Colin Reynolds likes to think of himself as an “educational risk-taker.”

It’s a teaching practice the District 97 Oak Park elementary schools endorse, said the second-year instructor who teaches first grade at Mann School, 921 N. Kenilworth. The Minnesota native was recently named one of 30 finalists for the Golden Apple award honoring Chicago-area teachers for their exceptional work in education. Longfellow’s Scott Naber, a second grade teacher, is also a finalist this year.

Oak Park is Reynolds’ first professional teaching job and he defines his risk-taking approach by bringing new ideas into his classroom. Do different things, and see if it works, is his motto. Reynolds uses phonics for literacy instruction and also makes use of computers when possible for certain lessons. Reynolds said he lets his students dictate a lot of what they do in the classroom. Allowing that freedom, he stressed, is one of his main techniques.

“If they like something that we’re doing, we add more time for it,” said Reynolds, who credits his time spent as a student-teacher for his philosophy.

He expected to watch and copy the structure of his teaching mentors, but that didn’t happen. After giving him some basics about what to expect in the classroom, Reynolds’ instructor allowed him to change things up, and then adapted her teaching-style to fit him. He’s tried to do the same for his 22 students.

Colin Reynolds in his first grade classroom at Mann Elementary
FRANK PINC/Staff Photographer

“If they’re choosing what they’re learning, they’ll be more engaged,” Reynolds said.

He joined Mann’s school improvement team (SIT) soon after his hiring and helped the school purchase a product utilizing a big-screen projector with a digital video camera. It works like an interactive whiteboard, allowing teaches to write or put documents on a flat, horizontal panel. The work is then projected on screen in real-time. Reynolds recalled using the technology while a student at Valparaiso University. It’s now in every classroom at Mann.

Reynolds also developed a behavioral expectation plan for his students. A baseball fan, he incorporated that as a theme in the plans. He gives his students strikes and hits. Good behavior gets a hit, and bad behavior a strike. If they’re really good, they get home runs and grand slams.

“It forces them to think about their actions,” Reynolds said. “The students know what I expect from them and they know that their actions have certain consequences.”

Reynolds said he always wanted to be a teacher, but ended up going to college to play baseball. He didn’t have a major and recalled that his college advisor suggested he go into education.

“I coached youth baseball and football back home, and he was familiar with me being around kids,” said Reynolds, who grew up in Crookston, Minn., a small town about 70 miles north of Fargo N.D.

His father is an attorney in Minnesota and his mother works at an elementary school in the state. She worked at his high school for many years as “the lunchroom lady” in the school cafeteria, said Reynolds, who has an older sister and younger brother.

When he started work at Mann, Reynolds said he wasn’t prepared to take such a parental role with his students. It wasn’t something that was covered during his studies, he admitted. But Reynolds said he has adjusted to that role.

“I was more prepared to focus on academics. But there’s this ‘unwritten curriculum.’ Making sure their shoes are on the right foot and their faces are clean after a meal. I really have to help create their independence.”

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