The Immersion Blender Effect

I recently received two immersion blenders for my birthday.  Two.  This was not a coincidence, but a direct result of an ongoing learning process.  About ten years ago I lived in Scotland where vegetable soups are pureed.  I thought, what a novel idea – very different from our chunky American version.  I bought cookbooks, blended in my blender and often had a mess of soup exploding everywhere.   I kept talking about immersion blenders, apparently to everyone who buys me birthday presents, and voila – made delicious pureed soup in a mess free, almost instantaneous process.

What in the world does this have to do with teaching and learning reading?

Everything.  It was an authentic learning experience led by direct models, trial and error, intrinsic motivation, conversation and failure before success.

It is basic. Today’s education world is inundated with digital tools, personalized learning, tactics to engage all learners, the list goes on and on.  I agree, these evolving  ideas move education forward and aligning learning with real world and future demands.  They should not go away.  However, in the education fog of trying to figure out which method works best for each unique group of students, I am reminded that the basic elements of learning are fundamental to increasing student achievement.

This process relates both to soup and our recent reading unit – Reading About the World with Nonfiction

Authentic experiences provide models for what the learner will achieve.  Scotland showed (not taught) me a new way to consume vegetable soup.  For our first lesson on reading nonfiction, my class visited the library.  We explored nonfiction topics we might want to read and built excitement around a new genre by naming and exploring it.  This connection to the library helped my readers connect our learning in the classroom with expository texts in the real world.

Readers need time to practice, experiment, experience failure and continue to work toward a clear goal. It took me many years to practice making soup, but then again, I was my only teacher.  With my readers, providing daily reading instruction with short mini lessons about how real readers read nonfiction is critical.  Coupled with ample time to read nonfiction every day students practice reading this genre regularly.  They have time to practice alone, with a reading partner and with experienced readers such as their teachers and parents. Also, strategy-based small groups support readers with skills they need, focusing on compression, fluency and accuracy.

Intrinsic motivation promotes trying something slightly different than before, even in the face of failure.   My motivation was simple – to recreate something I experienced  a world away.  Nonfiction reading can be challenging to some students, but every reader can connect to learning about something interesting. While I encouraged my readers to explore new topics, I also led them to become experts on a particular topic, exploring how they can add new ideas to already existing schema.  Searching for new and exciting key words within nonfiction motivated further.

Talking with peers propels the process.  I talked with anyone who ate my soup -how good the soup tasted, what I could do better, the funny stories of it exploding everywhere.  My readers partnered with peers on a daily basis to talk about reading strategies and new content knowledge.  Interacting with a variety of people helps readers construct and solidify their understanding of expository texts. We had a party to mingle and share ideas and created VoiceThreads to record strategies with others.

Success prompts more a recursive desire to learn and try new things.  Now that I have an immersion blender, I want to make soup all the time.  My readers became empowered with concrete reading strategies to decode and comprehend more complex nonfiction texts.  More importantly, when given the option, they still keep nonfiction texts in their reading baskets, with the drive to articulate information about an interesting topic and share their love of learning.

If I had a soup teacher, this process would have taken far less than ten years.  Teachers matter to these readers more than any tool, theory or educational product out there.  Yes, we use digital tools and differentiation to read and communicate our learning. But real understanding of new genres comes from the immersion of learning to read while simultaneously reading to learn.

Diving Into Nonfiction

It is inevitable.  Every time a reader turns a new corner previously learned skills and strategies that were turning into habits fall apart.

This week we dove head first into nonfiction reading with a Reader’s Workshop field trip to the library. There was a buzz of excitement as students explored books, attempting to evaluate if they were a just right fit.  Engagement was high with kids suggesting we use the nonfiction section to research our social studies unit and realizing we could read nonfiction books to write more in Writer’s Workshop.  They were instantly sold on reading this often daunting and challenging genre.

Now, they are also swarming in books that are too tricky.  Beginning and transitional readers often display an optimistic outlook on their abilities, ready to conquer the world through reading.  As we solidified the ability to select just right books in more predictable genres, I opened a new can of, well, books. And now I need a plan to help my readers reevaluate just right books.  Luckily, they have strategies to lean on from previous instruction, but I hope to expand their ability to navigate this new genre.

Do I have the schema? Most non-fiction is heavily dominant on content vocabulary.  The more a student knows about a topic the more likely she will be able to read unknown words in context by asking “What makes sense?” Strategies to activate this background knowledge such as taking a sneak peek before reading and studying the pictures on each page during reading will alert the reader to content she already knows.

Anchor Book In the first week of our unit, my conferences focus on helping each reader identify a just right nonfiction text.  This book will become a reader’s best friend – staying near by for the next few weeks.  When selecting new nonfiction books, he can refer to the anchor book.  Do the text size and pictures look similar?  Is there significantly more or less text on the pages?  Is the topic related?  While this strategy is not exact, visual similarities in nonfiction texts can often lead to similar readability levels, providing a tool to quickly gauge if a book is too tricky.

Recommendations and Ratings Since our reading partnerships are ability based getting recommendations from a reading partner can spread just right books. It might even spark conversations about how schema effects readability and allow students to deepen their understanding of finding just right books.  This strategy also encourages thinking and writing about nonfiction after reading – an added bonus.

I am teaching in unfamiliar territory with a new unit in nonfiction without leveled texts.  Please, share in the comments ways you support readers in nonfiction texts. I want to try your new ideas.  For now, I’ll be riding on the waves of engagement, reading and learning with my students.