# Heinemann Fellow Katie Charner-Laird on Empowering Choice in a Math Workshop

In this research journey, where I have been trying to map successful literacy workshop practices onto a math workshop, I have been considering the element of choice a great deal. From a very young age, children are taught how to select “just-right books.” The emphasis is on choice. Choice matters because it increases engagement. Choice matters because it encourages ownership. Choice matters because when our children leave us, we need them to continue choosing to read whether we are there or not. We teach them to choose books so that they will continue to choose books for their entire lives.

Yet math class has not traditionally been a place where choice is valued. Teachers are in charge of the learning. Teachers assign tasks they hope will promote learning. And often learning does happen. But I’m not sure any of the tasks teachers assign would ever be taken up spontaneously outside the classroom the way readers pick up a book outside reading workshop. One could say this isn’t a fair comparison. The two are inherently different. But if I think about why we encourage choice in reading workshop, the same should apply in math—choice matters because it increases engagement and encourages ownership. And if children are to be successful mathematicians, engagement and ownership of the learning are critical.

Katie, the third-grade teacher I am partnering with in my research this year, and I decided to approach planning our math workshop with a focus on understanding the big ideas for a unit, naming those big ideas explicitly, and then offering students choices about how to go about mastering them. Each week when we sit down to plan, we start by looking at a chunk. In our case, our primary curricular resource is Investigations (TERC), so we tend to look at one investigation at a time. We examine the connected standards, we test out some of the activities, and we analyze the provided worksheets. Then we come up with a learning target that speaks to the overarching goals for the week. For example, in our first week of a geometry unit, the learning targets were “I can use centimeters, inches, meters, and yards to measure accurately” and “I can measure the perimeter of a 2 dimensional object.” We don’t necessarily use the resources provided with the curriculum. We may end up designing our own activities, or we may use resources we find from other places. We consider the curriculum one tool of many we can draw from.

We introduce the learning targets in a variety of ways; sometimes with a sample problem to work on with a partner, sometimes with a game, and sometimes in small groups. Most importantly, we try to keep this introduction short and then explain to students what their choices for the week will be. We emphasize that as they make these choices, they are doing so based on what they think they need to master the learning target. The choices usually include a game, an applied problem that requires some creative thinking and/or writing, and practice pages that give children a chance to solidify their understanding of the concept.

While this may sound similar to math centers, in which students rotate through a predetermined set of activities each day, there are a few important distinctions. First, the activities are all specifically designed to support students in meeting a learning target. They are not merely fun math activities. Second, there is no predetermined rotation every student must complete. In fact, this is where the choice element is so important. Students choose how they will spend their time during math by thinking about how confident they feel in meeting the learning target. Because the emphasis is on the learning, and not the doing, the element of reflection at the end of the workshop is critical and is perhaps what does the most to distinguish it from math centers.

At the end of each workshop, we give students a chance to reflect on their choices. About five minutes before the end of the period, students get out their math folders and record their work for the day. The questions are simple, but profound. They record their thoughts in this grid in the front of their math folders.

 Date What I chose Why I chose it Did I get what I needed? What Will I Do Tomorrow?