Empower Students with Simple Choices

By Christine Porter Marsh, 2016 Arizona Teacher of the Year

Perhaps the world in general would be a slightly better place if more people felt more powerful. Let’s take a simple, maybe even trivial example — how many people didn’t vote in the last election because they felt like their vote didn’t matter? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that it’s in the millions. People felt so powerless that they didn’t even bother to exert what little power they did have.

The importance of a sense of power is the best lesson that I’ve learned in my 25 years of teaching. Students need to feel like they are in control of their own learning, their own futures, and their own choices. A sense of empowerment causes them to take ownership over their own learning; it causes them to invest more of themselves because the alternative to empowerment is obviously hopelessness, and there is no room for hopelessness in education.

So how do we give our students a sense of power?

It’s actually quite simple (but not easy): They need choices — as many choices as their teachers and the other powers-that-be can grant them. And they need them often.

Every day, as often as possible, effective teachers try to find ways to offer their students choices. They may not even consciously realize that’s what they’re doing, and they may not realize the connection between the ability to make choices and a sense of empowerment, but I guarantee that across the nation, the most effective teachers are offering their students choices every single day.

One of the simplest ways that I have found to do this is to offer what I call a “Half and Half quiz,” which is when students get to choose whether they want to write the answer to a short quiz prompt or whether they want to verbalize their knowledge as part of a broader class discussion.

So I might say something like this: “Today is a Half and Half quiz over the last chapter of The Great Gatsby. If you’re writing, write about significance of Gatsby’s father making his first appearance in the book. Those of you who are speaking can discuss anything from the last chapter except Gatsby’s father.”

I do something like this almost every day, because it effectively accomplishes two goals: 1) It gives students choice; and, 2) It creates amazing class discussions because students who want to contribute can, and those who would rather listen get the opportunity to be pulled into the discussion.

Depending on what’s happening in an individual class, I may also say something like this: “If you spoke yesterday, please consider writing today and vice versa.” Or I might say, “Those of you who are more comfortable writing, I challenge you to challenge yourself and speak today.” However, I still try to leave the ultimate choice to them. Once in a while, I do admit to taking their choices away by saying, “If you wrote yesterday, you have to speak today.” I try not to do that too often; however, if I notice a student who is not rising to the challenge of going outside his own comfort zone once in a while, I force the issue by forcing everyone to do the opposite of the day before.

As students are discussing the chapter, which functions as a quiz for them, I have my grade book in front of me and put a dot next to each student’s name. For the students who write, I put a check mark next to their name as I grade their quizzes. This system makes it super easy to track which student is doing what on any given day. When I enter those marks into the computer grade book, each student gets the same credit — whether they wrote or spoke.

Sometimes, I even give them the choice of which quiz format we’re using. I’ll say to them, “Do you want a written quiz, a spoken one, or half and half?” When I do this, each class takes on its own personality. For example, my 3rd hour class always chooses to take a spoken quiz, while my 1st hour usually (not always) chooses half and half.

Even though I know how 3rd hour will respond, I still take the 20 seconds to give the class-as-a-whole the choice.

There are, of course, countless ways for teachers to empower their students, and there’s nothing magic about a half and half quiz; however, there is magic in empowering students by giving them choices.

Christine Marsh has been teaching at the same school from which she graduated for 24 years and has taught almost every class that is available for English Language Arts students. She still thinks she has the best job in the world and is passionate about her students’ success. When she’s not teaching, she is spending time with her sons, running, reading, volunteering at her church, or writing — specifically for AzK12 Center, where she’s part of a blogging platform called “Stories from School.” She’s also very involved in local politics and meets and speaks regularly with state legislators about issues impacting education. Her heart is in the classroom, though, teaching her students to read and write with breadth and depth.