I got Malawi

I’m absolutely befuddled by the curricular “choices” offered to students.

My youngest son just finished his 18-page state report on Illinois. Why Illinois? Because his teacher assigned it to him. Last year he did a country report on Ivory Coast. Why Ivory Coast? Because his teacher assigned it to him.

My oldest son, a sophomore taking AP biology, is building a 3D-model of a cell and its morphological elements. So are 125 other classmates. Het was allowed to choose the material to render his model. He chose candy.

Despite what my wife says, my boys are not special. At least when it comes to the “choices” teachers grant them.

My favorite story about what the Buck Institute for Education calls student Voice and Choice comes from my instructional coaching days.

Several years ago I provided a series of Project Based Learning workshops to the staff of a working class middle-school near Seattle. Per policy and good practice, the workshops are supplemented by a series of onsite instructional coaching visits.

I gave the teachers an on-line needs assessment prior to the first coaching visit then analyzed the data to look for key concerns. I shared this data with the principal, who approved my agenda for the visit.

I checked in then headed to the principal’s office for a short meet and greet. The principal welcomed me, gushed over the quality of the initial workshop, and thanked me for the advanced planning. Then the principal asked me to deviate from the agreed-upon plan because he had concerns about Martin, a seventh grade teacher. I had scheduled a formative observation of Martin as part of this coaching visit so I decided to extend my time in his classroom.

Martin had worked diligently on creating a standards-aligned “project,” which was focused on the kingdoms of pre-colonial Africa.

I chatted briefly with Martin before taking a spot in the back. Martin began with a lesson on African geography then released the students to work. I immediately began to navigate the room, quietly observing the students work. Per prior agreement, I initiated conversations with several students.

One boy sat sullen and withdrawn, listlessly pushing his pencil across a nearly blank piece of paper. I asked the boy if he could explain what he was working on. The boy said he was working on his project, a country report on Malawi. The words “country report” raised an immediate alarm but I pressed on. I asked the boy why he had chosen Malawi.

The boy told me that he really didn’t pick Malawi. Martin, his teacher, had put a list of student names on the board in the order of their GPA, highest to lowest. The students with the highest GPA got to “choose” the country for their report first, and on down the line. The boy, who had one of the lowest GPA’s in the class, got Malawi.

Wow.

If our standards require students to know something about the kingdoms of pre-colonial Africa can we at least allow students (ideally, in groups) to choose a topic of interest to them: music, dance, poetry, culture, sports, technology, food, clothing, etc? They have to do the same readings and develop the same research skills to learn the content, but they would do so with energy and focus.

Why not require student teams to do a three-minute sales pitch for a topic they want? You want to do a presentation on clothing/fashion in Gomma? Convince me that you should have that topic. I know the sales pitch strategy works because I used it for 10 years in my middle and high school classrooms. And it’s fun. Wait – that’s a forbidden word. It’s engaging.

Let’s put some voice and choice back in the classroom. There’s only so much Malawi and Illinois our kids can take.

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You can follow me on Twitter: @davidBIE

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