The SEL Blog
October 2017

Reimagining the Classroom to Support Students

By Amber Chandler

Last summer, I was awarded a NoVo SEL Innovation Fund grant to create a documentary about the journey I was facilitating for my students to create digital portfolios, particularly my English as a New Language (ENL) and Special Education students. It was, and is, important to me to help students navigate the tricky business of creating a positive online presence. I had also just finished my first book, The Flexible ELA Classroom, and I was excited to continue finding ways to differentiate for all students. At the Innovation Fund Convening in Phoenix, Arizona, I was pleased to share my documentary, but more importantly, I absorbed the energy and passion of dozens of other like-minded educators, leaving me with a desire to do more, to be more—to change the way I looked at educating my students. I want to do whatever it takes, and from the time I spent with the educators at the convening, I knew I had the unique opportunity to leverage what I’d already begun with a flexible approach to differentiating for students, and I started my second book that set the course for this past year: SEL in a Flexible Classroom: Social Emotional Learning for Student Success, which will be released this fall.

When I applied for a second NoVo Foundation grant, the application wrote itself. I had spent the previous year reimagining the experience my students would have in my class. The goal had shifted from simply a differentiated academic experience into an entirely flexible atmosphere. In the past year, I’ve implemented a number of flexible approaches to discipline, rolling deadlines, and tremendously differentiated opportunities for students to grow. As my class became less and less traditional, the constraints of the physical space became a concern. I wanted my students to have the opportunity to work in the ways that best suited them, and I wanted a dynamic space for families, administrators, student teachers and community members to make themselves at home. I was doing my best, having switched to collaborative tables, but more often than not, my students would still want to spread out on the floor, stand up or huddle together—all made difficult by the constraints of my classroom layout.

I’d be lying if I said that I hadn’t had many imaginary shopping trips before the grant was awarded to me. I have so many ideas about what I’d like to do. I want to create a safe haven in a large school, a place for collaboration and teamwork, but also the opportunity to find a corner to curl up with a good book, or a place to park an easel when my artsy students want some studio space. Technology is also a big part of my classroom culture, so I’m going to make sure that I have a charging station, earphones and ample space for the gamers to relax as well. I plan on modifying some of the tables I have to create cafe tables where students can stand or sit on a comfy stool. I’ll add bean bag chairs, some ergonomic chairs at the traditional desk area, and a big couch area with floor cushions around a coffee table.

This new approach to the physical space will allow my students the opportunity to work on their Passion Projects year round. My students finish each year with a Passion Project—an intensive month long foray into a topic of their choice with the specific goal of learning more and then creating a website to share with the class. When I did the exit surveys this year with my students, many of them expressed a desire to expand the project into a year long genius-hour-type endeavor. I’m listening! Students will spend one period a week exploring their passion, creating projects, documenting the experience on their websites and sharing their learning at a final assembly. This grant is allowing me to create a space that is as awesome as their ideas. Follow me on @MsAmberChandler and subscribe to my website to watch this incredible journey unfold!

Amber Chandler is a NoVo SEL Innovation Fund Teacher Awardee