Julie Mason Darcy Mueller May 29, 2018

Testing The Waters: Alternatives To Consider If You Don’t Want To Jump Right Into Choice Boards

Julie Mason

BetterLesson Instructional Coach

Darcy Mueller

ELA Teacher

We are nearing the school year’s end, and we are starting to think about summer: sun, time off, and swimming! This year we jumped right into refining the choice board model in Darcy’s classroom. We are the type of educators who dive right into trying something new. When we go to the pool, we don’t test the waters, we just go for it. However, we recognize that our approach isn’t the only approach. For many educators, it feels right to ease into a new instructional approach. Dangling your legs in the water allows you to adjust to the temperature before you fully immerse yourself.

In this post, Darcy and I will share some alternatives to the Choice Board Model. While still providing students with opportunities for choice, these alternatives are more structured and provide more guidance for students. If you are just beginning your choice board journey or you want to learn more about the work that Darcy and I do together, you can check out our previous posts.

Julie: We came to realize that when it comes to certain projects or units, there are often tasks that we need all of our students to complete. For example, if the class is doing a whole class novel, we might want to ask that during reading they complete the same tasks, but once they are finished, we may then offer choice in how they synthesis their learnings. If a teacher has certain assignments that every student needs to complete prior to the choice board, what do you recommend?

Darcy: I use a “playlist” when I want students to work independently and complete certain assignments in a particular order. They can still work at their own pace and I can continue to facilitate learning instead of direct-instruct it the majority of the time. This year I used a playlist fairly frequently and tried some different set-ups with it.

I make my playlists with two features: shuffle and play. The “shuffle” assignments can be done in any order, whereas the “play” assignments have to follow the list as it is laid out. In one unit, the playlist stood by itself and contained all assignments the students had to complete. In another unit when we were doing a class-wide read of a book, students had a playlist for during reading activities, but then when they finished the book, there was a choice board learning menu to complete (I talk about the menu style choice board below). I liked this sequence because students who did not read the book could not successfully complete the choice board afterward due to its content. The assignments specifically depended on having prior knowledge. It allowed for students to have natural consequences if they did not complete the reading. I try to instill in my students that every assignment we do have value and purpose, and we will build on what we have learned up to that point in the year.

Julie: We have learned that having a clear system or framework is really important with this model. Often teachers will ask me how they can offer choice, but still require assignments within a choice board. One of the frameworks I recommend is Must Do/May Do. What other suggestions do you have?

Darcy: I give choice within the content. If I want the students to watch a TED Talk, do their notes and a write up, I will give them the choice of three different talks to watch; same with article choice, or other content base. I just want them to practice a skill. I try to have a common thread throughout the content so they can make connections and cultivate their own ideas. I try to offer choices that will appeal to different learning preferences. For example, a student who is artistic might want to draw or design something, while a student who is auditory may want to record a Podcast. You can assign students the same task, but allow different options in term of how they complete that task. If the task is: synthesize your research findings, one student may opt to use a Google Sheet, while another student may decide to create a Prezi. Another student may design a website. The task is the same, but you provide students with choice in how they decide to complete it.

Julie: I love how the learning menu like the choice boards allows for students to use their creativity.This year you experimented with using a Learning Menu. What is that model and what type of instruction do you think it works best for?

Darcy: My interpretation of a Learning Menu is where the assignments are organized like a restaurant menu–but then because of it being based on food, I can’t help but feel obligated to make up funny assignment names based on foods and of course make the menu look like a menu! The assignment names made it extra funny when the students had questions; it’s the little things that keep me going.

The way I arranged my menu was to have the appetizer and dessert assignments provide the choice. These assignments were where students could show creativity and grades were earned based on student-designed rubrics–I talked about these in the prior blog post, Tips and Tools to Support Your Students to Take The Lead. The main course had the required assignments that were the nitty gritty things I wanted them to do. Students could do the menu assignments in any order, but my hope was that by having “fun” assignments surrounding the required ones that there would be more buy-in; I was right. My classes were pumped about getting to create art and use music they listen to for school assignments. I also counted on the fun assignments to help them be motivated to work outside of class because we were on a tight time frame to finish the menu!

Painting of people rowing a boat on abstract background

A learning menu appetizer assignment that featured a piece of art. A written reflection accompanied it as well.

Another possible way to organize the menu is to offer different kinds of practices in the appetizer, the main course has the “real” assignments, and then the dessert has extension activities–these could also be used to fill time for students who finish the main course early.

I’m really enjoying playing with choice boards and menus and experimenting with what to use when. I think the students like that we mix it up; getting the same format for each unit would get old, so putting twists on the concept allows us to stay more engaged.

Changing your instructional approach is no small task, and starting small allows you to build on what you are already doing rather than scrap everything for something entirely new. A playlist, learning menu, and the must do/may do strategy are all versions of the choice board model where students have more structure, and you are able to guarantee that all students complete tasks that you feel all important. Dip your toes in, and see what you think!