You can look at all kids who are currently in grades K–12 as Generation Z. These students are even more enveloped in technology than the Millennials who came before them, and many educators now worry about how best to teach Generation Z basics—such as how to read—while competing for attention with digital devices. Parents and teachers are concerned how immediate gratification and a shortened attention span encouraged by regular device use might affect young student’s ability to learn and read.

But can the students really be blamed? In today’s modern classroom, technology is no longer just a past-time distraction; it’s an interwoven part of the daily education process. Everything students do now, from testing online and getting their score almost instantly to reading their textbooks and assignments on tablets, is all done digitally.

So how can educators find the perfect balance between traditional and digital approaches to better focus their student’s attention? How can they gain back control in a classroom full of devices? It’s easy: by sharing control with their students through student choice.

Building Student and Teacher Engagement

The most difficult part of such a transition falls in the hands of the teachers. Adults have to let this happen first, and handing over even a percentage of their control isn’t always easy. The solution then is to go slowly, make the changes gradually, and test parts of the transition out.

My education staff at Manor ISD are currently testing these methods to see how we can offer this choice and what that will look like. Personally, I’ve relied heavily on teacher and student stakeholder groups throughout the process, to brainstorm ideas and learn what each side needs and wants to achieve with their digital curriculum.

Choice is very important, but voice from the field is very important as well.

The student choice method works wonderfully well with reading. By giving students more freedom to pick the books and subject matter they’re interested in, school staff can feel more assured in their students’ engagement in the task at hand.

But the method works with other curriculum, too. Take project based learning (PBL), for example. At Manor ISD, I want our kids to feel that they can learn with PBL or not. From the start of the school year, they are given a choice of where they want to land from the curriculum perspective and then how they plan to work to get there. This allows kids to navigate through that constructional framework, finding confidence and engagement with their lessons along the way.

(Next page: Tools and support for student choice)

Tools and support for student choice

In order for a student choice curriculum to succeed, teachers require the proper tools and level of engagement. When it comes to reading, my staff uses myON to ensure our students’ interests are met. Specifically targeted at our elementary schoolers, the digital library offers its readers the freedom to take their reading assignments into their own hands and personalize them to fit their interests and reading goals.

As we’ve experimented with student choice in a digital curriculum, we have tried to anticipate how education will change. A big part of that lies in providing the same digital engagement in our lessons that students would otherwise find recreationally or online. When students are engaged, they’re more focused, they participate more, ask more questions, and get more out of the lesson. Putting our kids in control of their education and using engaging technology builds upon the necessary skill sets our students need in all content areas, reading and beyond.

Go Street-Smart!

For an approach like this to work, it’s also essential to back up choice initiatives with a strong “street-smart” education. Through what we call digital citizenship, we not only teach our students to engage freely within a digital curriculum, but arm them with the skills to do so responsibly. These skills include everything from web browsing basics to developing strong media perspective and how to identify fake versus legitimate news sources.

This type of approach is adjustable and can be paired with an assortment of additional curriculum. As part of my district’s “No Place for Hate” initiative, we had a session in which we brought our kids together and had them Google their names to see what information of theirs was private and what wasn’t.

We don’t want the internet to seem like a dangerous place for our kids, just as we don’t want to approach device use as an outlet for bad behavior. Instead we need to educate students in this generation on how to use these tools properly.

When teaching Generation Z, it’s important to keep an open mind. They are the future, and it’s our generation’s responsibility to step out of the traditional box, to examine and rekindle (from an adult perspective) what the students want and need to succeed.

My advice: be true to their requests, you’ll get back as much as you give.

About the Author:

Dr. Royce Avery has more than 30 years of experience working with diverse populations across the Texas public education system. He received the Region 17 Education Service Center’s Outstanding Principal of the Year Award in 2006. Dr. Avery currently serves as the Superintendent of Manor Independent School District in Manor, TX.