Typhani Harris | May 2017

Defining Engagement through STEAM: Choice

Continuing our Defining Engagement through STEAM series, based on the research of John Antonetti and Phillip Schlechty, takes us to the next way we can articulate and define our student engagement.  Our sessions explain definitions, share strategies, provide templates and rubrics to self assess, and/or offer downloadable resources to ultimately define engagement in an actionable way.  Check out the introduction to this series here.

Let’s recap, we have defined engagement through STEAM by assessing the use of Personal Response in Session 1 ,  introduced Variety and Novelty to help bring arts into school in Session 2.  Then we visualized the Emotional and Intellectual Safety needed in order for our students to truly engage in the classroom in Session 3 .  Session 4 uncovered how the Sense of Audience provides greater engagement especially in STEAM and Arts Integration and Session 5 revealed how Clear and Modeled Expectations improve assessments.  Our most recent Session 6 shared how we can bring collaborative learning experiences into the classroom and highlighted class discussions.

Session 7: Student Choice

Antonetti suggests tiered assignments, self-selected reading material, different products, selecting tasks from a list, meaningful options, and personal decision making as options for providing student choice within the classroom.  Of his list, I am going to focus on creating different products through student generated projects.

Student generated projects are my absolute favorite (I know, I have a lot of favorites, but I love teaching, what can I say). Once you have presented content allow students to choose their own adventure.  Have students design their own assignments/projects that would demonstrate their knowledge of the content.   Include the process of designing the rubric, ask them how they want you to evaluate their assignment/project and then follow their lead.  This will give them a greater sense of ownership of their learning and a democratic way for them to share their knowledge.

As the teacher, you still have the last word.  If you feel their project is not an adequate demonstration of knowledge help students to develop the project so it fits your expectations. Just a little advice, roll this one out slowly. The first time you offer student choice, YOU provide the different ways of demonstrating the knowledge and let them choose. The next time, work as a whole class to develop one project (rubric and all). Then try it in groups and allow each group to create their adventure…then…finally…let them go. This might not happen until the very end of the year, but look how much progress they made!

Whew… the data Gods are gonna love you!

It can be very scary to relinquish control to the students, but placing them in charge of their classrooms will build ownership in learning and responsibility for knowledge.  It will also relieve much of the teacher stress and it frees us to facilitate and monitor, and places the responsibility of learning into the hands of the students.

Student Generated Projects: a Modified approach to Project Based Learning

There is a way for us to attract student interest and build culminating projects, while still addressing the standards, following our pacing guides, and preparing for upcoming assessments through student generated projects.  The first time you introduce this approach make it a whole class process.  As students get familiar with the process they can complete it in small groups, pairs, and even individually.


Begin with the standards, or set of standards, you would like students to master with their project.  Then solicit ideas, posing the question “how can you demonstrate this standard(s)?”  List all of the possible student-generated ways mastery can be demonstrated.  Then, take a vote.  Have students vote on the project they feel most connected to and inspired by.  Keep in mind, as the facilitator of this student-generated project you must help students to see the process and the product, so continuously ask probing questions to flush out the main ideas behind the project.

Evaluation Tool

Once the class has settled on a final product for the project, have the students help to design the evaluation tool.  How will this product be graded?  What would an exemplary product look like?  Then build the rubric.  You could do this in a whole class setting, or determine the sections as a whole class and then jigsaw the rubric into groups to build the language for each section.  Regardless of which approach you use, be sure to discuss how a rubric is designed and offer samples.  Revise the rubric until the class agrees that the evaluation tool is valid and credible.


Now that students have generated the project and solidified the rubric, build the timeline.  Similar to backwards planning, have students help to determine the milestones of the project and the time needed to complete each milestone.  As the class helps to build the projected time, keep in mind the skills, strategies, techniques, and lessons that must be taught along the way so that you can embed adequate time for instruction.

Additional Standards

With the bulk of the project planning complete, as a class take a look at other standards that may be addressed with this project.  Inevitably there are some smaller foundational standards that will be met in order to progress through the milestones.  These standards may be connected to the mini-lessons you teach along the way as represented in the timeline section above.  Add these standards to the student-generated milestones and the rubric.


Ideally, since the students generated this project and had a say in everything from the product outcome, to the grading process, to the time commitment, they should have a larger investment then if the teacher generated the project alone.  Help them to determine group size, and presentation methods.  Then stand back and facilitate.

Get a copy of my Project Building and Rubric Creating Handouts here!

Next Month

Next month we are closing out our Defining Engagement through STEAM series with a look at Authenticity as a means of engagement and a full recap of the entire series.

About the Author

Dr. Typhani Harris, author of Putting the Performance in Performance Task and Stop Teaching, brings over 2 decades of educational experience to The Institute. Originally a high school English Language Arts teacher, Dr. Harris transitioned into a dance educator who cultivated an award-winning collegiate style dance education program at a public school in California. Prior to joining the Institute, she was an educational leader and instructional coach specializing in preparing new teachers in secondary urban schools.  As the Executive Director of Academic Affairs, Dr. Harris maintains courses, conferences, and the accredited certification program at The Institute.