Middle School Learning: Providing ‘Voice and Choice’


The year is 1986. I take my seat in my Grade 6 class and wait patiently. My teacher rises from his desk and begins to tell us that we’re about to begin an “exciting” new lesson. Did he say exciting? Yes!

He goes on to say, as part of our study of geography, we are each going to get to choose a country and write a report on the country and it’s major geographic features. He shows us a few excellent examples of reports that have been submitted by students in the past several years.

My excitement wanes. As I browse through the faded reports, I think to myself, “I’d like to create a travel brochure; something different than all of these!” I can already see the front cover of my brochure and anticipate my trip to the public library to sign out a few books.

I raise my hand and ask, “Can we do something other than a report?”

“No, we’re doing a report for this project,” he quickly responds.

“Not even a travel brochure?” I ask, thinking surely he would see the brilliance of my idea and allow my request.

“Nope, not this time. Maybe we’ll have time to do a fun project like that later on in the year.”

“But why?” I asked, knowing I was now crossing the line from keen to cheeky.

He sighs, exasperated, and responds, “Because this is how it’s always been done.”

Well that’s a good reason. No wait, it’s not! He told me I can’t do a brochure because that isn’t how it’s been done in the past. Even in my 11-year old head, that didn’t sit well.

I completed my report a week later. I’m not sure what I learned, I can’t even remember what country I chose to write about. And perhaps the reason was because I wasn’t able to show my learning in a way that I wanted to; in a way that got me excited about the material I was learning; in a way that allowed me to work within my strengths.

The year is 2015. Grade 7 students enter into their math class at the SMUS Middle School to be presented with a math menu, where they are able to choose from a selection of activities to demonstrate their understanding of math review concepts.

Students enter their Grade 6 Humanities classes and get the opportunity to show their understanding of the platforms of Canada’s federal political parties in a way that allows them to use their strengths, be it visual, oral, technological, or written expression.

Grade 8 students are able to have a say in so much of their schooling, from what leadership opportunities they want to participate in throughout the year, to what outdoor education trips they’ll join at year-end.

The Middle School aims to provide students with opportunities for voice and choice. Teachers and students all know that we learn in a variety of ways and, likewise, express our understanding in different ways. As we move towards a more personalized learning approach to programming, we realize that empowering students to make choices based on interests and strengths motivates them to dig deeper. We want our students to love learning, to be inquisitive, to question, wonder, overcome challenges, and figure it out. These are the traits that will carry our students through high school, university and life.  

Choice is wonderful; however we also have some non-negotiables. We have courses and practices that we do as a class. It helps to build a culture of togetherness and inclusivity. It helps us build a necessary skill-set and gives us a foundation of knowledge on which to build. A few examples are: participation in weekly Chapels, taking a second language, and being part of our Middle School choir program. These activities and programs teach us discipline, work our brains in new ways, and provide time for reflection. But it is through these activities that we learn how to respond and behave when given the freedom of voice and choice in other areas.

1986 is long gone, and so should be the methods of that era. We are in a new age. Students are no longer seen as vessels that sit in our classes awaiting content that is passed down from teachers. Students and teachers learn together. How we learn takes precedence over what we learn and it is our belief, here at the Middle School, that students should have a voice and choice in how that looks.

Tanya Lee teaches Humanities 6, and Communication Skills 7 and 8 at the SMUS Middle School. She is one of four SMUS teachers who dedicates a portion of their time shepherding St. Michaels University School’s plan to implement an integrated and excellent approach to personalization. The personalization team explores current best practices of personalized learning and looks at how SMUS can integrate these methodologies into our programming in a way that provides outstanding preparation for higher learning and for life.

Read more about personalized learning at SMUS on The Head’s Blog, written by Head of School Bob Snowden.


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