Prioritizing Student Choice and Voice in Lesson Plans

Name: Nicole Rodriguez

Organization: Phipps Neighborhoods

Date: August 23, 2018

SEL Competency: Belonging

Driver of Focus: Elevating Youth Voice, Mastery-Based Experiences, Building an Equitable & Inclusive Culture

Cohort Demographics: 9th-12th Grade


At Urban Assembly School of Wildlife Conservation, 25 students who were “middle of the road,” (80% attendance, C average, etc) were recruited to join Phipps after-school program as a support to increase at least one of their course scores by at least 3 points. Students, grades 9-12 were required to meet 5 days a week, with lessons on academics, life skills, job readiness, mentoring, and an internship opportunity. While the courses after school were somewhat effective, they didn’t always keep students engaged, so Phipps staff implemented a change in the curriculum structure, beginning every class day with students voting on what lesson they want to learn. As a result, 89% of students in this cohort reported a positive sense of Belonging.



  • Each session lasted about 2 hours.
  • Planning occurs during the summer or in the hours before programming, allowing for enough time for lessons to be planned out.
  • Voting time is structured


  • In a classroom with 15-25 youth, grades 9-12.
  • Alternative lessons are provided for students who may not find the topics relevant.


1 staff member planned each session. Before the day begins, the instructor gives students 20 minutes to check their phones before the sessions begin. Instructor posts the three lesson plan titles on a board or poster so each student can see. They should use this time to think about what topic they would like to vote on. After an icebreaker (Hot Topic is one suggestion: Have students write various topics on a slip of paper, and select 2 out of a hat. Each topic has a time limit.) After the icebreaker, ask for a show of hands for each topic. The topic with the most votes wins. Include the following topics in the next sessions voting process, until they’ve been selected.


Students in this program seemed to buy in more to the lesson when they had input on the topic. For those students who didn’t vote with the majority, they would have an opportunity to vote for their topic of choice later. This process helped them cope with not getting what they want immediately — a small facet and mindset of problem solving — and allowed them to feel ownership in the class.


Based on Network-Wide SEL Survey Analysis, Phipps Neighborhoods’ cohort at UA School for Wildlife Conservation was identified by Research Alliance for NYC Schools as one of 18 Bright Spots; meaning they had a greater positive effect on youth SEL compared to sites that serve similar students across the Network. The chart shows the change in the percentage of youth responding positively to Survey questions related to Belonging.


  • Adjust the plans to meet student needs — if the curriculum calls for a life skills lecture, make it a discussion where you can; if the lesson calls for academic help, but students respond better to tutoring, change the lesson accordingly.  
  • Be mindful of the timeline you may need to meet your outcomes.
  • If possible, connect with students outside of class time — during your own downtime
  • Be honest with youth about your own knowledge base.
  • Encourage these conversations at home with youths parents
  • Set norms and expectations with students (use a community contract)
  • Embrace tangents students touch.
  • Use a strengths-based approach to reach youth.

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Stefano Barros

Stefano believes that one of the best ways to develop young leaders is through community building in youth-centered spaces. This is the driving force behind his focus on strengthening SSN’s reservoir of resources through collaborative learning and research. Stefano joined the team after holding college access and youth leadership development roles in Boston and New York City.

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