Choose Your Own Adventure

Post date: Sep 22, 2014 8:16:59 PM

*if you don't feel like reading here's a brief presentation I did for my staff on CYOA about 5 years ago.

If I had to choose one thing other than History Mystery to show off my classroom it would be Choose Your Own Adventure. Actually, when I had my evaluation for Teacher of the Year a few year ago this actually was what I showed off (mostly because it was already scheduled but hey, at least I didn't change it.) I absolutely love the idea of assessment as instruction and Choose Your Own Adventure does that very well. It also offers high levels of student engagement and performance along with built-in differentiation. All that said, it is so very different from the typical classroom structure that it can be overwhelming for students and definitely so for teachers. I want to explain how I do it and how you can make it as smooth as possible in your classroom.

*I would highly recommended doing a few of the assignments with the whole class before going to the "Choose" level. This allows you to set the expectations for quality, explain the important of directions and model how to get materials in a much more controlled environment. Magazine Cover is a great one to do as it hits pretty much every area of question that comes up.

The Assignments

The hardest part is done for you. I've posted all of our CYOA assignments on this very site on the Assignments page. There are 75 different assignments divided by time to complete and type of intelligence it would most appeal to. They are written generically so that they can apply to any level of history with little to no change. Of course, you are free to add more and change them to fit your level but most of the work is done.

This took us three years of heavy work to put together our first list (which was just over 40 assignments.) We brainstormed a list of every single history activity any of us did and tried to determine if we could "generalize" it. At this point we honestly hadn't even considered the idea of students choosing what to do. We just wanted a toolbox of activities ready to go if we needed it. Once we realize how huge the list was and that we could never actually use them all I came up with the idea of letting students choose. None of us had ever heard of assignment menus before (they were very rare before 2006) so we weren't really sure how to proceed. In any case, we had the assignments and a plan so we were good to go.

We divided the assignments into categories based on which intelligence they'd best apply to (Gardner was all the rage at the time.) We ended up simplifying down to 3 categories: Artists who like to draw or create, Detectives who like to work with facts or charts and Profilers who like to put themselves in the shoes of others. (We chose Profiler over Psychologist due to the negative associations some of kids have with them.) They aren't hard and fast categories but they give a general idea of what to expect from the assignments.

The Set Up

At first each time we did CYOA I just placed 7-10 manila folders out on the counter with various assignments. This worked well enough but meant I was constantly printing out new sheets and swapping folders. Eventually I realized I could just put everything out and then limit the choices to whatever I wanted for that unit. So now, I have 45 accordion style folders stapled to my wall all year long. These have the instruction sheets for the assignments I (and students) use most frequently. The other 30 are open to students by request or via the website.

The folders are labeled with the title of the activity and some kind of picture to represent it. They are color coded to show how long they should take to finish. White are 30 minute tasks, yellows are an hour and blues are 2 hours. They are then placed on 3 different colored bulletin boards. The red board is all the Detective tasks, green is Artist and orange is Profiler so kids know what is expected from that assignment.

The menu sheets themselves are the next step in the set up. I started by providing a list of assignment options and topics for each point value for every unit. For example, with Rome I might include "Acrostic Poem on Constantine." By providing the topic I could ensure that the students didn't just focus on one topic. In the last couple years I realized I didn't care if they did so. Now, for my honors kids, I have a general sheet that allows them choose whichever assignment they want and whatever topic. They just have to write up a proposal first. I have tried this with regular classes and found it to be a bit too much for them to handle at age 12. For honors it has worked very well.

Each menu requires a different amount of points depending on the amount of class time we are spending on that adventure. My classroom is set up very simply where each daily assignment is worth 10 points. So, if we are spending 2 days on a CYOA packet then I require 20 points. If 4 days it is 40 points, and so on. You can obviously adjust this to fit your grading system.

It is important to have supplies out and ready to go as well. I have a cabinet with various craft supplies (construction paper, index cards, ribbon, etc.), a drawer with colored pencils and a stack of white paper all ready to go. I don't want to have to do these things once they are working.

In Class

If you've done proper set up the in class management of this is pretty simple. I send 10-12 students at a time to the wall to get their first instruction sheet. If they take more than 60 seconds I sit them down to wait until everyone else has gone through. If a folder runs out of sheets (I try to keep about 10 in each) I tell them to pick something else. If everyone is not seated and silently working within 5 minutes I will choose their adventure for them (and I ensure them they won't like the choice.) It often takes a bit more than 5 but they don't know that. As long as they are moving at a proper pace it works fine.

Once they are started it runs pretty smoothly. When they have questions, they ask. When they need colored pencils, they get them. Since students are all working on their own thing there is no reason for them to be talking at all. I usually enforce silence strongly on the first day and tell them that if they are on their point pace then I'll let up a little the next day. If a student asks more than a couple questions on a given assignment I tell them to pick a different one. I am not going to explain 75 assignments to 36 kids. If they can't figure it out (or more likely won't because they directions are long) then they have plenty of other options.

When they finish an assignment they bring it to me. I very briefly look over it to make sure all the instructions have been completed. If they have I stamp their menu sheet and they hang on to it until all of their point are complete. If they missed something I do not stamp it and they must, on their own, figure out what is missed, fix it and then ask again. If they get it wrong again I tell them they have one more chance to complete all the directions before I will not give them credit for that assignment at all. In any case, I do not grade the assignments. I simply stamp them off so I, and the student, know they are complete.

Once an assignment is done they return it to the folder on the wall and get the next one. There is no reason for any down time. Without about 3 minutes left in class I have them return all materials and instructions. I remind them that the instructions are on the website and how many points they should have done at that point. If they are behind they should consider working at home a bit. They can take a picture of the instructions with their phone if need be. I do not let them take the instructions as my other periods need them as well.

When they come in the next day the bellwork simply says "Immediately begin working on your CYOA packet. Don't wait for me." Things are up and running before I even come in from the hall.


How can I grade 75 different tasks each with their own expectations and instructions? I can't. We had to create a simple rubric to make this work. We've gone through multiple variations but I am happy with the E3 version I am currently using.

I grade on Evidence (historical facts and support, Effort (overall look of project, time spent, etc.) and Eccentricity (creativity and uniqueness). The purpose of CYOA is to get students to work with a topic that they find most interesting. I want them to learn what it is like to pursue a topic out of joy not just out of requirement. As such I put a heavy emphasis on them really doing well and having fun with this stuff. If 2/3rds of the grade are non-content I think that point is driven home quite strongly. The beauty of a rubric is that if they come up short on any area then it is reflected in the overall grade. Normally I'm all about content when it comes to grades so the rubric allows me to not only include other areas but also to sleep soundly at night.

With rubric in hand (really in mind at this point) I quickly go over each assignment. I don't make very many comments on things unless something stands out as particularly wonderful. I simply put the percentage on it and move on with my life. After doing this for many years I can get through a full class of 20 point packets in under 30 minutes and still feel like I did my due diligence. Wonderful assignments are stamped with the word "Fridge" and posted to my website.

In the last couple years I've started having my honors kids grade them own work before turning in their packet. This has made things even easier and I'd love to find a way to make it work with my regular kids as well.

What to Watch For

I know this all sounds too easy. The truth is it isn't. My colleagues who helped to create this model don't even use it any more. Not because they don't believe in it mind you but simply because they grew tired of managing it. I'm on the other end of the spectrum entirely. To me it is a chance to relax. I'm off stage and the kids work diligently. I can get grading done (CYOA usually comes right after a test/quiz) or work individually with students who need it. Since the kids are so engaged in their tasks management is a non-issue for me. This is only the case because I've come up with plans and procedures for everything that may come up.

So, you need to be prepared for:

-kids who don't start working. (This is usually because the instructions are overwhelming. When I need to I just pick something for them that I think they will enjoy.)

-kids who keep asking if their work is good. (I told one today who asked me "Sorry, that's not how CYOA works. You tell me if it is good.)

-kids who turn in work that is off-topic. (I had a wanted poster with myself as the topic turned in once. Last year I had a bio-poem on Abraham Lincoln for my Medieval Europe unit. It hurts but I have to be willing to give zeros in these cases. Make sure you are super clear on what topics are appropriate and relevant.)

-kids who don't do all the point so they turn in nothing. (Something is better than nothing. Kids who turn in zero get a letter home asking their parents why their student just did nothing in two days of class. That quickly gets the kids to turn in something.)

-kids who turn in incomplete work. (I do not accept incomplete assignments, period. I won't even grade them. I mark them incomplete and return them as a zero. Kids are free to complete them and turn them in late but I don't want to deal with explanations on what was missing so it is on them to figure it out.)

-running out of instruction sheets. (Even with explicit directions not to kids will take instructions home. I usually add 2-3 of the more popular ones to the folder at the end of each period so they all have a shot at them.)

-mass confusion at first. (Most kids have never been trusted with the freedom to choose their work and work pace. Some don't handle it well initially.

Anticipating these challenges means they are just hiccups along the way. They certainly are not reason enough to throw out an entire educational model that works fantastically for a huge number of kids. Even if you just do it on a small scale I highly recommend giving CYOA a chance.