Set Students Up for Success with Choice: Interview with Maggie West

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This post was originally published on Leading Great Learning and is reposted with permission.

The way we introduce learning options to students can make or break a choice experience for students. In this blog post, you’ll learn some practical strategies and ideas from Maggie West, a fifth-grade teacher in Conway, Massachusetts. To get the most out of this post, I suggest you begin by watching Maggie in action as she introduces options for a math activity to her students. As you watch, think about what Maggie does to set her students up for success. Next, read our interview (below) to learn a bit about Maggie’s thinking. Finally, watch the video clip again and reflect on what you learned from our Q&A session. (The video clip is both at the beginning and end of this post to make this easy.) Though this video clip is short, it’s packed with simple and powerful strategies that any teacher can use!

You can learn more about Maggie at the end of this post. Enjoy!

Mike: What are some things you try to do to set kids up to make good choices?

Maggie: Kids need time to get to know who they are as learners, otherwise they will most likely not be able to make good choices for themselves for the right reasons. I believe that students need the opportunity to try many options and strategies and discuss how each one went for them. Starting at the beginning of the school year, we talk regularly about what skills were needed to do an activity, what did and didn’t go well for each learner, what next the next steps might be, and why someone might choose this activity in the future. In this way, students not only build their knowledge and vocabulary around making choices, but they begin to understand themselves more as learners.

Mike: What do you try to avoid?

Maggie: I avoid using judgement words like “easy”, “hard”, “challenge”, or “complex” when introducing the choices. These can get kids focusing on the wrong ideas when making choices. I also avoid going into too much explanation because I want students to consider what each choice would entail. I don’t want them to rely on me. That way, they are thinking about what the activity would be like as well as determining whether or not that matches their need for the day.

Mike: The language you use in this video example is so concise and particular–it almost sounds rehearsed! How do you prepare to introduce choices to students so that you say just what you want?

Maggie: It sounds rehearsed because in some ways it is! When I am deciding on the options that I will provide, I think about how I will describe each one. If it is something that I cannot describe in a clear and concise way, I might reconsider that option or clarify my thinking about what the purpose is of that option. Being clear and concise with myself is the first step. I also write out the choices in my notes. Having to write them helps me to be concise as well.

Mike: In this video example, you have students engage in a couple of quick turn-and-talks. Why?

Maggie: There are a few reasons I utilize this strategy on a regular basis. First, it allows the students to have a voice. Rather than me telling them what I think, they get to turn and tell each other what they think. Students learn from each other and see that their ideas are valued. In addition, when students turn and talk, it gives them the opportunity to process what they are thinking about. They can also better focus during whole group lessons when I give them time to talk to each other in a structured way. Finally, for students who might be less comfortable sharing their thinking, the partner talk allows a safer way for them to be heard. They can practice verbalizing with just one classmate so that eventually they can share out with the whole class.

Mike: I’ve seen turn-and-talks flop (kids not talking about what they’re supposed to, students not talking at all, etc.). How did you set this up so that students could be so successful?

Maggie: This takes a lot of work and it is not always successful. There are so many skills that go into a simple turn and talk – turn-taking, staying on topic, being concise, active listening, and making sure everyone is included are just a few. We practice each one of these skills in isolation, often at Morning Meeting, and then start to put them together for a structured turn and talk. I have students start with safe topics such as a book they’re reading or what they did over the weekend.

I might ask two students to demonstrate for the whole class and then we give feedback where I can point out the necessary skills that I observed. All year long, I offer support and suggestions for how to improve turn and talks. This includes modeling and practicing how to make sure everyone is included, what to do if both people start to speak at the same time, and what to do if your partner won’t talk or gets off topic.

Mike: In the end, how did students do with making good choices in this example? Did they seem to choose well? How do you try and determine that as a teacher?

Maggie: Students did make good choices even though not all students made the choice that I thought they should make. For example, there were some students that I thought should have worked with the pictorial models, but they made a different choice. These students told me that they thought they were ready to move away from the visuals and in this case, they were right.

As students work, I circulate and observe. Not only do I watch the work that is happening, but I listen to what students are saying to each other as they work. When I wonder why a student made a particular choice, I ask. Finally, at the end of the lesson, I ask students to reflect on whether or not they think they made a good choice and why.

Mike: What else might teachers notice about this example?

Maggie: I’ve been working on my teacher language for many years and I always think there’s room for improvement. That said, this example shows not only how I use language to introduce choices, but how I encourage students to have a voice as well. When I have them turn and talk, share out, and then I paraphrase or ask them to elaborate, my hope is that students feel empowered. I want students to know that I am genuinely interested in their ideas. The message is that the teacher is not the one with all the answers.

Mike: What else should teachers consider when introducing choice to students?

Maggie: If offering choice to students is new for you, start simply. Be sure to plan ahead and know what your goals are. Practice what you will say to students a few times before you actually say it. This might feel awkward, but the more your rehearse, the more confident you will be. It also could be helpful to write down what you want to say. Tell students, “I am working on some changes to my teacher language and having written notes helps me remember what I want to say.”

Thanks so much to Maggie West for inviting us into their classroom and sharing her thinking with us!

Maggie West teaches fifth grade at Conway Grammar School in Conway, MA and has been a classroom teacher for 17 years. She is passionate about teaching and learning and is always excited to grow and stretch as a teacher. You can reach out to her through email at

To learn more about using choice to boost engagement and differentiate learning, check out Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn.

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