When parents hear that Ancona students have a lot of choice, I wonder what they think of. One seventh grader explained to me what she liked about her artwork of Arabic calligraphy on marbleized paper. She said it was beautiful because of what it symbolized, and she loved both the making of it and what she’d learned to appreciate about the language and the ink’s flow. Two third graders working on correcting a math problem gradually came to terms about how they could reconcile their ideas for a solution. The teacher led the entire class in a discussion about the multiple strategies for solving the problems, and through this dialogue, the students adopted new strategies for next time. Do parents think of these?

Low levels of student choice exist everywhere. Kids are exposed early on to forced choices (“do you want to eat your carrots before your bath or after?”). Then they graduate to preference-based choices (“which color do you want?”). Eventually, we grown-ups afford them the luxury of choices in their learning in extremely limited ways (“choose a president to write a report about.”).

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But at Ancona, choice is genuine, legitimate, and linked to learning opportunities. Consider the third and fourth grade class studying writing. After comparing their characters’ internal and external obstacles, they sat down for some focused writing time to apply what they were learning to their developing stories. In an earlier class, one student I was observing had retreated into a cliche sports story requiring little thought. But this time he concentrated harder, pressing the pencil more deliberately, taking time with difficult strokes. I let him concentrate; he was exhibiting determination and care for ideas he was coaxing out. I asked him to tell me about the story, and his eyes lit up as he explained what choices he was making. His eyes brightened with pride, and he held my gaze until he was sure he was done telling me all about it. The only way for the conversation to continue was for them to take a stab at creating the next step in their original pieces. Genuine choice means that progress depends on making the choice.

Also, Ancona students have legitimate choices. By legitimate, I mean they have real consequences. Teachers are always reminding kids that how they treat each other changes their relationships. One young student was having a hard time learning this, and was sorrowful that his friends were avoiding him because of his dominating behavior. I talked to him for a while, but his emotions were too strong to see what was at the root of his problem. But I explained to him that I’d seen kids just like him in similar situations, and they figured out that if they courageously reached out to those same friends and asked for a chance to redeem themselves, things started to turn around. As we mature, we start to learn that legitimate choices have very real consequences. Happily, these struggles at early ages don’t plague us the same as we mature and get more practiced at linking the consequences to the earlier choices.

Almost a century ago, John Dewey, my favorite education philosopher, told his critics that experience bears along learning. This old idea that teachers ought to design learning experiences — and further, recognize what kinds of experiences their students are already learning from, down to the seats bolted to the floor — is well in practice at Ancona. Their environment demands that students make choices. Where will you go? What will you experiment with? What materials do you want? Teachers persistently follow students’ thinking to help them develop their own questions. Then, having refined their ideas, guide them to pursue answering those same questions. It’s a very short distance from learning to answer your own question to related concepts like motivation, self-governance, and ownership. But in terms of learning, Dewey explained, “the most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning.” I have met more teachers familiar with this one quotation than any other in their studies and training.

At Ancona, these choices are genuine: they truly depend on the child making a choice for things to progress. And they are legitimate: they have real consequences for the child. And lastly, they are linked to real learning. Choice, ultimately, is about learning. The lesser the choice, the lesser the learning.data fair4

After this Friday’s assembly, 5th-6th grade will premiere their Social Justice Data Fair. I first visited Ancona when the last of these presentations were posted, and I could not believe my eyes. One student had chased down their own questions about disciplinary rates in Chicago Public Schools by race and ethnicity. Another was looking at juvenile detention rates in Illinois. Each poster charted its data and was accompanied by a narrative explaining what the author would like us to see in it, and what policy recommendations they would make. I didn’t get to touch material like that until college! This was the brilliant intersection of math, writing, and social justice. Just as much, though, it was the exercise of freedom of choice, entrusted to children, to guide them to greater thinking about how to make things better for people everywhere. When parents hear that Ancona students have choice, I hope they imagine democracy.