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Choice -- The Ultimate Tool for Engaging and Empowering Students

Voice of Experience

In this week's Voice of Experience essay, educator Max Fischer recalls a childhood visit to his mother's German homeland. A side trip to East Germany illustrated the stark contrast between life there and the freedom of choice he enjoyed as a child. Today, Fischer provides his students with choices when it comes to extended projects, writing assignments, and tests. Choice is "the avenue to empowerment," Fischer says. Included: Tips for organizing instruction for student choice.


Max W. Fischer


When I was 13, I went with my mother to visit my parents' homeland of Germany. The most intriguing stop had to be the two-day excursion into East Germany. In 1966, East Germany looked as drab and desolate as it must have on the day World War II ended.

One of the stops we made on that trip was to the apartment of one of my mother's cousins. There, I was introduced to East German communist television. Even though three network signals were available, the two West German channels, which broadcast German-dubbed reruns of many American shows, were illegal. Only the government-run East German channel, specializing in agricultural programs, industrial forecasts, and politically censored news, was permissible. In fact, our cousin informed us that police had arrested a neighbor the previous day, when it was learned that he wasn't remaining loyal to the Marxist airwaves.

In TV viewing, as in everything else in the communist marketplace -- from automobiles with cardboard body panels to sparsely supplied grocery shelves -- choice was veritably nonexistent.


More Voices of Experience!

Have you seen these Voice of Experience essays from previous weeks?
* Driven By Data: What It's Like to Teach in the Age of Accountability
* Lessons Learned from Howard Gardner and the TV Remote Control
* Reaching the Hard-to-Reach Student
* Yearlong Themes Spur Learning and Fun!

In today's classroom, if a teacher is not careful to stay attuned to his or her students' inherent abilities and innate desire for variety, those students might stagnate cognitively -- much as the nations behind the Iron Curtain rotted economically and socially during the half century following the second World War.

Students love to have choices. Choice gives them a sense of empowerment over their learning environment. Choice helps keep them engaged.


So how does a teacher implement meaningful choice into the pedagogic routine? In my social studies instruction, I employ choice in three areas -- extended projects, writing assignments, and tests.

When I assign extended projects, I usually provide several options to motivate my students. With a distinct sensitivity to multiple intelligences, my projects are designed to have students demonstrate a performance objective -- What can the student produce to demonstrate his or her learning about ancient Egypt? Some examples might be:

  • For linguistically gifted students, why not assign a report on an Egyptian of their choice? Or how about a ten-minute dramatic group skit centered on a critical event in Egyptian history?
  • Visually/artistically minded students might make a map of the modern Middle East in which they display the borders of ancient Egypt, or they might create a museum display of Egyptian wall paintings.
  • Tactilely oriented students might be given the opportunity to make a small granary (out of materials lying around the house) capable of keeping wheat kernels free of moisture when stored outside.
  • Musically gifted students could create a catchy tune about the ancient dwellers on the Nile.

Many teachers shy away from offering choices for extended projects. Some find it too much effort to detail instructions for four or five options. Others believe that students will gravitate toward the easiest project choice anyway. Many are concerned that not all students can handle choice; that some will become overwhelmed.

My response to the first two concerns is that, if the options offer novelty and intrigue, students usually will allow interest to win out over expediency; and that more work is involved in keeping disengaged students focused on a single project topic than in offering them a choice of engaging topics.


The final apprehension, however, is more legitimate. Some students do become overwhelmed and lose focus when offered too many choices. To quell their anxiety, I start my projects with two days of research in the library. During that time, I meet with all the students working on a specific topic, and make sure they understand both the basic instructions and the direction they're heading in.

For some students, that might mean laying the instructions out in chronological order; "First, do this; second, do this; and so on." When applicable, I share exemplary models of previous student work. Setting time limits for the completion of various parts of the project is also helpful for keeping students on track. I make sure that resource room or small group instructors who might become involved are up to speed with my plans, and I pay special attention to their input regarding modifications for inclusion students.

One of my major annual objectives is for students to be able to effectively express rational written arguments for opinions and analysis concerning historical personages, events, and concepts. I offer students opportunities to write persuasive, interpretative, and analytical pieces. Occasionally, I also present a creative writing choice set in historical context. Three or four prompts are given for each thematic writing assignment.


A graduate professor left a profound mark on me when he said, "Any nitwit can create a test no student can pass."

Because the goal of evaluation is to determine what knowledge a student has gained, I offer my students three test options at the end of each chapter. They may choose to:

  • complete a 25-item objective test;
  • respond to any 13 of the 25 items on the objective test and write a 50-point essay; or
  • write two 50-point essays.

The essay questions they choose from are always given at the beginning of each chapter. Students know from the start of a chapter what specific knowledge they should concentrate on. The disadvantage is that students must write a comprehensive response that includes all information significant to the bulleted points of each essay.

The reason I give test choices is to provide students with ample opportunity to share with me what they have learned. Although I feel obligated to test -- it is an educational fact of life -- I realize that students may have learned more than they can demonstrate on one test alone.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and, a few years later, the two Germanys reunited. The human spirit longs for the freedom of choice. As educators, we can best teach our students if we liberate them from an overly-constricted instructional regimen.

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.