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Book Review of "The Flexible SEL Classroom" by Amber Chandler

Wednesday, April 4, 2018  
Posted by: Christina Mimms
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Reviewed by Julie Reynolds, 5th and 6th grade language arts teacher, Christ Methodist Day School, Memphis, TN

When asked to write a book review of The Flexible SEL Classroom: Practical Ways to Build Social-Emotional Learning in Grades 4-8, without knowing it, I was about to embark on one important concept Amber Chandler discusses in her book as part of an SEL classroom: taking risks despite the fear of failure (p. 5). Just like middle school students, teachers often choose lessons, presentations, and projects that are safe and easy to accomplish based on their experiences. In this chapter, the author expresses the need for teachers to “normalize” (p. 8) academic risk-taking and the fear of failure, so students can learn more deeply about content through discovery. This leads to many social and emotional life skills important to student growth such as “self-control, curiosity, self-confidence, optimism, and grit,” among others (p. 10). I was excited to learn more about the social-emotional classroom.

The Flexible Classroom model outlined in the book is based on the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) core SEL competencies, which are Self-Management, Self-Awareness, Responsible Decision Making, Relationship Skills, and Social Awareness. While using personal stories, humor, and anecdotes to appeal emotionally to her readers, Amber Chandler explains why and how teachers can utilize the core SEL competencies in more detail beginning with Self-Management. I will explain a few key points for each core that could be relevant for any middle school teacher.

Self-management includes teaching students how to manage their time based on a survey given by their teacher (p. 16-17) to determine how they (the student) can best utilize their time. This survey also gives teachers information about how students can succeed with their management of projects, assignments, and due dates. Ideas include using Google calendars, wearable technology, and having flexible due dates. A second aspect to self-management is using project-based learning to create “interdependence” (p. 23) among group members, which not only allows for team work and cooperation, but also patience and tolerance for others’ differences.

Self-awareness consists of my favorite topic meta-cognition. Students cannot correct what they don’t know, if they don’t know they don’t know it. By implicitly bringing this to students’ attention, they can determine how they best learn. One suggestion in this chapter is called a “Metacognitive Minute” (p. 39). This simply gets students thinking about the learning objective before the lesson and brings it back to their attention at the end. Therefore, they can realize immediately if they understood the lesson or if they need further help. Also, included in this chapter is the idea of directly teaching and modeling how communication styles should change based on audience and situations. 

Decision Making explores the need for teachers to guide their students to make responsible decisions. The author includes lesson examples that allow students to explore what matters most to them and how they can best make moral choices in different dilemmas based on their beliefs. Also included is the suggestion that students have input on the creation of the classroom rules/procedures such as allowing for a snack or break time as well as freedom from things such as fear of making mistakes. This helps students decide what is truly important to them and helps support them emotionally, which allows for more effective learning.

Relationship Skills includes building relationships between teachers and students as well as between students themselves. While reading this book, the big picture revolves around the fact that students’ emotional needs must be met before their educational needs can be addressed. This chapter reminds teachers about the need for them to connect with their students all year, not just the first few days. One interesting way Amber Chandler does this is through using an “open note” and “point buyback” system (p. 69-72) allowing for more student choice and responsibility. This chapter also discusses the need to explain to students how to be “upstanders” for their classmates when bullying may occur (p. 78).

Social Awareness seems to me to be the most difficult of the cores as it concentrates on teaching students about important social issues that may not be the most comfortable topics to talk about such as discrimination, sexism, and racial profiling, among others. The author uses movies such as Zootopia in her middle school class to help students become aware of these topics. These are very important issues that students need awareness of, but teaching about these things can become complicated since teachers all have their own thoughts and beliefs. Making students aware of appropriate things when they are developmentally ready is a great thing, but opinions differ from family to family and that should be respected. One very important thing mentioned in this chapter is modeling empathetic behavior and incorporating social and emotional issues into curriculum, which can be done as students are ready.

Overall, this book did what any book should do. It got me thinking, especially about the idea (that was stated several times) that students’ emotional needs must be met before academic content can be retained. And although not all of the assignment examples given in the book would be relevant to my class, I began looking up additional information about social emotional learning and started thinking about how I could implement it into my curriculum. All teachers can model appropriate social and empathetic behavior and show their students that they are important. I look forward to learning more on this topic.






Julie Reynolds teaches 5th and 6th grade language arts at Christ Methodist Day School in Memphis, TN. 

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