Julie Mason

BetterLesson Instructional Coach

Seeing our students take what we give them and run with it is one of the most rewarding parts of teaching. Ultimately, they finish the race alone, but it is up to us to provide them the initial support by being with them in the first few legs. By using choice boards, we are shifting to a coaching role where the students show up to practice, learn tools to be more efficient, become more in tune with their own selves as a student, and take hold of the baton. In this post, we are looking at how we can coach students when it is their turn to take the lead.

In my coaching, one of the concerns teachers raise when they are considering the choice board model is how their students will have opportunities for collaboration and communication when they are all making different choices. This concern came up in our work as Darcy and I began to realize that while we designed a system for Darcy to get student feedback, we didn’t have a system for students to give each other feedback. Darcy still had control over the assessment process, and that didn’t feel in alignment with the culture of choice in her classroom. Darcy was taking the lead and running the entire race on her own, and it was wearing on her. In the past six months we have been focusing on the role of feedback and peer interaction in the choice board model. We share what we have learned below.

Julie: If choice boards are structured so that students are working independently, how do you provide students the opportunity to collaborate and get feedback from each other?

Darcy: The whole climate of the classroom really shifts with choice boards. Because I’m not up in front of the students and not everyone is at the same part in the same assignment, I have to purposefully foster peer collaboration. Sometimes I organize online discussions via the choice board where students have to post before they see their peers’ posts. They are responsible for responding to one other person’s post to complete the assignment. I pre-teach how to respond in a discussion. The goal is for students to engage with each other’s thinking and build on their ideas.

However, online discussions don’t always make me feel like students are interacting to the level I want them to. I believe there is immense need for my students to have face-to-face conversations, so I like to use Gallery Walks followed by class discussions. My classes recently did a class-wide read of a book and were responsible for completing several individual assignments. At the end of the unit, we used a Gallery Walk to look at each other’s work with one particular assignment posted around the room and then had a discussion. What was neat about this activity was that it wasn’t limited to their period. All students in all sections had hung their assignment up, so they were able to see what every other 8th grader had done and reflect on it.

I also did a technology-based Gallery Walk and discussion this year.Padletis a tool I mentioned in an earlier blog post Pulling Back the Curtain that I have used with students during a choice board. In the past, it has been a digital bulletin board to help students brainstorm for an essay; however, the timing wasn’t panning out well, so I had students use their Padlet posts as the foundation for our culminating discussion. We set up our desks in a circle and each student had a Chromebook with their Padlets on the screens. Students walked around for a few minutes to read everyone’s posts and then we discussed what they saw.

Despite Gallery Walks, I still wanted students to do more together and that lead to a conversation with Julie.

Darcy: One of my challenges in figuring out how to assess my students’ work within the choice board was determining how to assess critical thinking. So much of what they do isn’t visible to me. How can I really determine the depth of their inquiry?

Julie: When you asked me this, I responded by suggesting we circle back to the larger goal. What is the purpose of assessing students’ work on the choice board? Is the assessment formative? Summative? Did you see yourself assessing them or them assessing each other? These are questions that we are still answering nearly two years later! We realized that it felt most important for students to share their work and their experience with the choice board process with each other. In order to assess the students’ critical thinking, we had to design some systems to make that thinking visible.

Darcy: We call them Progress Partners. Now, I am totally one of those teachers that questions whether peer conferences are worth doing because it is like the blind leading the blind, but with the whole idea of coaching students and letting them carry the baton, we were able to find a method that was successful. Students were put in pairs and met once a week– I did this with a three-week choice board, so students met two times. The purpose of the meeting was for students to vocalize a reflection on an assignment they were working on with a partner. In conjunction with sharing their work with a partner, students were double checking their work. Remember, we are continually working on following directions! We set it up like an interview. Everyone glued their log sheet into their composition notebooks. Then, the person sharing would give their notebook to their partner. The partner would read the script and fill in the sheet as they went. They switched roles when they reached the end of the script. For only doing it twice, the students did awesome. And, on the survey I gave my classes after the choice board ended, 53% said they found the process valuable; 49% said they found errors in their work; and 50% said it helped them be more mindful of reading directions. I know the percentages aren’t staggering, but I think if half of my students felt this way, it is something to continue to use and build on!

Julie: Part of giving students feedback is assessing their work. How do you assess students’ work in the choice board model?

Darcy: When I do choice boards, I will have a mixture of assignments that need different grading approaches. Some grades are earned by completion, some grades are based on an “average” to “outstanding” scale, and sometimes students’ grades are from showing me their level of mastery of a concept–how well are they are applying a skill we’ve learned.

I always use rubrics in my classroom for heavier assignments. I want students to know what they are aiming for and rubrics serve that purpose. I have found that if I outline my minimum expectation, which will earn a grade of a C, and then what would exceed my expectations to earn a grade of an A, that provides enough of a guideline for students without me tearing my hair out from articulating every detail. Since students had been exposed to the rubrics for a large chunk of the year, I decided to pass ownership to the students. For one of my choice boards, I tasked students to create the rubrics for the assignments they were going to do–of course I would have the last say-so, but for the most part, I wanted to honor their voices. The rubrics they were designing were for lighter assignments on the board; ones that included music, art, and creative writing. These areas are already difficult to assess because you can crush a kid’s soul if you are too critical. I thought they should take the baton and run. They had had enough experience with my rubrics that they actually did a really good job coming up with criteria–I compiled their ideas, made adjustments as necessary, and used them!

Since some assignments are submitted online through our learning management system, Canvas.  I am able to use the built-in video feedback. It’s pretty quick and I know students are more likely to watch a video of me than to read through written feedback. When I give feedback, written or via video, I have students summarize the feedback they received in their notebooks. That way, I know they read what I wrote!

Julie: How do you make students’ progress visible to them in the choice board model, and provide them with opportunities to reflect on their progress?

Darcy: With choice boards, I’m not only looking for students to make progress with learning, but also all of the soft skills that go with it: working independently, time management, self-reflection, organization, etc. In the past I have quickly moved from unit to unit because I felt pressed for time; however, through my own reflection and realization that learning is through reflection, it became imperative that I take the time to support that process in my classroom.

This year, the goal was to purposefully plan time for reflections at regular intervals. Aside from doing a quick survey online using Google Forms at the end of each choice board, the easiest time frame for students to stop and reflect was at the end of each quarter. In addition, I wanted to make sure the reflections built on each other in order to make them meaningful. Questions have students assess their academic and classroom behavior. They are also require students to look back over their work in their composition notebook for the quarter and pick an assignment they are most proud of, as well as identify skills they have showed progress with and skills they are still struggling with. Subsequent quarterly reflections have students resummerize academic and classroom behaviors, assessing whether or not they have improved or not. I’ve been impressed with the quality and honesty of the reflections. I’m planning an end-of-year lesson sequence that will have them look at the year as a whole, of course using their past reflections.

Another way to make students’ progress visible is by having a Google Sheet where students log what assignments they have completed and which ones they are working on. I make a master spreadsheet of all of the assignments on the choice board and once a week, students enter their status on my desktop computer. I have used the spreadsheet for grouping students for peer conferences, as well as tracking which leveled assignment students are choosing.

Tips to Help Students Take the Lead

  1. Plan activities that give students a chance to hear each other’s thoughts, either through discussions or peer sharing.
  2. Schedule time in class for students to reflect on their work.
  3. Let students be stakeholders with some assignments by letting them have input in the expected final product.
  4. Give students Talking Stems that will teach them how to have a meaningful conversation.
  5. Use online tools, such as a learning management system or a Google application to help you stay organized, give feedback and track student progress.

Ultimately, by passing the baton to our students, we are deepening their scholastic experience. By letting students feel each step on the foundational track you lay for them, they will develop the tools and skills to help them succeed as they follow their course in life. We want our students to be independent, self-motivated, and reflective, and it can only happen if we as the coach, teach them the techniques to run the race.