In a unique approach to improving literacy, primary teachers from Spencer Elementary School are exploring the power of stuffed animals to help students learn.
This week, 200 of Spencer’s first and second-grade students visited Build-A-Bear Workshop – the hands-on toy store that allows children the opportunity to create and name their own stuffed animals. These cuddly companions will act as “reading buddies” for the students, the goal being to improve their reading competency and reduce anxiety about reading aloud in class.
“A lot of our students don’t have much confidence in their reading abilities,” said Hollie Ware-Jaye, assistant principal at Spencer. “We hope that having a stuffed animal to read to will help them become more successful and teach them to take more risks.”
Part of a larger plan to overhaul the reading program at Spencer, this initiative was made possible by a grant from Maxine Clark and Build-A-Bear. Maxine has been a longtime supporter of the Chicago Public Education Fund, which was the foundation for Spencer’s new “reading buddies”.
“Maxine took a chance on our school sight unseen,” said Spencer principal Shawn Jackson. “The fact that someone of her status would make this investment in our students has meant a lot to our entire school community.”
The Chicago Public Education Fund works to build a critical mass of great public schools by investing in talented principals and enabling effective educator teams to reinvent classroom learning. Spencer’s “reading buddies” took shape during the Fund’s Summer Design Program – an annual two-month collaborative that encourages educators to create innovative solutions to meet their schools’ greatest challenges. In 2013, 70 District schools applied to be part of this program. Sixteen were ultimately chosen, Spencer Elementary among them.
“We were very excited to have this opportunity,” said Assistant Principal Ware-Jaye. “The Fund had already partnered with Spencer to sponsor our successful 2 to 1 program – a blended learning model that has gone a long way toward meeting students’ needs – so we knew that the Summer Design Program would have great potential.”
The Summer Design Program exposes educators to the most innovative educational approaches nationwide, then guides them through a design process to develop solutions for classroom and school challenges.
“This program allowed the city’s best teachers and principals to design educator-driven, scalable solutions that provide high-quality, personalized learning experiences for Chicago’s children,” said Heather Anichini, President and CEO of the Fund.
On July 10, the 16 educator teams gathered at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. They began by brainstorming about their schools’ greatest challenges, then spent five weeks attending workshops put on by education experts and design consultants from around the country. In early August, the teams presented their proposals to Fund executives to compete for the organization’s coveted grant funding. Five schools received $10,000 to implement their projects, part of which funded Spencer Elementary’s field trip to Build-A-Bear Workshop. According to executives from the Fund, Spencer’s project stood out because it is a blended literacy program that addresses the unique needs of younger students.
Now armed with their “reading buddies”, Spencer students will hopefully forge emotional connections that will improve their reading skills and help them become self-motivated learners.
“A lot of our students don’t have access to much reading in their homes,” said Assistant Principal Ware-Jaye. “We hope that these teddy bears will help close that gap by motivating the kids to get excited about books.”