English learners, like all students, go to school to learn. They are learning the knowledge and skills of the content areas as they are developing English proficiency. The goal, of course, is that students learn to be critical thinkers, are able to engage in society, and develop the skills necessary to be happy and successful human beings.

As we teach our students, then, are we creating situations in which students can develop those skills? Or are we teaching them to robotically follow the rules that are imposed by the adults in the school?

School is a structured learning environment; students follow a regular routine to engage in the learning process. There are rules and norms that are followed from the moment they walk onto the school grounds, including the procedures they follow as they enter campus, when they gather with their friends and classmates and when they enter the classroom to start the day.

From there, the transitions throughout the day, the routines that students engage in for learning, and other routines and structures are designed to help students stay safe and provide an optimal learning environment.

This aspect can be considered the schooling aspect of education. It would be difficult to find a person who believes that this aspect is not important — it is a critical aspect of the learning environment that is specifically designed to keep students safe and optimize learning. However, students usually have little say in how the classroom is run.

Of course, depending on the age and experience of the students, they may need to be explicitly taught how to behave on school grounds as well as in the classroom. That said, students can and should be involved in the decision-making process whenever possible.

The following ideas are a few examples of ways to build student voice into the "schooling" process.

Developing Classroom Agreements

Students can and should be involved in developing agreements for how they will conduct themselves in the classroom. Of course, there are some procedures, especially related to safety, that all students will need to follow.

However, how and when students get up to sharpen a pencil, for example, can potentially be negotiated. Or, how and when students share ideas in the class can be decided on through group norms.

For example, are students able to call out answers, or must they always wait for a teacher to call on them when their hands are raised? How can and do they express when a lesson is working well, or not working well for them?

Consider what you are willing to relinquish control of, and turn over some of the decision-making process to your students. While students cannot decide every aspect of how the classroom is run, there are likely some aspects that you would be willing, and perhaps even happy, to get their input on.

By having English learners be a part of this conversation, we are encouraging them to contribute their own cultural values as well as developing language skills as they provide input and agree or disagree with the various suggestions provided.

Flexible Seating

Flexible seating has become more popular in recent years. Flexible seating allows for student choice in the classroom by allowing students to choose where they will sit to best meet their learning needs.

In classrooms with flexible seating, students have a variety of seating options, such as standard chairs and desks, stools, cushions or bean bag chairs, and other seating options. In these classrooms, students have a chance to try out each of the seating arrangements in a structured way so that every person has the opportunity to determine which is the best seating option for them.

Students need to be taught that flexible seating is designed to enhance learning, and that it is not an option to use the seating arrangement to disengage from the learning process.

Free Academic Choice Time

Free academic choice time is a designated block of time wherein students choose what they would like to work on. For example, students can choose to read a book, continue with a writing assignment, engage in a project, create art, or research a topic if interest.

This unstructured time has just one rule; that students are learning and working on something related to school and the content areas they are studying. By allowing students time to choose what they would like to work on, we are building self-regulation and autonomy to manage their time wisely.

During this time, English learners may choose to work on a variety of activities just as any other student. Consider allowing these students to read or research material in their native language during this time, if materials are available. Alternatively, this could also be a time where English learners engage in additional language practice opportunities.

The other goal is to educate our students. The difference between schooling and educating students is that education is designed to empower students.

Students should be allowed to determine what works for them in education, and what does not work for them and their learning. Educating students means inspiring them to learn about the world; to figure out how they learn best, what they are interested in and passionate about, and ultimately giving them the freedom and thinking skills to learn about the world around them.

The following strategies are sample ideas that can help to truly educate our students.

Recording Thinking and Learning

Students can be taught a variety of ways to record their learning. From learning logs, graphic organizers, and making sketches to outlines and having discussions to facilitate learning, students can practice a wide variety of ways to help them learn content and record their learning for longer-term memory and access.

As students are taught these various techniques, they can be given the autonomy to employ the techniques that work best for them. Note that for English learners at the beginning proficiency levels, visuals may be an excellent start to recording learning.

Over time, students can add more language to their sketches, including labels, phrases, and later on longer sentences. Some students will stick with using visuals, as it may be their preference. Others may change to more language-dominant techniques, such as outlines or written notes.

Choice in Topics

Whenever possible, build in opportunities for students to study aspects of the content that interest them the most. For example, students may research a particular aspect of the topic such as a specific habitat in science, applications of mathematical skills in different or novel ways, a particular event during a time period in history, or perhaps reading additional works of a particular author.

While teachers often feel the pressure of teaching students a large amount of content facts and knowledge, by allowing students to more deeply research a particular aspect of the topic, we are building autonomy and having students learn what interests them the most in the particular content area.

Note that for English learners, additional scaffolding and language instruction may need to be provided to help this particular group of students be more successful.

Taking Learning Breaks

Unfortunately, not every brain works in the exact same way or at the same pace. Students may remain deeply engaged in the topics that interest them, but when the topic and learning becomes intensive, people may need a short break to reinvigorate their thinking.

In many professional workplaces, people have the freedom to stand up and stretch, use the restroom, or otherwise take a moment to take a break from the task at hand. This is not to say that students can disengage from the learning for extended periods, but that they may need a moment to collect their thoughts or think through a particular topic.

For English learners in particular, a lot of information is being processed in regards to content, all in a new language. This can be an intensive process as students are concentrating on two different aspects of the learning.

Allowing students short breaks can provide the opportunity to process information, or even just take a brain break in order to refocus and prepare for what is coming up next. Both formal and informal breaks can be provided. For informal breaks, be sure that students have wither a signal or a physical place in the classroom where they can go for a short period of time to refocus.

The semantic differences between schooling and educating are perhaps debatable. However, the idea that we can focus on both the procedures and management of students’ education, as well as the way they are learning and the content they are learning, is important.

For English learners, and indeed all students, providing them a voice and empowering them to make choices in the classroom will ultimately lead to more productivity and happier students.