Elementary Education: On Reading Routines & Unconventional Learning Materials

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I’m currently completing a round of field observations that focus on reading and writing instruction to help me get a better sense of what strategies are regularly being deployed in the classroom. Today I witnessed something I had never seen before but that was quite genius and has a lot of awesome implications for learners: an entire classroom of students who are at about the same reading level working together on a lesson! There are first grade teachers at this school, and they all assessed their students as low, middle, or high range readers. The kids head to their level classroom (they don’t know what the division means though) and suddenly they are in a learning environment where everyone around them is working on the same thing! So what implications does this have?

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When the teacher asked a question, almost all the students were able to raise their hand because the work was at their level. The discussions were thoughtful and engaged the entire classroom. Kids were confident to speak up, because the learners around them were in the same zone of proximal development.  They were able to fully dive into a story, dig up all the critical elements, and walk away having learned something tangible. It was, quite simply, awesome. Because the teacher didn’t have to jump to different learning groups and divide up work in that way, she was able to give her full attention to teaching and it made a lot of difference for these kids.

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Unconventional Learning Materials

This weekend I was very lucky to be able to attend the Chicago Book Expo. I had initially decided to head out purely because I am a huge reader and was excited to see what strange things were being independently printed. I left the expo with my arms full of books and my brain full of ideas for potential lesson plans. Because in Chicago? There are a wealth of strange materials available that can be utilized in the classroom!

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What I found was Grow Books Press and more specifically, Imagine Your World. The book came in an envelope, and when you open it up you find a series of folded up pieces of paper. As you unfold them, you find the beginnings of etchings of different series of systems… the start of a neighborhood street, a partial CTA line, a gardening box with no flowers, a blank seed packet, the floor plan of a house, and onward. The drawings are beautiful and the text surrounding asks thoughtful questions that invoke both your imagination and your understanding of how systems work and how they are connected.

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Teachers instruct students all the time on these types of systems and it usually culminates in the students drawing a map of their neighborhood. But this book extends it out, makes the thoughts deeper, and gives the kids a beautiful start to help them grow. Unconventional teaching material is all around us! Kudos to Alyson Beaton, who created this awesome book AND who is apparently an instructor at Columbia! Small world, indeed.