Increasing Student Engagement and Agency with Choice Boards

I have learned through conversations with teachers from various grade levels that the insights from my reflections are not limited to high school teachers. The pressures of curricular timelines and standardized testing reach down into the elementary grades, too.

Have we become so preoccupied with achievement that some of our practices have been squashing curiosity in the interest of standardization?

In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink (2009) explains that allowing people autonomy with clear goals increases intrinsic motivation. As children, we experience this feeling of satisfaction that causes us to work more intently. Remember the perfect sandcastle after the waves have pommelled multiple attempts, the days-long intricate Lego construction project, or the mightiest blanket fortress for your sleepover? As they get older, kids participate in sports where they attend practice and weekend games; the reward was not only the completion of the task or competition but the joy of working and the satisfaction of reaching a goal. As adults, we set goals for ourselves. For me, it is running a 10k race. Putting on those sneakers and heading out the door to run every day is not easy; it is the feeling that I have once the run is done that gets me motivated to do it and keep on doing it. If this goal was set for me by someone else I would not have the same determination.

Challenging work that is delivered in a meaningful context increases student performance (McTighe & Seif, 2011) and intrinsic motivation (Pink, 2009). This can translate to classrooms in a variety of ways; providing students with choices for how they obtain, transfer, and communicate their learning is one of the simpler ways to increase student agency and you can start by making some pretty easy swaps.

Choice boards and learning menus are reasonable starting points for teachers to increase student agency. 

Providing the right choices is important. During the first week of school, I provide students with time to complete a “Tell Me About Yourself” survey. Prompts in the survey are designed to elucidate student preferences for learning without asking them directly. Answers to the following prompts have proven very useful to my practice:

I sleep ________ hours every night.

_________ makes me happy.

Knowing the end of a story helps me to focus on reading.

One thing I wish teachers knew about me is

Three words that describe me are:

Because I use music, videos, and lots of movement, I include items that will help me provide a comfortable atmosphere for each student in our classroom. 

My favorite kind of music is…

I feel stressed when ___________.

I work best when ___________.

What I learn about their interests is used to create choice boards for the first curriculum unit of the school year. 

My favorite subject in school is…

I am taking this class because…

What I hope to learn from this class is….

One problem I would like to solve is …

Choice boards typically give students a choice between three options to demonstrate their knowledge of a topic.

I make sure to include options for students who 

  • prefer reading 
  • prefer watching videos
  • like to write  
  • would rather demonstrate their learning using technology

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The one thing that every student must do is in the middle box. There are several options here to demonstrate knowledge and everyone is assessed by the same rubric. 

The options are all things that I have used in the past but found did not work for all students. (The one size fits most mentality). This is the perfect opportunity to empower students to self-differentiate by choosing the option that works best for them rather than me using the one option that works for the majority of students.

This method has been very well-received by my students and did not take much more time than traditional planning would have. Students are more invested in the process and product because they have chosen it for themselves.


Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books. 

McTighe, J. & Seif, E. (2011). Teaching for understanding. Retrieved from


Choosing a Path

paths canvaEquipped with my love of science and passion to reach every single student every single day, I accepted a position as a full-time high school Biology teacher.

Quickly I realized that this is, indeed, where I belong. Sharing my knowledge of science and enthusiasm for learning did not feel like working at all; going to school in the morning was my distinct pleasure. Joyfully I filled my days with slide presentations, videos, posters, construction paper, markers, and glue and my nights with grading, researching, and planning. I eagerly devoured any and all professional development opportunities which I used to inform my practice resulting in more lab activities, projects, and new methods of sharing information about science. I was having a blast! 

The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

My prior teaching experience with my sister, Winnie, Barbie, and Tiffany paled in comparison to the satisfaction of a room full of human students. 

At the end of each day, I sat and thought about my day. I did not plan for this time to be for meaningful reflection but as I simply sat utterly spent with my head resting atop my crossed arms on my desk and my thoughts naturally trailed off to what happened during the day.  First, my mind wandered to the things that did not go as planned and as a new teacher there were lots of them! 

I noticed the rough patches and places where students fell through the cracks.

  • New vocabulary may not be new to everyone and maybe too complex for others
  • Taking handwritten notes does not work for students who think in images or prefer other representations 
  • Kids who did not do homework were asked to stay for extra help after school or some other punitive action
  • Dipsticking gauges the whole class progress but individual students struggle with the pace
  • Students who do not know the vocabulary may not understand many of the concepts 

Once I acknowledged the bumps and cracks, I realized that there were just as many – if not more times – when everyone stayed on track. There were even days when we all traveled as a team and exceeded my goals. The more days I spent sitting exhausted wondering what I could have done differently I found what I should be doing is more of those good things that built a strong team. So I began to look for patterns.

“We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.”― John Dewey

Daily reflection was the first practice that I decided that I must continue to do with purpose. I reserved 15 minutes at the end of each day to sit quietly and reflect on my own effectiveness, student engagement, and enjoyment. 

During these reflections I found 

  • Students work best when they aren’t being evaluated 
  • I teach best to small groups
  • Students learn best in small groups 
  • Students learn best when they are engaged; engagement increases with ownership
  • Every student is doing the best they can right now. 
  • Every student can do better with time and support. 


Those first few years reminded me that the biggest reward comes from the most challenging journey. While there are times when I have chosen the easy route, I am always most satisfied after I have decided to blaze a new trail into uncharted territory. 




The Natural

My sister hated it; from the time she was an infant she was my student. I loved school and being 6 years older, I felt compelled to prepare her for her upcoming journey. She progressed from being in a booster seat reciting the alphabet and counting to 10 to eventually being able to sit and write sight words at her tiny wooden desk in my bedroom in front of my worn out chalkboard. I was in my glory. Among her classmates Winnie The Pooh, Barbie, and Tiffany the dog she was the star pupil. I remember explaining the importance of what I was teaching her as she tried to leave to go play with her Strawberry Shortcake dolls. Eventually, Strawberry and her friends were enrolled in my class as well. 

Although it seems that my path was set out before me, my road to becoming a teacher was anything but straight and narrow. The first curve was in junior high where it seemed most of my teachers did not value curiosity as much as compliance. My grades plummeted as I became disinterested and disengaged. I was ultimately labeled a trouble-student. Eyes rolled when I was introduced to my teachers in freshman year.  The D’s and F’s on my academic record are the landmarks along the path that tells the story of the importance of connecting with a teacher or not. Eventually, there were more diversions than times I stayed the course and my dream of being a teacher diminished along with my GPA.

While working on my BS in Biology, I worked in a variety of jobs from medical assisting to insurance case management; I was always assigned the preceptor for new employees. People often asked me why I wasn’t taking education classes.

“You’re a natural” 

“This is your calling” 

were things I heard regularly. My response was always the same


“I can’t be a teacher because 

I love learning too much”.


My career in education started as a result of months of prodding by my college career counselor. She convinced me that my fresh perspective and curiosity are needed in education. I had the honor of being the instructional assistant to several veteran teachers over the course of five years. The lessons learned from this experience have helped build the foundation of my career. I saw teachers’ various styles and observed their short and long-term patterns.  A persistent and comfortable cycle seemed to remain consistent and hadn’t changed much since my disappointing experience in junior high:

  • Teacher schedules test according to report card date 
  • Teacher gives notes, student take notes 
  • Students take quiz 
  • Teacher gives lectures, students take notes 
  • Students take quiz  
  • Review 
  • Students take test  
  • Grades go on report cards.  

Notice the ownership here; teachers give and students take. There was a theme of students being passive recipients while teachers were in control of the tempo and content. There was a lot of teaching but not so much learning.

This experience provided the push that I needed to pursue my teaching credentials. Perhaps all of those people along my journey have been right. What if my calling is not simply to be a teacher but to help transform teaching AND learning?

Since the day I decided to become a teacher, I have focused on creating engaging and relevant student learning experiences for every student. I promised to support students like 12 year old me who need more – even when they can’t articulate it or behave in ways that cause us to think differently.

I remind myself of this as I begin planning for my 8th year teaching high school science and renew my commitment to help transform learning experiences for students.

How I am Going Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School

My gradeless journey began 6 years ago after witnessing how easily grades can be manipulated by teachers. I will not go into depth here about how grades can be impacted by compliance and family situations; I believe that is common knowledge. I decided that if traditional grades do not help students learn, I was going to find a way to create a grading method that did.

I have 2 grading categories
Formative assessments – do not count toward reported grade
Summative assessment – comprise the entire reported grade

Formative assessments are varied in size and type but consistent in their frequency and intent. These assignments increase in length and complexity from warm-ups and exit slips to question sets as a unit progresses. All formative assessments are evaluated using a proficiency scale. A basic outline of the scale is below.

LP – limited proficiency, student is able to complete task with help
AP – approaching proficiency, student is able to complete task independently with
DP – demonstrates proficiency, student is able to complete the task independently and uses content vocabulary, or examples appropriately
EP – exceeds proficiency, student is able to complete the task independently using appropriate vocabulary and novel examples

Opportunities for students to independently demonstrate their knowledge are summative assessments; these counted toward the reported grade. Grades are reported as content goals rather than a list of assignments. For example, in biology class, the summative assessment for the cell unit is a poster. This poster is listed as “cell structure and function” in the gradebook. Summative assessments are evaluated using a single-point rubric.

Not yet Met Exceeds


Phospholipids are drawn and labeled polar/non-polar correctly
Glycoproteins drawn and labeled correctly
Transport proteins drawn and labeled correctly
Receptor proteins drawn and labeled correctly
Signal molecule drawn and labeled correctly
Transport proteins role in active and passive transport
Example of diffusion
Example of active transport
Example of endocytosis and exocytosis

Students will get this rubric back with my feedback; their grade will be reported only after they have had the opportunity to reflect upon and address my feedback.

Aspects that I continue to work on:

  • reporting progress
  • self/peer assessment
  • assessing 3-dimensional learning
  • rebranding formative assessments as practice opportunities
  • timely feedback with large classes

Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts; as you do, please keep in mind although there have been many hours of research and collaboration, I do not consider myself an expert. I share my journey with the hope of expanding my PLN and reflecting on my progress.

Continue reading “How I am Going Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School”

Making Lessons Memorable: How I plan to take advantage of schedule disruptions to make my classes unforgettable.

We all know that some activities hit and some miss. It seems a great mystery why some more memorable and others. The Anatomy Class Halloween lab when students use their knowledge of tissues to identify mystery organs obtained from the butcher shop, the Physiology Class Health Fair where students research a topic of their choice then plan activities and demonstrations for a public health fair, an exploratory science experiences where kids experience science through crime scenes; these are the ones that my students refer back to with satisfaction and fondness.

As I reflect upon my school year, it occurs to me that I have accidentally developed activities are a blend of specific ingredients that caused them to work. Students remembered them for years to come, referred back to them often as events that helped them to learn, connect with others, and deepen their interest in science. Knowing this, as I plan for next school year, I will use the essential elements of memorable moments. I hope that these scheduled occurrences, although totally intentionally created, will seem like serendipitous moments. I will also remain mindful of impromptu opportunities to harness intrinsic motivation and enthusiasm.

Primarily, I teach Anatomy and Physiology, some people have horrific memories of their experiences in these classes. I absolutely adore teaching them. I love the authenticity of teaching and learning about the body that we inhabit and how it evolved to be the imperfect organism that it is. By the end of a semester in my class, I want students to have an increased appreciation for the value of life and have made connections between their experiences in and out of class.

Stepping back to plan I have identified things that are naturally exciting for students, snow days, holidays, Boston Marathon, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Super Bowl, World Series. These events break the script of ordinary schedules and sometimes cause distractions. Why not use this increased enthusiasm to our advantage? There are certainly things in my content area that relate to these events. Just to name a few;

Snow days: hypothermia, extreme sports, homeostasis

Boston Marathon: heart rate, training, damage to feet and joints

Valentine’s Day: is there a better day to dissect hearts?

Halloween: appeal to students’ curiosity with mystery organs, tissue types

Super Bowl: concussions and prevention

World Series: Rotator cuff injuries, hand-eye coordination

With this new mindset, the schedule disruptions that were such a nuisance now are opportunities to create something unforgettable for students. Why not create a folder of plans to pull out for special occasions? Along the idea of sub plans; things to capture the energy of the room and use the enthusiasm to my advantage rather than trying to “talk students down” and coax them into participating in a lesson that they are not prepared to be engaged in.

Another way that lessons have been memorable for students is when they realize their own potential. When students write blogs to set and reflect on goals, they can visualize their learning. I have learned that this is also a method of teaching resilience in students. While I read their blogs, rather than reading to assess the content and grammar I make suggestions about activities for them to try or ways to meet their goals I began doing this because I was honestly interested in who my students are and what they hope to gain from taking my class. I have found that there are not many other teachers who do this; students are surprised that I am connecting the content to their future plans and they can relate to what they are learning. In the end, students have a feeling of accomplishment, satisfaction of a goal reached and job well done.

When students have this sense of pride it must be captured and shared. Ordinarily, students present reports and other research to their peers; why not have them recap their journey? Surely there is someone in the audience who will identify with their struggle and appreciate the process and resilience it took to accomplish a goal. The more people share their stories the more we see that we are more alike than different and making stories public is a way to validate and reflect upon the journey.

Exercise in Humility

This week I am leading my PLC on a series of experiences to deepen our understanding of the Next Generation Science Standards and how they will impact lesson planning. Up to now, we have worked in groups to “unpack” the standards – I think every district impacted by the NGSS has had some PD devoted to this tedious task. The problem is that there seems to be very little reward for this effort. We painstakingly read each word trying to glean what the authors of the document were thinking, when in actuality the answers are already written in the K-12 Framework….. but enough of this science-specific talk. The point is that there have been many hours spent pouring over unfamiliar documents which didn’t achieve the expected result. Teachers (in general) seem to be difficult to persuade to adopt a totally different method of instruction; that is understandable we are responsible for educating the future leaders and scientists. We can’t screw this up!

All of these PD hours have given us a different understanding of the NGSS. Many of us are ready for the change, looking forward to it, prepared to do things differently. Others are reluctant while some believe that they have already made enough changes. Goal = met. Now it is time to dig deeper, to start sifting through lessons to locate evidence of deeper learning and increased student inquiry, decreased reliance on teacher-experts and more developing and showcasing student expertise.

Without telling the group, I offered-up my prized lesson plan. I spend many hours writing what I felt at the time was the best that I was capable of composing. Watching my colleagues read and honestly critique my work has been a sobering experience. I was afraid that telling them that I wrote it would prejudice them, it would certainly inhibit them from speaking freely. So I sit listening to their unbiased opinions, unable to defend my work.  There are times when I want to clarify what the “author” must have been thinking and others when I am proud of my work. In both cases, it has been an exercise in humility to take the feedback and begin to use it to improve. We have just completed day 2 of what is likely to go on for 3 more.

Each day a new person facilitates the session and determines the focus. I simply love these new perspectives and cannot wait to see how this ends.

Tracking Mastery

Long ago I decided to start teaching students to master skills rather than remember content. Some colleagues do not see the difference in the two; when asked, I enjoy the opportunity to explain how making subtle changes daily has transformed my teaching journey.

The first difference is the lens through which I plan my lessons and units. Of course, I use  UbD backwards design and those who know me would say “of course she goes over the top and customizes even THAT.” While planning I consider how these particular students are going to respond to the activities that I have planned:

What are the special interests of each student?

Are there parents who have experience in this topic?

How can I link this new learning to things that students have already experienced?

In what ways can I make maximize student agency?

Because I am a science teacher, I must now consider 3-dimensional learning. How are students going to interact with this material and how are these interactions going to progress over time. In my mind, this is a cycle where some students get off and progress to the next step while others are given time to reach mastery before being asked to move to the next step. I have found that this is another divergence from conventional thinking; if there are 25 students then there may be 25 different levels of mastery at one time. This is overwhelming for some teachers, but it all goes back to mindset. The students who are farthest ahead support other learners in the class – remember “the best way to learn is to teach.”

The cycles are composed of progressive activities including the hook, gathering basic information from text or an exploratory activity, reading articles or watching videos to gather information to answer student-generated questions, making claims about what they have learned, and generating evidence to support these claims.

None of these activities are graded. These are learning opportunities meant for students to make mistakes, use feedback and try again. I use these to assess student progress and provide feedback, make suggestions for next steps, and encourage them to think deeper. I teach in a traditional grades school so I have to provide grades for progress reports. My solution is to have a summative (graded) assessment after a cycle of formative (ungraded) assessments. Progress on formative assessments is tracked in the electronic grade book by level of mastery and comments about how this mastery was or was not demonstrated. One assignment may include all 3 dimensions NGSS so this individual assignment may have 3 spots in the grade book.

Sound complicated? It was and still can be at times but I cannot see myself treating students’ learning any differently. I have to value every effort that each student makes no matter how small.