There are many obstacles that stand in the way of an English-language arts teacher allowing students to choose their own texts and essay topics. How do you have a classroom discussion if everyone is reading something different? Can you find copies of the stories and novels students want? Can you teach specific reading skills to all students at the same time if no one is reading the same thing?
These are all questions that I’ve struggled to answer as an eighth-grade teacher at Cardozo Middle School in the Riverbank School District in California.
Four years ago, I decided to open up new opportunities for student choice in their ELA curriculum. By allowing students to select what they read and write, I’ve transformed my classroom into a place where students are motivated to take ownership of their learning and nurture a love of reading.
Tips for online ELA curriculums
When I began this process, I started using the StudySync online ELA curriculum to help. Here are five ways that I make sure all of my students have a voice and a choice in their instruction:
Save selection for the end of the unit
For eighth grade, StudySync’s first unit is called Suspense so I choose three or four related texts and stick closely to them while teaching the first unit. However, towards the end of the unit, I reserve the last week or two for students to choose their own selections and encourage them to apply the skills they’ve learned throughout the unit.
Stick with a theme
I like to keep the choices manageable, so I let my students choose one of four Edgar Allen Poe short stories that are available in the library. I can grant access for students to titles like "The Black Cat", "The Tell-Tale Heart", "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Cask of Amontillado," among others. Students watch the trailers that preface stories and I give them a brief overview (with no spoilers, of course).
Work in small groups
Once students choose their texts, I group them based on those selections. Poe is difficult, for example, but the students work together to understand and comprehend the content. They are able to collaborate, and struggle -- but in a good way.
While they’re working in groups, students are collaboratively answering questions about the story and applying the comprehension skills for the unit. The hardest part is making sure the questions we have are somewhat generic so that each group is answering the same questions, but for a different text. For example, we asked: why is setting important and how does that affect mood, and how does the narrator’s action affect the story?
Differentiate both the texts and the questions
When assigning Think questions, I give students three options and let them pick what they want to write about. I usually try to select one question that I know my English-learner students can answer, and a more difficult question for students who enjoy a bigger challenge. Since I teach both honors and EL students, I really like how StudySync allows me to differentiate both the texts and the questions.
Put students in the driver’s seat
All teachers want to be able to give their students options, but coming up with multiple writing prompts, a variety of texts, and extra comprehension questions can be time-consuming. This is where my online ELA curriculum has supported my efforts to put students in the driver’s seat. If a specific unit doesn’t have what I want, I can just search the library to get what I need. I can, for example, find a sixth-grade text for lower readers.
The results in my classroom are simple but pivotal: students actually want to read and write. Early on, I was worried about how focused they’d be, but I think the fact that they were able to choose helped nurture buy-in.
Maggie Chudoba is an eighth-grade teacher at Cardozo Middle School in Riverbank, Calif. She uses StudySync in her ELA curriculum development.
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