the learning. The students then have the all-important-to-engagement choice of what they will do in order to demonstrate their learning. Voice is even easier. The last choice of the options can always be, “Propose an option that isn’t listed that would meet the outcome.” Certainly, if you have students who cannot yet read, there is work that needs to be done to help students understand this model, but even then, it is possible. Many times when creating the choices, I think about the multiple intelligences and have tried to incorporate visual, musical, and other options. I also like to give certain options different values so that students have to earn a total number of points to complete the tasks. These are often known as choice boards. Tic-Tac-Toe and Earn Your Pay are two choice boards that I have used in the past with adults, but I’ve also done this with school-age students (as shown on page 233 in Engagement is Not a Unicorn [It's a Narwhal], with a poetry project).

Other approaches to creating student choice and voice include strategies like using Socratic Circles (which I write about in the book; at the bottom of this post are some links to learn more about Socratic Circles). I also like the strategy I call “Vote With Your Feet” (click here for a helpful worksheet for students to note their thinking before they move to prevent group-think).