No Series: Freedom Within Form: How Much is Too Much?


Common core State Standards

  • ELA:  English Language Arts
  • W:  Writing
  • 5:  5th Grade
  • 5:  With guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.

Download Common Core State Standards (PDF 1.2 MB)


Common core State Standards

  • ELA:  English Language Arts
  • W:  Writing
  • 5:  5th Grade
  • 7:  Conduct short research projects that use several sources to build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.

Download Common Core State Standards (PDF 1.2 MB)

Freedom Within Form: How Much is Too Much?

Lesson Objective: Find balance between students' enthusiasm and focused work
Grade 5 / ELA / Jim Knight
14 MIN
ELA.W.5.5 | ELA.W.5.7


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Discussion and Supporting Materials

Thought starters

  1. How does John check for a clear understanding of the project with his students?
  2. Hear how John and Jim feel about giving students proper respect How does connecting to student passion facilitate learning?


  • Private message to Allie Harrison

The teacher checks for clear understanding by asking the class, "can someone tell me if the project is suppose to be an advertisement?" And let's the students tell the class the answer. That way he's not just pointing out the one student that didn't understand the directions. If a student feels respected and validated in a classroom they are more likely to be vulnerable to learning and seeking out information from a teacher. 

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  • Private message to Adam Kelly

2. Connecting to student passion facilitates learning because while it is important to have structure, too much can be dehumanizing and joyless, while too little can cause chaos and frustration due to lack of progression.  Jim believes that teachers need to create structures that provide freedom, and John agrees that rubrics should not be too rigid and that there needs to be balance.  Time on-task can be an important measure, but other data such as student happiness can help motivate students to continue learning as it happens on many levels.  Understanding that students are human beings is important, because some behaviors must be tolerated as children must be given room to express themselves, and students must be given choices while the teacher still has control so that respect is two-fold.  As John said, “I think you get more bees with honey”, referring to using positive reinforcement to make sure students understand the teacher is supporting them and having passion for a project helps drive students to learn and achieve optimal workflow.  Students are not machines, they are people and need to be treated as such to create more opportunities for learning.

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  • Private message to Adam Kelly

1. John checks for a clear understanding of the project with his students by checking-in with students as they are making progress with their work, giving feedback to the class proactively even before misunderstandings present themselves, walking through the steps for the final product, asking students to describe their planned topics, giving positive reinforcement of student work and connecting the project to what they have been doing in the class prior, talking with groups and ensuring students understand what the expectations were and were not.  Reviewing directions with students and asking the whole-class about what the project goals were, with an example (i.e. What information would we want to know about a tsunami?)

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  • Private message to Lali Mendoza

I really enjoyed watching this video. As someone studying to be a teacher, and someone who aspires to help children find their love for learning, something I always wonder about is how to balance the engagement and the structure of teaching. I learned through this video that there should be a structure to guide the students, but as Jim says, the structure should still allow for freedom. What I can take away from this video is that as educators, we have to be able to look beyond test scores on a paper in order to find common ground with the students and connect with them. This will make it much easier to engage them, and from there, we have to be able to encourage students to explore and investigate what truly inspires them.

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  • Private message to Ryan Cantrell

John uses interactions to help with learning. He explains directions, ensures they understand what is meant of them, and then allows them to do the activity. I think this idea of teaching promotes the students growth, but it could be hard to keep the chaos down. Overall, from a science perspective, this way of teaching is a great way to promote learning and understanding. 

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External Resource Materials


  • Transcript for Freedom within Form: How much is Too Much? with John Cusick

    Moderator: [00:00:17] Jim Knight is visiting fifth grade

    Transcript for Freedom within Form: How much is Too Much? with John Cusick

    Moderator: [00:00:17] Jim Knight is visiting fifth grade language art teacher John Cusick. [00:00:20]

    Cusick: [00:00:21] There’s a lot of time to socialize this afternoon. [00:00:23]

    Moderator: [00:00:24] When Jim visits the classroom, Mr. Cusick has his class working on completing group projects for news presentations about social issues. Mr. Cusick and Jim discuss how to strike a balance between encouraging student enthusiasm and maintaining a calm working environment. [00:00:39]

    Cusick: [00:00:39] Oh my God that’s going to be great. But that’s your speech. His is different. His is different. Everybody has their own speech, right? Okay good. Gift is going to get up or Georgia or Shara. She’d going to introduce the group. Each of them will give their speech, perhaps with an advertisement or public service announcement in between, and then at the end, they’ll have their round-table discussion. Does that make sense? [00:01:03]

    [00:01:02] Georgia, what’s your speech about? [00:01:05]

    Child: [00:01:04] Oh the environment. [00:01:06]

    Cusick: [00:01:06] Issue with the environment. [00:01:07]

    Child: [00:01:07] Animal cruelty. [00:01:08]

    Cusick: [00:01:08] Animal cruelty. [00:01:09]

    Child: [00:01:10] [inaudible 00:01:10]

    Cusick: [00:01:11] Sorry I can’t hear you. [00:01:11]

    Child: [00:01:12] Texting and driving. [00:01:13]

    Cusick: [00:01:13] Texting and driving, how interesting. Okay. [00:01:14]

    Child: [00:01:16] So you got to do a news telecast and you have to have a commercial. Everyone else will have a commercial. [00:01:22]

    Knight: [00:01:28] You said it’s a privilege to teach these kids or what? [00:01:30]

    Cusick: [00:01:31] Oh it’s amazing. I mean you could see. They were—you know there was some goofiness. They were kids, but they were good. They were—and I think they were enjoying it. [00:01:40]

    [Children talking 00:01:41- 01:51]

    Cusick: [00:01:52] Yes I love that you’re getting your posters done, but I especially love that each of you is doing a great job breaking down your speech into three main parts with an introduction and a conclusion just like you’re writing all year. You can do this. [00:02:06]

    Knight: [00:02:07] You talked about the kids. What did you see when you watched the kids in the video? What struck you about that? [00:02:11]

    Cusick: [00:02:12] One of the things that struck me was how good they were. They’re great kids, I mean they were primarily focused and having fun, and I think they were learning. Although sometimes they were particular groups of kids—a little group of boys back here were very playful and constantly moving. But when I sat down with them, they clearly had been working things out. [00:02:32]

    [00:02:34] You know what? I’m very proud of the three of you. To me it sounded like a public service announcement, because you weren’t advertising a product were you? You weren’t saying buy this pencil, it always gets A’s. Right? Right? [00:02:46]

    [00:02:46] They clearly had some good ideas and some thoughtful ideas. I think the finished product will be even more so, and it will be creative, musical and loud. I’m sure of that. [00:02:56]

    [00:03:02] Something else that struck me was when I was with the girls over there, and we were talking—we were sort of reviewing the outline form I had given them on Friday that they were a little unclear on how this whole thing was going to work. [00:03:15]

    [00:03:15] So this is not an outline. This is a script. Right? Do you remember the outline I gave you? [00:03:20]

    [00:03:20] But it did strike me that it could have been better organized in that sense. [00:03:24]

    [00:03:24] Young people, please listen up. The outline for your speech, was that supposed to be on a product? No, it was supposed to be about something newsworthy, right? For example, like he mentioned tsunami. What’s the listener going to have to know about a tsunami from Nathan? Gift? [00:03:46]

    Child: [00:03:46] Like when it happened and where it happened. [00:03:48]

    Cusick: [00:03:48] When it happened, where it happened. What else about a tsunami? Gerard? [00:03:54]

    Child: [00:03:54] It was a disaster. [00:03:55]

    Cusick: [00:03:55] It was a disaster. What else? Great job so far. [00:03:58]

    Child: [00:03:58] What was the cause of the tsunami? [00:04:00]

    Cusick: [00:04:00] Excellent. What was the cause of a tsunami, and I’m still not hearing anybody saying the basic—most basic thing. Yes? [00:04:06]

    Child: [00:04:06] What a tsunami is. [00:04:08]

    Cusick: [00:04:07] Excellent. Thank you so much. What is a tsunami? I know Nathan’s going to answer all those questions in his speech. That’s what we’re looking for. That’s perfect. No [inaudible 04:18].

    Knight: [00:04:20] The way I look at it is, if there’s too much structure, it’s dehumanizing because it takes all the fun and joy out of it, but if there’s too little structure, then it’s chaos and nothing happens. So it becomes ultimately frustrating because kids aren’t moving forward. It’s not productive. It’s about creating structures that allow people to be free. That you say, okay this is the activity. We’re going to make sure we’re really clear on what we’re going to do. I want to make sure you’re good to go and then have at it. [00:04:48]

    Cusick: [00:04:48] I’m going to come around. I’m looking for every group to have each person’s speech done and then the posters. Okay? Great. Get to work. [00:04:57]

    Knight: [00:04:57] So what I’m hearing you say is you like that balance. You think there was enough freedom, but there was enough form in the way it went. [00:05:04]

    Cusick: [00:05:04] Well there often isn’t, and I do know that I’ve had colleagues assign projects and things with very specific rubrics. I’m capable of that, and I have a little of that in me, but I don’t believe it’s good for them. [00:05:18]

    Knight: [00:05:22] Sometimes when you gather a day in the classroom you got a time on task, that if you were tell when the kids look like they’re doing the task they’re supposed to do and when they’re not. You might not get a perfect number, you know. But if you were to count the number of smiles, the number of laughs, the number of indications of joy and happiness in the classroom, you’re number would be really high. If you only looked at time on task and you didn’t look at that other data, so to speak, you’d really miss out something important. [00:05:49]

    Cusick: [00:05:49] Put it over there. We’re done. Come on. [00:05:51]

    [00:05:52] I mean think that even if these boys, and some of the other kids too, were moving around a lot and making noise and being goofy, they did come eventually, and I think it’s good for them. Learning happens, I believe, on many levels. The idea that everybody’s going to sit still and be focused on task for an hour and forty-five minutes on this project, I think is unrealistic. That comes from people who haven’t worked with kids. [00:06:15]

    [00:06:22] I was frankly pleased frankly pleased with myself at ignoring some of the behavior. I mean I was glad that I was able to detach a little bit from the moving around as much as they did. For these boys to go out there and I heard other things, but you know I watched them long enough to see that they mostly got back on task eventually. Anyway, that was one of the things that struck me because that’s growth for me to ignore the little stuff. [00:06:47]

    [00:06:47] I’m talking to Melissa. [inaudible 06:49] can you do that? You need to be responsible to get whatever you need. [00:06:53]

    Knight: [00:06:53] What struck me about watching you with the kids is that you treat the kids like human beings. You give them choices. You explain simply and respectfully what they need to do. You listen to them when they ask questions. You’re in control of the class when you’re very strong, but you also treat them with a large element of respect. [00:07:12]

    Cusick: [00:07:13] Well I do set limits with them when I think it’s necessary. I do think they’re mostly—most of the kids here are able to respond to me when I talk to them that way. [00:07:22]

    Knight: [00:07:22] It’s meant to be a compliment. [00:07:24]

    Cusick: [00:07:24] Oh okay. [00:07:24]

    Knight: [00:07:24] It’s not a criticism. I think it’s sorely lacking that we don’t treat kids with respect. That we treat them like objects, that we bully them and I mean you have to be in control. You were in control, but you had talked to a student and say this is what we need you to do. How you doing? How’s it working? There was no sense of ever that you were power tripping with the kids. [00:07:41]

    Cusick: [00:07:41] Right well you would see that on other days, just so you know. At least some of the time. [00:07:46]

    Knight: [00:07:46] Okay. [00:07:46]

    Cusick: [00:07:46] Are you speeches advertisements? Yes or no? No they are not. Your speech—[00:07:56]

    Knight: [00:07:55] That’s what I mean by that respect because you wouldn’t say, “Okay now look what did I say? You’re supposed to be doing this.” What you said was, “Who can tell me what we’re supposed to be doing here? How are you doing it? What are you doing?” You didn’t do it in kind of a bully way or a power tripping way, you kind of let them discover it. [00:08:08]

    Cusick: [00:08:09] I have an evil twin. He might be here tomorrow. We don’t know, you know. [00:08:13]

    Knight: [00:08:15] You got to practice that accepting compliments thing. [00:08:17]

    Cusick: [00:08:17] Well thank you. Thank you. I’ll work on that. I’ll work on that. [00:08:20]

    [00:08:20] Good so you guys get two. I’m proud of you. Great job. I’m so proud of you Natalie. So here’s what you’re going to do. [00:08:26]

    Knight: [00:08:26] Then I heard many, many positive interactions with the kids where you said that’s fantastic. That’s great. I love that idea. [00:08:32]

    Cusick: [00:08:32] This is very nice, and I like the way you handed it off to Mia. You two—you’re professionals. [00:08:36]

    Knight: [00:08:37] You were intentional it seemed to me about—or maybe you just were genuinely thrilled with what they were doing. [00:08:41]

    Cusick: [00:08:41] It works. You know. [00:08:43]

    [00:08:43] You’re ready. You are ready, okay? Good. [00:08:47]

    [00:08:46] Positive reinforcement works. You know recognize the good they’re doing and say this is what we need to work on. Let’s get this done. They’ll respond. [00:08:55]

    Knight: [00:08:55] But they would do what you wanted them to do today when you asked them to do various things because they respect you. [00:09:00]

    Cusick: [00:09:01] I think you get more bees with honey. [00:09:04]

    [00:09:06] So Nathan and Mia are now going to take these three big parts and what are they going to do to each part? [00:09:10]

    Child: [00:09:10] Well they kind of like squish it together, then we’ll maybe take a break. Like do a little break day. [00:09:17]

    Cusick: [00:09:18] One little girl is very challenged. If I set limits with her in a forceful way some of my colleagues do, she breaks down in tears. [00:09:26]

    Child: [00:09:26] And third is for what we all need to work on including the president. [00:09:30]

    Cusick: [00:09:30] Good. Wonderful Mia. [00:09:32]

    [00:09:32] It doesn’t always work with some kids. [00:09:3r]

    Knight: [00:09:34] Why does it not work? [00:09:35]

    Cusick: [00:09:36] I think the kids need more tough love. I mean I think it does work. I think the tone has to be a little different. Perhaps a little stronger. Something. [00:09:43]

    Knight: [00:09:43] Just they won’t hear you. [00:09:44]

    Cusick: [00:09:44] They won’t hear it, and they won’t respect it. [00:09:46]

    [00:09:47] Happen to all of you huh? It sort of works because he still did most of it. I would think Nathan, first, you were good. Right. You’re a natural. I’m so proud of you. Now— [00:09:56]

    Knight: [00:09:57] See that’s not positive stuff. Well you said you did great. I’m so proud of you. That’s really good what you’ve done, but then you talked to them about but you need to find the thing that really drives you, that really motivates you. You need to find something you’re really passionate about and write about that. [00:10:09]

    Cusick: [00:10:09] But focus on something you love and something that’s real. Life for example, issues with animals or the environment. Great writers write about what they know and love so go for that. [00:10:19]

    Knight: [00:10:20] Csikszentmihalyi, the guy who wrote the book called The Flow, what he says is, the secret is to hook the kids, to find a key. If you could unlock the key of the kids’ interest and they can get going on it, then they’ll get into what he calls optimal experience or flow, and they’ll be driven to do their work. But unless they care about it, unless they have a passion for the project, whatever it is, they’re not going to do their best work because it’s going to be putting in time. [00:10:43]

    Cusick: [00:10:44] We have some girls I haven’t even met with that group, but they’re doing something on animal rights. I’ve never heard those kids talk about animal rights all year long or the environment. So they clearly have some passions, concerns of their own, and now we’re going to hear about it. [00:10:57]

    Child: [00:10:57] Yeah they hardly helped them in their book they’re just talking about well he’s hurting from a broken heart. Well he can just help him. Instead they’re spending time, they’re showing what’s even. They could be helping them at that exact moment in their life [inaudible 11:08] [00:11:10]

    Knight: [00:11:10] I’m pretty sure this matters an awful lot to you, this work of teaching. I’m wondering if you could tell me a bit about why that is. [00:11:18]

    Cusick: [00:11:19] It’s what matters. These are people. You know they’re not widgets. They’re not—it’s not a factory, a power factory painting them all blue. And it’s not going to work that way, because as you watched today, you watched all these little soles and bodies moving around, tumbling around, but still getting things done. When we sat them down and spoke with them one-on-one or in a group, you could see that there were things going on. If I had kept them in their seats all day long with incredible structure, aiming at the test scores, they wouldn’t be learning as much. It would be a loss of opportunity to engage these young people and turn them on about learning and the world. [00:11:57]

    Child: [00:11:58] Good afternoon. Hi my name is Gift. Hi my name is Georgia. First we’ll start with animal cruelty. Most commercials about animal cruelty, they spend more time about how the animal is hurting than helping the animal. [00:12:13]

    Child: [00:12:13] We made a thing called Channel 7. We’re going to do—Channel 8 Random News where we basically just say random facts about random things about weather and stuff. So we talk about the robots in Tokyo, and then we just go over the weather. So it’s like that’s the weather in Seattle. Now back to [inaudible 12:30].

    Cusick: [00:12:31] Give it a try. Run through. Let’s hear you. [00:12:33]

    Child: [00:12:34] Today’s special is actors, shoes and plastic surgery. [00:12:40]

    Cusick: [00:12:40] Hmm very interesting. So you’re going to tell about each of those. [00:12:43]

    Child: [00:12:44] Uh huh. One vampire versus werewolf. Who’s better? Taylor’s better. If Robert got a plastic surgery. [00:12:55]

    Child: [00:12:54] The earthquakes were terrible. They destroyed everything in their path. It affected the people because most lost family members or distant relatives and friends. [00:13:07]

    Knight: [00:13:06] We’re so focused on what the scores going to be that we give kids water bottles for testing day and we make them do three weeks of test prep, and they do testing strategies, and it’s all about passing the test. Really what we should focus on is let’s have the kids love learning. [00:13:20]

    Cusick: [00:13:20] Yes that’s good. [00:13:21]

    Knight: [00:13:21] And we’re focused on the end, and we’ve misunderstood the means completely. We’ve put our focus on totally the wrong place. [00:13:27]

School Details

Ray Elementary School
5631 South Kimbark Avenue
Chicago IL 60637
Population: 737

Data Provided By:



John Cusick
English Language Arts / 5 / Teacher
Jim Knight


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