The Evolution of Choice

As a young English teacher, I was mentored by tremendous academicians and educators at an elite independent school in Tampa.  My good fortune in being part of such an excellent team of instructors, led by one of the top department chairs in the independent school world, has to this day been one of the most integral components of my success.  As I gained skill and savvy in the classroom, my students achieved to greater heights.  We taught each other- somehow, I became a better learner in my experiences as a young teacher than I displayed when I was in school as a student.  As I moved on with my career, the magic of reputation allowed me to gain tremendous liberation in what, how, when and to what extend I taught and guided my classes.   I also began to realize that the rigor and single-mindedness of my mission to help mold great AP writers and readers was yielding great returns.  It was said that students who “survived” Roth’s class were set for high school and beyond. I loved this reputation- and perpetuated it with substance and style for a couple years.  Then I realized through conversations with former students that while they were great in their skills, very few had the passion for the process of displaying the skills that I had hoped for them to have. I learned a good lesson that being good at something doesn’t always mean that we will love to perform.  I shifted my attention ever-so-slightly to focus on not only helping my students develop great skills, but more importantly to focus on helping them love to write and read sophisticated literature.   I made one simple decision that changed my course dramatically.  I started to give my students choices regarding how and what they wrote.  Yes, there would still be formalities, structures, expectations, standards and rubrics- but I began to leave open to individual interpretation the how and what of these areas.  Further, I started to create tiered, thematically driven reading lists for our differentiated instruction units (Not called differentiated at the time, rather I used the term Varied Instruction Unit or Individual Reading Projects).   I would develop a list of books that I felt students had enjoyed in the past, and made sure there were levels of sophistication that would have the texts appeal to readers and be accessible to the different abilities represented in the class.  Accessible titles were those that all students would be able to experience, moderate titles were a bit more challenging and sophisticated titles were those that were the most challenging.  I took a good amount of time to summarize each one for the students and encouraged them to research the titles online, talk with friends who had read the books and with parents.  By allowing such autonomy in selecting their title, students had greater efficacy in the experience.  Further, when we had already completed a couple of these units, and with passing years, the word of mouth about different books became a powerful influence in kids choosing books the expected  to love, rather than dreaded reading because they had to do so.   Further, many parents started to hear about books that the kids loved, and they started to read with their children creating an opportunity to have a learning community that extended to include the parents, students and teachers.  With increased passion and joy in the reading process, came greater zeal and verve in the writing process.  Students were now moving on to upper school courses with the same skills, but now they added the love of reading, the knowledge of what types of titles they enjoyed, the added extension of having experience reading and discussing literature with parents and peers and a more well-rounded conception of writing about literature.  This differentiated approach brought me closer to the ideal of inspiring a learning community amongst our students and families- certainly a more impactful and meaningful endeavor than merely developing a group of Roth-Survivors who could do anything with books and writing, but lacked a love and passion for doing so.

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