Mustering Courage for Student Choice: A Review of Amber Chandler's The Flexible ELA Classroom

 Students can choose favorite "sidewalk" poems to share for National Poetry Month.

Students can choose favorite "sidewalk" poems to share for National Poetry Month.

You’ve all heard the “yeah-buts” about differentiated or personalized instruction.

“It’s not fair–how could I possibly assess my students if they aren’t doing the same work?”

“It takes too much time, and I already have so much to cover.”

“I’m overwhelmed already–when am I supposed to find the time to redesign my curriculum to meet the needs of every student?”

“My department/administrators/parents wouldn’t approve.”

“My students just want me to tell them what to do so they can get it over with.”


If you hear these comments or complaints from peers, or even inside your own head, Amber Chandler’s The Flexible ELA Classroom will help you find your way towards a pedagogy that you want to believe in–because you are a teacher who has dedicated heart and soul to helping students learn.

Not only that, but Chandler’s empathy for the personal struggles that teachers undergo, paired with the practical advice, organized materials, and effective strategies that can help you succeed, will make the shift towards personalized instruction easier than you think.

The Skinny on Differentiation

Chandler structures her book around her own journey towards deeper differentiation in her classes. The first step: listening to students and giving them options and choice to “have a say in their own learning.” She describes how choice boards and menus in any discipline can allow students to express their understanding in ways that capture their interest or work best for them. Once you’ve gotten your toes wet and start to see the positive impact of giving students agency, you can apply these strategies more broadly by employing choice for action research projects or menus for independent reading–in any subject!

Chandler describes how to teach students how to choose for themselves and the importance of giving them practice in a safe space, and she provides guidance for grouping students into teams for ongoing support, following a passion and probing deeply. She provides thoughtful strategies for vocabulary study, helpful for any teacher who has grappled with the best ways to tackle language acquisition, and uses the confidence students gain from word mastery on their own terms to lead into more challenging independent or group projects.

Chandler ends with a thorough discussion of assessment, a sticking point for many, and some great advice for building family partnerships to help teachers get to know each student individually and thus help them grow as in a culture of learners.

My only suggestions are that Chandler might push her assessments to be even more authentic by suggesting projects that have a real-life or global context outside the classroom, along with including more examples that are not so gender-based (ie., about gaming and directed at boys, or about fashion and directed at girls).

Assessing the Sticking Point of Assessment

Chandler returns to the point, again and again, that teachers should build their assessments around the skills or content that they wish their students to learn. Traditional essays assigned to everyone may be a useful and “fair” way to assess particular essay writing skills, for instance, but they may not be the best or only way to assess a student’s understanding of a literary encounter or theoretical concept.

Chandler also believes that students need to learn a variety of ways to express their learning, including the usual tests and papers that they will continue to encounter in high school and college, along with the digital communications and media they will be immersed in for the rest of their lives.

Yes, This Applies to You

Don’t assume that The Flexible ELA Classroom is not for you just because it is rooted in Chandler’s practice as a middle school teacher of language arts. Her personable and practical approach can be applied to older or younger students, inform a range of disciplines outside language arts, serve the needs of public or private schools and really help anyone who deals in discipline-specific vocabulary, reading, presentations or projects.

Likewise, it gives valuable advice for even the most experienced teacher who understands the need to empower his or her students and to partner with their parents–all in the service of learning. And not only does she give you the detailed scaffolding and planning advice anyone tackling differentiation might need, but she makes additional eResources available to you via the publishers, Middle Web and Routledge, as well as the book’s website.

I feel I have found a kindred spirit in Amber Chandler, and I know I will use her book to improve my practice. It may even become one of those worn resources that I lend again and again to colleagues who are stuck in the maze of “yeah, buts….”


The Sweet Spot of Memory and Rigor

Did you know that your short-term memory lasts only 30 seconds to a minute? Unless you intervene and make a conscious effort to move something to long-term memory, poof, it’s gone. This explains a lot about why I have a hard time remembering names when I meet people -- my brain is probably multi-tasking to make sense of things as I also self-consciously monitor how I'm presenting myself.

 Students learn about metaphor: practicing understanding through notebook hacking.

Students learn about metaphor: practicing understanding through notebook hacking.

Short-Term Memory vs. Long-Term Memory

I learned about the shortness of short-term memory from an interview by Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air with Dean Burnett, author of Idiot Brain: What Your Brain Is Really Up To. Here’s a clip:

GROSS: In writing about memory, you write about the difference between short-term memory and long-term memory. And short-term memory really doesn't hold very much. I mean, from how you describe it, it holds less than I even thought.
BURNETT: Yeah. That's sort of one of those mainstream ideas of how memory is structured and works, which is not quite correct - in that short-term memory - you see a lot of films and, like, TV shows. They sort of portray short-term memory as something from an hour ago or, like, that same day. Where it's actually - short-term memory is 30 seconds to a minute. Anything longer than that tends to actually now be officially a long-term memory 'cause it takes the brain...
GROSS: Whoa whoa whoa. Anything longer than a minute is officially long-term memory?

BURNETT: Essentially, yes.
GROSS: That means my long-term memory is worse than I thought (laughter).

Now, I remembered this because it was funny and shocking at the same time. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Terry Gross go “Whoa, whoa, whoa….” like that. But I also thought (my brain doing a little analysis dance), what does that critical jump from short-term to long-term memory mean for education and for teaching? My own whoa-whoa-whoa: How important is that moment? Majorly important.

Who Is Responsible for Rigor?

In the serendipitous way new thoughts evolve, I happened upon some reflections a few days later about that sweet spot of transition from short-term to long-term memory (sometimes referred to as working memory).  It was in a blog post by Sarah Doenmez: “Brain Science Reveals the Learner -- Not the Teacher -- as the Source of Rigor,Independent School Magazine Blog, October 19, 2015.

Doenmez emphasizes how students need “repetitive, challenging tasks” in the form of “practice and do-overs” to strengthen key skills such as drawing conclusions from evidence.” Rigor is not piling on scads of material (how it is seen by some teachers, unfortunately), but rather lies in creating opportunities for students to manage the juncture from short-term memory to long-term memory, whether is it through practice, as Doenmez describes, or through other forms of engagement I could add: tinkering, discussion, reflection, play.

Thus, true rigor lies in the learner’s engagement with the activity of learning -- sometimes provided by the teacher. (The teacher is not the only one who designs those moments -- students do this themselves.) If teachers design activities that shut the brain down rather than rev it up, it’s no wonder that the transition from short-term to long-term memory doesn’t happen. Too daunting, right? The learner must locate that wellspring of motivation in him- or herself that can allow him or her to make the leap of learning ahead. The learner must assume an attitude of engagement and follow through with some effort. But depending on how the student encounters learning (what baggage may exist from the past in this regard, how was the learning structured, etc.), that motivation may be too deeply buried and the effort may just not seem worth it. On the other hand, the learning experience, something do-able yet challenging, just may be the spark the student needs.

Doenmez quotes Andrew Watson as saying, “Rigor keeps the focus on students’ responsibility and authorship of their own neural networks. In other words, teachers can provide the opportunity and structure for students to learn, but only students can engage and manage their brains” (Independent School Magazine, Fall 2015).

I like that. The teacher as architect of an engaging learning space, the student as someone who steps up and engages his or her own brain to learn. So the real rigor is a collaboration to find the sweet spot of learning and make that memory jump together.

A New Blog, a New Place to Learn

 Exploring a lava field on Hawai'i, October 2015. Photo by Larry Kahn.

Exploring a lava field on Hawai'i, October 2015. Photo by Larry Kahn.

This year I reached one of those aging milestones that give one pause. It also happened that I was moving from Hawai'i, where I had lived and worked for two years, back to the mainland -- Fort Worth, Texas, to be exact. Lots to think about. How did I feel at this stage of my life? Was I still having fun? What would my next step be? How would this move affect me? What did I want to do with the rest of my life? That sort of thing.

The result of all that thinking is this blog, a new career path as an educational consultant, and an ongoing commitment to connecting with educators globally and educating for the future. I hope to collaborate with schools and educators to design professional development programs, to re-invent schools and their curricula, and to coach faculty and students as architects of their own learning. Maybe I'll start the young adult novel that has been kicking around in my head. I may resurrect an old dream of collaborating with a dear friend to put together some creativity workshops and retreats. Fundamentally, I plan to keep on learning -- and sharing what I learn with anyone else who wants to join the party.

I plan to keep on learning — and sharing what I learn with anyone else who wants to join the party.

Once I attended a "conversation" about game-hacking at Educon, which is a terrific conference sponsored by the Science Leadership Academy. The student-facilitator welcomed us into his classroom with the comment, "Hi, my name is Zach, and this is where I learn." I'd like to use this blog as my open learning space, to share with readers and learners who want to learn with me. I hope you feel as welcome as I did.

Contact me: susanlucilledavis@gmail.com4016 Pershing Ave., Fort Worth, Texas 76107.  808/724-4434. Twitter: @suludavisInstagram: susanlucilledavis .