EPISODE 07: THE STORY OF

Choice Based Learning

choice based learning

with Alyssa Pilarcik

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Part of the reason why art is so intriguing is because of all the new things we see through art.

Jamie
According to a popular educationcloset.com article from 2017, Student Choice empowers learners to practice decision making, self-regulation, time management and organization. Choice also fosters lifelong learners instead of passive consumers of content. I’m Jamie Hipp and this is Teaching Trailblazers, a show about teachers, artists and leaders in arts integration and STEAM. On this episode, we’ll be discussing choice with Alyssa Pilarcik, a visual arts teacher in Frederick County Public Schools in Maryland with a decade of experience in student choice. In addition to serving as a senior content producer for the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM, Alyssa holds a masters of science in instructional technology, is a certified arts integration specialist and is working toward her educational leadership degree. Alyssa, what materials do you allow students to choose from in your art room?

Alyssa
So it looks kind of different, depending on the time of year. At the beginning of the school year, students have less choice in terms of the materials I allow them to use. I begin the school year by introducing each center one at a time. Um, and as each new center is introduced, students spend a day or two going through a station rotation model, exploring the media of that center. So let’s just say it’s drawing. They spend time going through all of the different drawing materials, such as talk pastel, oil pastel, colored pencils, markers, crayons, all of that and then also learning the routines for getting materials out and cleaning them up. Once we have been through all the centers and students have demonstrated understanding of the materials and the routine, students can choose from anything that I have, and if they are not sure if I have it or not, they ask, and I find it for them. Or they’re always welcome to bring things in from their own house or materials that they can find. If there’s something specific they want to work with, that I may not have.

Jamie
How about choices over activities, including materials. Do students have choice over the activities they’re doing in your art room?

Alyssa
Yeah, so, um, I like to get my students some guidance by providing specific artworks that they can choose from because I have certain students that might spend days just trying to think of an idea. So I provide different artwork options at varying skill levels, and I always provide a choice option with that as well. If students pick a specific artwork, they have choice within that artwork. If students choose to do the choice art artwork, they have to complete an artwork planning sheet that fully describes their idea with a detailed sketch. Um, I also provide choice over activities through the use of a playlist. The playlists are personalized according to skill level and the artwork choice, Um, and they consist of three columns. The first is a must do column, which includes activities students must complete in order to begin their actual artwork. This can include uh detailed sketch or some sort of practice activity to demonstrate they understand the skill or concept needed to complete the artwork. The second column, includes two activities from the list of choices and these usually consist of a variety of enrichment activities to push them further. And then there’s a third column, which is called the may do list. Students have the option of doing anything in this column. It often consists of practice review reading and tech activities for students. You need more help and mastering a specific skill or concept. And both the second and third columns have teacher meeting options for students who need more small group or one on one help with me.

Jamie
Do students in your class have any choice related to who they work with?

Alyssa
Most of the time, they do. At the beginning of every year, I do a collaborative artwork with every class where I actually assign the groups, which is a little bit of a risky thing to do at the beginning of the school year when you don’t know and you have no idea who works well together. Ah, but for me, that’s the whole point. Um, I think, sadly, the extremely important part of communicating seems to be slowly diminishing before my students learn anything else, I want them to know how to work with each other and how to talk to each other. The first artwork isn’t necessarily about the art, but rather teaching students the importance of communicating and collaborating. Oftentimes, students automatically think if they don’t like someone, they shouldn’t have to work with them or talk to them. But in the real world, people have to do this with people they may not like all the time. So I want my students to be able to work together and to work toward everyone being successful. And for me, that starts with creating communities. So that’s why I kind of assigned those groups that with that first project, but then throughout the year, most of the time, I allow students to decide who they work with, especially for artworks. When it comes to pure feedback, though, I like to mix it up so students can see lots of different viewpoints from different people in their class.

Jamie
Alyssa, why encourage student choice at all?

Alyssa
Oh, there’s a lot of reasons why I would encourage student choice. First, if you think about your own life, think about the things you enjoy and the things that bring you happiness and then think about the things you don’t like and the things that stress you out. Naturally, you would much rather spend time doing the things you like, the things that make you happy and those things are probably different from the things that make me happy. And that’s not because one of us is better than the other. But just because we come from different backgrounds and we have different interests. Also, think about the last time you went to an art museum. Think about what made it interesting and some of the things that really caught your attention. Try to imagine walking through an art museum and seeing the same drawing throughout the entire museum. How long do you think you would last there? My guess would be not very long. Part of the reason why art is so intriguing is because of all the new things we see through art. If everyone’s creating the same picture with same colors in the same style, there’s nothing new to look at. So it’s really important for me that my students are creating, not replicating. Also imagine if I randomly chose 15 people to go on a trip with me. While on that trip, I decided to take everyone out for an adventure day. And guess what? We’re all going to climb to the top of Yosemite. That sounds great and all, and I have always wanted to learn to climb. But the most I have done is a rock wall in my middle school gym. This is often what we do to our students. We expect our students to all be at the same level and be able to do the same thing when in reality there are students who have been doing art their entire life and even get private art lessons at home and then there are students who may have never had any art experience at all. And then, lastly, would be student ownership. Providing choice is giving your student’s responsibility and agency. You’re allowing them to take some control over their learning. And this makes learning more intrinsic, which helps with increasing student engagement and motivation.

Jamie
Are there any teacher benefits to student choice?

Alyssa
Oh my goodness, yes, so, first to say it simply: it just makes me feel good. The overall quality of work is amazing, and students take a lot more pride in their work. Last year I had a student that was placed in my class, and he made it very clear it was not his decision and that it was not where he wanted to be. At the beginning of the year, he refused to do any work, and tended to give me a hard time in terms of behavior. When it was time to sign up for electives for the following year, he told me he signed up for my class again. I have him again this year, and a couple of weeks ago he created a drawing all on his own. He showed me the drawing and when he was done and I was so proud. But then later that day, at the end of the school day, he came in with his friend, got his picture out and said with excitement “look at what I did!” and you could just tell how proud he was. That moment was one of my most favorite moments of teaching. It’s an amazing feeling when your students are creating art because they want to and they’re proud of what they’ve done. Another benefit of student choice is that it’s given me more opportunity and time to get to know my students and work with them one on one. Um, I get to learn about their interests, but I also learn their strengths and where and how I can push them a little further, and I can work more closely on specific skills with students who might be struggling or facing frustration.

Jamie
But how do you keep track of all of the materials and groups and activities when you have so much choice?

Alyssa
To be completely honest, I haven’t mastered everything yet. Each year I learn more about what does and doesn’t work, but in terms of materials, I have centers set up around the room. The drawing center has all the dry drawing and coloring materials. The collage center has all the different papers. The painting center has all the painting materials and so on. I make sure students are clear on routines in terms of getting materials out and cleaning up. I also assign jobs to my students. They become experts at certain jobs, which is really helped to keep other students accountable and keep things organized. Um, and then the use of playlists have really helped keep me organized when it comes to keeping track of all the different activities. The playlist also acts as a checklist, and students have their playlists with them whenever they’re working. So I can see and they can see exactly which artwork they’re working on and where they’re at with that.

Jamie
How can academic teachers encourage student choice?

Alyssa
I think there’s a lot of different ways. I think starting small is always a good idea. I mean, you can start by just adding small choices into whatever you’re doing. I also highly encourage teachers to look into blended learning. It’s about personalizing learning, and there are a lot of different ways to do this. You just have to find what works best for your classroom. As I mentioned before, I tend to use playlists which have really worked well for my classes. I would also highly encourage teachers to consider arts integration. There are so many different ways to reach your students and personalized learning for them through the arts and allowing students to demonstrate learning through the arts might actually really surprise you.

Jamie
And I know I’m putting you on the spot here. But when you when you say playlists and I know you’ve described them, can you give our listeners an example of the different columns for one playlist that you have created or your students have worked with recently?

Alyssa
Yes. So, like I said, I have the must do column. And so, for my perspective, you know, and it’s it’s kind of hard to explain, because I had so many different options for the artwork that they could do. But let’s just say it was for the, they chose to do one point perspective in the must do column. They have to create a sketch of whatever it is they’re going to create. But then they also have to show that they have mastered one point perspective in order to do the artworks so that first column is where they’re showing me that they’re ready to do there artwork. The second column is where they have all these different choices of activities that they can do, and that includes things practice that they can do on the computer. Or maybe an artwork where they’re practicing two point perspective to kind of push them a little further, um, or different activities that they can do through different apps and stuff like that. So I try to incorporate technology and just provide a lot of different ways for students to learn whether that be reading or whatever. And then that third column again provides a bunch of those different kinds of activities: tech, reading, stuff like that where they can practice more if they’re not quite ready to move on to the artwork.

Jamie
Is there ever such a thing as too much choice?

Alyssa
Absolutely. Um, I would always recommend starting small and always keeping your expectations high. If things aren’t done right, you might just be creating chaos instead of choice. There is such a thing as choice overload, where too many options can become overwhelming for someone. Choice might also look different for different students for classes. Some students might need more guidance, in which case you would need to limit them out of choices, and they also depend on the subject. Some students might excel in art when given choices, but do poorly in math when given choices. It’s really about getting to know your students and figure out what works best for them.

Jamie
You can find out more about Alyssa’s choice-based classroom, community building in the classroom, and blended learning in her articles featured on educationcloset.com. Teaching Trailblazers is a production of the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM, and I’ve been your host. Jamie Hipp. This podcast is produced, edited and mixed by Jaime Patterson.

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