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Engaging Students: Personalization and Choice

Instruction can be made more appealing and effective to students if teachers include elements of choice within an assignment. When students feel more connected to a subject, they have a greater incentive to tackle the learning. Who wants to learn about math, unless it helps us figure out if we can afford to buy the latest (fill in the blank) or learn how to budget for a new pet? A new pet and the latest craze provide powerful (i.e., meaningful) incentives. They provide real-life reasons to learn about math. They make math more concrete, less abstract. So, where possible, create situations that are meaningful to your students so they can see the relevance of math. Better yet, create different scenarios from which the students can choose, depending on their interest area. The same holds true for other subjects. This will take a bit more time and creativity on the teacher’s part, but the students will be more enthusiastic and successful learners!

Nowhere is this more powerful than in literacy! So much reading and writing is assigned throughout the school years, that whenever possible, teachers should offer choices of books or topics in writing to more thoroughly engage students at all ages. Again, we are all more motivated when we can read—and write—about something meaningful or of interest to us. This was the theory utilized by Sylvia Ashton Warner, the gifted teacher of Maori children in New Zealand. She believed that “learning must be real. It must start from a person’s experience and relate to their world.”1

Sylvia Ashton Warner exemplified this at her first teaching job in a one-room schoolhouse in rural New Zealand. There, she was presented with children who had virtually no literacy experience. She knew that she had to find a way to get her students to want to learn to read, so she began asking each child what word he/she wanted to learn, and she wrote it out for them on a large piece of paper. The kids were thrilled with their newfound ability to “read” their special words! This made them feel important and capable. Although they weren’t actually decoding at that point, she found a way to make the learning meaningful to them so they would want to learn more.

When we have the motivation to learn, we are more than willing to put forth the effort, and less likely to put up a fight with the teacher! So, take the time to offer up at least two choices to students—in all subjects, where possible—so they have some ownership in their learning. The effort will pay off for both teacher and student!

Sylvia Ashton Warner

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