Use Brown University’s Choices Program to Engage Students

Do you struggle to use textbooks as an effective educational tool? If you do, I want you to think about your students. Imagine you are a teenager. You go home from school with a textbook assignment to read. At the same time you are surrounded by screens calling your name. Your SmartPhone buzzes with texts and notifications from Vine and Twitter. Your laptop is the source of endless amusement from videos to the endless content of the Internet to social media. Your television has a new episode of the latest ABC Family drama. Your PS4 has a great new game. And that textbook, how excited are you to read that?

Teachers need to bridge the content gap from textbook disengagement.  They need a source of text that is well-written, informative and visually stimulating with pictures, charts and graphs. A source that clearly explains content with brevity.  It would be great if this text asked students to explore a perspective about a historic issue.

Meet the Brown University Choices Program. The program comes in different units for American History, World History and Current Issues. Each unit provides readings and assessment questions. I prefer to have students work on these in class rather than at home. I like to make Expert Jigsaw groups and divide the reading into chunks for each group. Each group answers questions I make for their assigned section and then shares with other groups. The assessment questions in the Choices Program unit then provide a great exit assessment to ensure students understand the reading.

The readings themselves are great but what makes the Choices Program special is the simulations it provides. The simulation starts with reading for all students involved. Then students weigh four options for a critical situation in history. Groups are tasked with arguing for a specific option. Each group member receives a specific role. Students read the assigned reading for their group and present their option. You can have students conduct further research on the Internet. There is a fifth group that develops questions for the option groups, listens to their arguments and chooses one of the options.

I have used the Choices Program to have students evaluate colonists’ response to struggles with Great Britain, senate ratification of the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, JFK’s response to nuclear missiles in Cuba, the United States’ response to 9/11 and other interesting historical issues.  Engagement is increased because rather than simply memorizing facts, students are considering perspective and building an argument.

Debating historical issues can be very controversial. The Choices Program ensures students are never asked to take a stand that would be considered morally repugnant by today’s standards. For example, the Choices Program unit on the Civil Rights Movement goes in-depth about the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and its struggle to be seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. The unit consciously avoids asking students to argue that the MFDP should not be seated.

The Choices Program supplements your text and provides in-class activities that teach students through role-play and perspective. Is there a catch? There is. Cost. The curriculum units are not free but the price is very manageable. A PDF version of a single unit is $30. I like to order the PDF versions so that the images in the unit print clearly. The units have great images. I have printed large versions of the images and captions in the Civil Rights unit for display in the classroom. I have used PTA grants, my school district’s curriculum funds and my own wallet to pay for units depending on what was most convenient at the time. Colleagues at my school have some printed units (available for $35) but I prefer the PDF so that the copy quality is better.

Free Choices Program Resources

If you want to try some Choices Program materials for free, there are some on their site for free. Give them a try:


Use TED-Ed to Make YouTube a Powerful Educational Tool


Since its inception in the mid-2000s, YouTube has changed the way we look for and watch video. This voluminous archive is a great tool for educators. If only there was a way to leverage YouTube to make it a tool that can teach, reinforce and assess.

As a teacher, it is not enough to say to students, “Watch this video tonight. We’ll discuss tomorrow.” Today’s students need scaffolding and accountability to engage and learn.

If only there was a tool that added reading and questions to YouTube. It would be really great if that tool tracked student assessment data. Imagine if it had a discussion component so students could interact. And if only such a tool was free.

This all exists in one place. Meet TED-Ed.


To get started, go to TED-Ed. You have to set up an account if you want to customize questions and activities for YouTube videos and track student assessment data. Trust me, you want to do this. I suggest using your school e-mail when setting up your account. Would you rather get updates on student progress in your work e-mail or your personal e-mail? Students also have to set up accounts to log-in and have their answers recorded.

Using TEDEd’s Videos

You can start very easily by using TED-Ed’s ready-to-go lessons. They are usually TEDEd produced and have questions. You can find them by searching on the TED-Ed site.

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The TED-Ed produced videos (labeled TED-Ed originals) are usually brief animated videos that are short enough to keep students’ attention but deep enough to convey content and provoke thought.

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The TED-Ed originals come with three sections besides “Watch” which is simply the video itself. “Think” questions (multiple choice and short answer), “Dig Deeper” (links to further reading on the subject) and “Discuss” questions which are discussion board questions.

You can customize the lesson by clicking “customize this lesson” found below the “Discuss” link.

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Customize the lesson by editing or deleting any of the lesson sections. Not only can TED-Ed originals be customized, so can any lessons TED-Ed users have generated.

The “Think” questions are limited to fifteen. You can delete questions and add your own. These questions allow for multiple choice or short answer. I try to use a mixture of both. Multiple choice give me a good data picture of how well my students have learned. The free response questions give students a chance to use think about content by considering perspective or building an argument.

The “Dig Deeper” tool is great for giving students more resources to explore a topic. For a video about the postwar development of American suburbs, I was able to use this tool to give students perspectives that differed from the speaker in the video. Once you have finished editing the sections, TED-Ed gives you a link to share.

The “Discuss” tool allows you to enter discussion prompts. You can have students interact with each other, all in a space where you see exactly what every student has written. The different TED-Ed sections build nicely from multiple choice through to student discussion.

As students answer the questions, you can log in to your TED-Ed account to see student data and read answers to free response questions.

Advanced Level: Use ANY YouTube Video

The TED-Ed originals and user generated content are great. The work is already done for you and you can simply customise it for your needs.

However, the great thing about TED-Ed is that it can be used for any video on YouTube. Any at all. Find a video you want your students to interact with? Use TED-Ed to make it happen.

Log in to TED-Ed. Near the top of the screen is a link to “create a lesson.”

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From there you simply search the for the video you want. I suggest copying and pasting the video URL. From there you create questions and material for each TED-Ed section you want to include. For an example of the end result, please have a look at my TEDEd lesson based on a video about JFK’s World War II experience informing his Cuban Missile Crisis decision making from The Armageddon Letters (link includes video) a great source for content about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In Conclusion

YouTube is great for teachers. However, it comes with neither scaffolding nor assessment. TED-Ed changes that. Leverage it to make YouTube a powerful tool for your students.