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Student Choice and 20% Time

Jordan Catapano


If you could design your own professional development, what would it look like? What would you invest your time in doing that you feel you’d be interested in and would genuinely make you a better teacher? Make a list right now.

Now for the test: Did you write down the same things that your school is guiding you to do for professional development? If you’re like the majority of educators, your answer is “no.” Isn’t that funny? The things we know that would make us better teachers are not the things that our schools are actually having us do.

Let’s turn the tables a little bit now and think about your students. Do you think they could list some of things that they feel would make them better learners? Would their list match the list of things you have them do on an annual basis? The reality often is that while our bosses don’t typically allow us the time to pursue our own interests and goals as educators, we too are culpable for not allowing our own students the opportunity to pursue their interests and goals.

Typically, I encourage teachers to “trust themselves as adults” and to create curriculum that’s based on their expertise that benefits student. However, I think that it is also important to acknowledge that students – just like adults – need an opportunity to pursue their own interests and find their own version of “fun” in academics. That fun and meaning often does not come from something being assigned to them. Rather, that fun comes from having a sense of ownership and control.

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There are plenty of areas in which to focus on student choice in the curriculum. We could talk about differentiation, choice in assignments, choice in groups, choice in classes or electives, choice in rules, and choice in content. However, what I want to particularly focus on is student choice in reading.

If you ask students how many school-assigned books they have actually read, the numbers are dismally low. The average student is assigned to read about three books a year (give or take) – but most students don’t even make it entirely through one. Thanks to SparkNotes and the proliferation of information-sharing technology, faking having read a book is pretty easy for averagely-savvy kids. The fact is that many students just aren’t reading what they’re assigned. While we could explore the various contributing factors to this trend, suffice it to say that books just aren’t that attractive when someone makes you read them. Just imagine watching movies because you “have” to do it – suddenly you’ll find yourself watching films you don’t like or the joy of a good story is sapped away by the “assignment factor” hovering over it.

Enter 20% Time and Student Choice

In the first decade of the new millennium, Google was famous for hosting something called “20% Time” with its employees. Under this system (which sadly was ended last year) employees were allowed to work on their own personal projects. Some of Google’s most profitable ideas – like Adsense and Google Glass – are rumored to have begun as employees’ pet projects. The idea behind this was that people are probably going to be more productive and enthusiastic about working on something that they are personally passionate about, and they were allotted time to do this in addition to their normal work responsibilities.

Now let’s apply this to student choice when it comes to reading. Every curriculum is responsible for introducing a certain array of reading selections to students. It’s really important that schools direct students to certain texts for a number of reasons. However, what if it were possible to still adhere to the curriculum of prescribed readings, yet still allow students to read books of their own choosing too?

Enter 20% time and student choice.

A growing number of teachers are trying something new when it comes to reading – and it’s actually working incredibly well. While students had previously read only a handful of books they were assigned, now those same students are reading dozens of books a year. Reading, they say, has actually become fun and meaningful to them.

How does this happen? It’s simple. Students are allowed either 20% of the start of each class to read a book of their own choosing (so that’s 10 minutes of a 50-minute class), or they are given one full day in a five-day week to read a book of their own choosing.

How Does 20% Time and Student Book Choice Work?

The idea is almost overwhelmingly simple, but it produces enormous results for students. What happens is that students come into the classroom, take out the books they’ve selected, and read quietly for the allotted time. After that allotted time passes, class proceeds as normal with the lesson you’ve prepared for the day. If a student has a book that they don’t like, then they simply go back to the shelf, library, home, or wherever they got it, put it back, and choose another text that looks appealing.

Does it get graded or have assignments associated with it? No. While you can definitely tailor the implementation of 20% time to your own preferences, the very idea of doing something like this for fun means that the less actual assignments or grades associated with it, the better. Some teachers like to make it completely grade-free. Other teachers like to maybe make each day of reading worth 1 point, or some inconsequential sum. Keep it small, if you impose anything at all.

Many of you are thinking already that this is going to cut into the normal curriculum that you’ve prepared. And yes, you are absolutely right. It will cut into 20% of your curriculum. However, most teachers who have tried this have reported something interesting: it really has NOT drastically changed how or what they teach. Yes, they have to trim the fat and use time more expeditiously, but they still are able to cover their entire curriculum.

So you can try this simple idea and see where it leads your students. They’ll still be responsible for doing your homework, reading your regularly assigned class texts, and paying attention during the rest of normal class time. But that 20% where they’ve been allowed to choose what they read may make a major difference in how they perceive reading.

Loads of Benefits

There are a number of benefits that proceed from the simple adoption of 20% time.

Students Enjoy Reading. Most of us wouldn’t enjoy a movie some elitist film critic makes us watch. But we would probably like a film that we personally selected. Same with books. The truth is that students just flat out enjoy reading their own selections more than their teacher’s selections.

We Can Model Reading. We have a chance to be more open about what we personally read for fun. Most teachers choose to read along with their students during this 20% time, so students can see us read too, like adults. It gives us more opportunity for sharing the joy of reading on a personal level.

More Likely to Read Class Materials. Since you’ve created a culture of reading in your classroom, students become more likely to actually read the items you assign them as well!

Hooked on a Series. When students find a book they like, they are much, much, much more likely to read additional books if it is part of a series. They are introduced to longer narratives and become accustomed to authors’ styles and content in ways they can’t normally do with school texts.

Read More Than Ever Before. Even if a student reads for fun only for those allotted minutes each day, they are usually still doing more reading than they ever have before. They’ll rack up an extensive list of books they’ve read simply because an educator gave them permission to enjoy reading.

Read for Fun on Their Own. Many students actually get into their books. After all, they’ve selected their own books, so it makes sense that they choose something they’re interested in. What happens, though, is that those few minutes allotted for reading in class just aren’t enough and they end up taking their books home to read even more. Who would have thought?

Talk About Books. The question “What are you reading?” has no relevance in a classroom where everyone is reading the same thing. When everyone is reading something different – something they’re each interested in – it easily facilitates conversation around this question. Students excitedly share what they’re reading with one another.

Take Pride in Reading. A lot of students count themselves out and don’t think of themselves as “readers” just because they don’t read on their own. However, with the 20% time, they suddenly have a new image of themselves and take pride in their newfound joy of reading.

Exposure to More Texts. School is great for introducing students to texts that they wouldn’t ordinarily lead themselves to. But it’s of little value if students begrudgingly read an assignment, if they read it at all. When students read on their own, it gives them more opportunity to read a diverse array of texts.

How to Get Started and Make It a Success

I hope by now you can see that including 20% time in your normal curriculum definitely comes with enormous advantages and few detriments. Here are some ideas for getting started with students and for making it a success.

Explain it to them. Of course, before shoving 20% time at students, you should explain what it is. Tell students, maybe for several days leading up to actually beginning it, that you’re going to begin each class period by reading for 10 minutes. They’ll have lots of questions, like “What assignments will we have?” “Are there any specific books we have to read?” or “How many books do we have to read each quarter?” Students are accustomed to assignments, so the more clearly you can communicate to them their own choice, control, and lack of assignments/grades associated with it, the better.

Lots of book talks! It’s also especially helpful before you start and early on in the process to just talk about books with students. You can bring in some of your favorites and show them your own personal unique tastes and experiences with reading. Have them talk openly about their own favorite books or most recent reading experiences. You can even bring in other teachers or guests to share about reading too!

“I’m Currently Reading” posters. Create a poster in your classroom that displays what you are personally reading at the moment. You can even make one that lists what everyone in your class is reading. Sometimes laminated posters with dry-erase markers works well for updating.

Time in the Library. Take your students to that mysterious place in your building called a “library” or “media center.” It always surprises me how few students actually go there and check out materials. Just allow them free time to walk around and be surrounded by reading possibilities.

Book Chats. Have students chat with one another from time to time about what they are reading, what’s been fun for them, or what they recommend to one another. It’s amazing how quickly they chat about what interests them!

Have that “next book” in mind. It’s a little easier for a student to keep motivated and interested when they already know what they’d like to read next. Students can write down the next books they’d like to read, or they can even use electronic/Internet sources like to track their previous and upcoming texts.

Other Areas to Try Student Choice and 20% Time

Allowing 20% of your class time to be devoted to student choice does not solely need to be about reading. You can adapt the 20% time philosophy to any academic endeavor you want students to take more ownership of. There are two other main areas that teachers have incorporated 20% time towards instead of just reading (and of course you could adapt it in any direction you see fit for your students):

  1. Writing. Just like reading for fun, students can actually be allowed to write for fun too, with many of the same results of increased interest and meaning. The writing could be totally free from assignment or curriculum connection, or it could be associated with certain skills or content that you’d like students to focus on. The idea is to give students lots of freedom of choice and creativity for their writing outside of the normally assigned written work.
  2. Projects. Similar to Google’s philosophy, you could tell students to “work on something” that they are personally interested in of value. As long as there is a product at the end of the process – whether it be about pets, hunting, videogames, or dating – if a student is personally interested in exploring a topic outside of the curriculum, then they may likely do it with more passion and enthusiasm.

So with seemingly little to lose and potentially enormous payoffs for how students engage in reading, give 20% time for students a chance. It may come as a surprise to both you and your students how wonderful a little personal choice in reading may be!

Are you going to try giving students 20% time for reading? Are you doing it already? What are your thoughts? Share them in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also sits as the District Leader for the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website .

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