Bracelet-Making, “Talkie Walkies,” and Fishing as Revolution: How Free Choice Fridays Disrupt Our Notions of Schooling

It’s 2:25pm Friday afternoon.  You are twelve years old. You’ve spent the week running from class to class, trying to bring the right supplies to each place, going to sports practices, doing the homework, engaging in whatever it is the teacher has dreamed up.  You breathe a sigh of relief. TGIFCF (Thank God it’s Free Choice Friday.) You run off to the free choice you got assigned to, one of several options that you listed as an interest on a survey earlier the past week. 

Students enrolled in Connie Burke’s Free Choice made cards using a technique called iris folding and paracord bracelets for military troops, which were then sent to Operation Gratitude
Middle School students in Ann Marshall’s “Talkie Walkies” Club took a walk over to Starbucks while they discussed two big questions : (1) If you could have one super power, what would it be?
(2) If you could do one thing to change the world, what would you do?
Youth enrolled in Dean Julius’ fishing club learned that good things come to those who wait; after an entire quarter of having almost no success, they all caught fish during the last club session!

As education-related buzzwords go, choice and student ownership are pretty frequent flyers.  They show up when we talk about giving students options in the literature they read.  They manifest in conversations about allowing electives in high school curricula. They might impact how we write/design our assessments, projects, and papers assignments.  In fact, the two words (and the spirit behind them) has surfaced again and again in this i2 blog during its six months of existence. But let’s address the elephant in the room. . . . a particularly large, intimidating elephant named “Rigor.”  Often more project-based or student-interest-driven pursuits are relegated to the corner of our curriculum. They are for “the fun days,” when kids need a break and we’ve already done the hard part of learning. They help lift the grade curve, undoubtedly, because, after all, how can one grade creativity, projects, or students actually doing something?   Isn’t that subjective, anyway?

These ideas aren’t lies.  They develop from real experiences with projects-gone-wrong, with approaches that weren’t organized well or with teachers who didn’t have training for how to develop long-term, student-led learning experiences.  But they also come from, what I think, is a fundamental misunderstanding of the definition of “rigor” and a simultaneous devaluing of what actually makes learning experiences persistent, powerful, and long-lasting.  I believe this viscerally because in my 17 years of teaching various levels of students, I have noticed again and again that students are often most challenged, enriched, and inspired by tasks that aren’t even figured into their grade.

*Josh (pseudonym) , a sixth grader I had in English class in 2004,  taught me this. I couldn’t get the kid to study for a spelling test, and I most certainly couldn’t inspire him to proofread his essays for me.  But the minute he was assigned a college student pen pal buddy to exchange notes back and forth with, he became obsessed with spelling and grammar.  The same kid who barely ever muttered a word in writing conferences suddenly ran to my desk again and again with questions . . . “Does this sound right?” “Does this make sense to you?” “Did I write that correctly?”  This same thing happened last Spring with my teacher education course when my teacher candidates and I spent an entire weekend together in the Mac Lab editing a video we had made alongside youth at Barr Elementary. There was no way I was going to grade the quality of the iMovie . . . after all, the course was all about learning how to teach, not how to create a movie.   But these future teachers, one of whom had failed to turn in about half of the graded assignments for the class, were motivated by something far more intrinsic than a grade; they had developed real relationships with the fifth graders they had worked with throughout the semester and they wanted them to feel pride and ownership about the movie they had co-written and acted in when we screened it to parents and community members.  

I think Free Choice Fridays are revolutionary because they remind us of how education and schooling can look when it is untethered from traditional trappings. Here’s what I’ve learned from Free Choice Fridays that I think might inform what we do every day in every class.  

  • It’s not just about student interest; it’s about faculty interest. The crux of Free Choice Fridays is that faculty decide what to offer based on THEIR passions.  The best teaching/learning experiences I’ve seen offer students choice within choices. Parents of toddlers are taught that you shouldn’t ask a three year old what she wants to wear.  A more developmentally appropriate way is to pick out two choices and let her choose from those. Young children and adolescents often are in the midst of learning what they love, uncovering what the world has to offer. This is what we do in world history, in choir, in biology: we invite youth into an entire community that is our particular discipline and set of discourses.  They may not fall in love, we understand. But they have the best chance of doing so if the thing we teach is the thing that we also happen to love.  
  • Sometimes grades motivate; sometimes they paralyze.: Research shows that grades can be incredibly motivating for more rote tasks, such as holding students accountable for reading and comprehending a particular text before a class.  But it gets more complicated as tasks become more nuanced and risk-taking and/or creativity is actually desired.  
  • Slowing down doesn’t always mean that we learn less.: Teaching a free choice is super low pressure, and I think some faculty find that really freeing.  Not feeling urgency to get to every single aspect of a particular curriculum enables a real responsiveness to what youth need in the moment.  Depth over breadth. Besides, sometimes you can’t control how many fish you catch in a lake in a given hour. Maybe realizing our limitations as we engage with an interconnected world is the point after all.  
  • Mixing up age levels can shift the feel of a class.:  In slam poetry club last quarter I was struck at the incredible range of writing levels represented in my 5th-8th graders in the room.  This kind of fusion of abilities proved to be generative; sometimes a fifth grader’s line of spoken word would take our collective breath away while other times an eighth grader’s interpretation of a slam poetry performance would push us all to a deeper level.  I think being less concerned that the playing field is equal might make us all more cognizant of the many flavors of difference that are in each classroom as well as the many ways that we can all, from PK3 on, serve as mentors and guides to each other. 
  • Co-teaching is magical: This quarter I’m co-teaching my podcast club with the help of several future teachers enrolled in a night class I’m teaching at Millsaps.  Many other faculty commonly teach Free Choice with a friend of theirs in the community. Having more adults in the room (and in the planning stage) shifts the feel of a room from us versus them to “we are all sense-making together.” Teaching can, at its worst, feel pretty isolating. Teaching together is a powerful antidote.

I don’t mean to suggest that we tear down the system and replace our entire day with Free Choice Friday. The system is here for a reason, and much of the joy of Free Choice Friday would be eliminated if it happened all the time. Nevertheless, I think there are nuggets of gold here that apply to all of us, whether we teach three year olds or eighteen year olds on the cusp of the wide, wide world.

What have you learned from teaching Free Choice Friday? How do you define rigor? How do you weave student interests and your interests into the curriculum? What are grades, in the end, for? We don’t need to agree on one answer. After all, any kid who has experienced Ann Marshall’s “Talkie Walkies” could tell you: it’s in the asking of the questions that a conversation starts. And it’s in the midst of that conversation that we are all enriched.

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