Guest Blog: Patterns: Building a Foundation for Critical Thinking

Mar 15, 2019

Guest Post by Sherry McElhannon, Education Consultant at Literary Fusions

Many of the disciplines we learn in school and life in general revolve around patterns. Sometimes for young learners, those patterns which come naturally to adults can feel strange and foreign. Fortunately, the world around us is full of patterns and sequences! Because the human brain craves order, we look for patterns and familiarity. This helps us make sense of the world around us by organizing new information into familiar patterns and helps the brain retain new information by connecting it to patterns we already know. By helping even the youngest students learn to notice and analyze naturally-occurring patterns all around them, we can build a foundation for critical thinking that they will use for the rest of their lives.

swirl by swirlWhy I Picked It Up: This book represents the heart of what we do at Literary Fusions! We are all about content integration! Jessica found this one and graciously brought it to my attention. With its science/math focus, Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature looked promising.

Why I Finished It:  Swirl by Swirl brings a simple shape to life! The author uses dynamic vocabulary to almost personify the swirl and to create vivid imagery for the reader. I love the way the scratchboard illustrations expertly complement the text. There’s so much room for conversation around what the text says and how different meanings of the text are illustrated in scenes from nature.

This book definitely begs for multiple reads on many different levels. Of course, there’s the rich text, but the pictures are worth “reading” on their own as well. Because they represent scenes from nature, the illustrations are familiar, but they help call attention to just how many places the swirl can be identified in the natural world. After I read it to my 5-year-old, he was spotting spirals all around the house, and even woke up the next day telling me more things he thought about that had sprials (his top, the stripe on a candy cane, the thing where you put in coins at the aquarium and they go around to a bucket at the bottom…). This book was such a great tool to spark his thinking and observation of the world around him!

Who I Would Give It To: Elementary teachers, art teachers, even secondary teachers studying geometry! There’s no rule that says you can’t use a picture book in math class…and even students in middle and high school like to be read to (though they may try to deny it!)!

Integration Ideas

school busShapes and Patterns

Since we’re focused on authentic expression of patterns here in Swirl by Swirl, this is an excellent opportunity for students to practice creating for an authentic audience as well! This book is based on the spiral, but there are many other shapes that could be documented: symmetries, trees, meanders, waves, foams, tessellations, cracks, and stripes.

Depending on their grade level, students can select a shape and begin to investigate that shape in the world around us. They could draw pictures or just take pictures of various scenes in order to call attention to natural occurrences of their shape. This is a great opportunity to create a class book!

Technology Integration

Once students begin to collect their pages for their class book, consider publishing it electronically! There are several tools that make this process very simple and allow students to easily share their work with an authentic audience (other classmates, other classes at your school or around the world, parents, community members, etc.).


VoiceThread (iOS, Web, Android): The most interactive option, VoiceThread allows students to create a narrated slideshow of multimedia files on which people can comment via a variety of options to create an ongoing digital conversation.

flipsnackFlipSnack (Web): Easy tool that allows you to create an online flipbook by uploading PDFs. The free version gives you three books, with 30 pages to a book. While you do have to create the book in a web browser, the final product is very professional, mobile friendly and easy to share with a link.


Book Creator (iOS, Chrome): Simple way to create interactive ebooks with images, pictures, and sound, either on an iPad or in Chrome, and then publish as an ePub (for reading in iBooks), PDF, or even a video format.


Before reading the book, ask students to draw a spiral on a piece of plain white paper. Ask: How would you describe the shape on your paper? Have students jot down words that they used. Then, ask the same question after reading the book together. How do you feel about a spiral now? Which characteristic of the spiral had the most lasting impact on you? Do you see your spiral differently now?

TRIANGLE+Stand+OffAfter you read, choose one page from the book that models personification. Ask students how the author made the inanimate object come to life?

Then have the students emulate this with their own shape.

  1. Have the students draw their shape.
  2. Think about what feelings are evoked from the shape.
  3. Think of a time when you feel that way.
  4. Use personification to add the emotion to the object drawn.

Triangle by Mac Barnett (or any of the Shape Trilogy books – Square or Circle) is another great example of personification of shapes! Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni is about colors, but can connect as another example of personification of the abstract.

dreaming upEngineering/STEM

Use that shape as a building block. What kind of building or structure could you create using your shape? What characteristics of the shape make it ideal or less-than-ideal for building?

Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building by Christy Hale is an awesome book with lots of inspiration for building with tons of different shapes.


Throughout the book, the various plants and animals are unobtrusively labeled in each picture. It’s like it was designed to spark curiosity and drive students to research! While we were reading, my son’s attention was caught by the swimming nautilus, and how its shell grew swirl by swirl. I don’t think he’d ever seen or heard of this creature before, and honestly, I hadn’t either. Fortunately, there’s a handy paragraph in the back of the book that goes with each page and gives just a little bit more information about the creatures or things on each page of the book. For my son, this bit of information was enough to satisfy his curiosity, but for older students, it could serve as a catalyst for further research.

You could also use one specific paragraph as the basis to teach students to mine for keywords before they begin their research. Check out this post on refining research skills to learn more about how to help students generate effective keyword searches.

Only a Foundation

tree rings

Training their brain to look for patterns and shapes helps students start to make connections – to the real world, to other subject areas, and to more advanced critical thinking strategies. Think about all the things that trend towards patterns and sequence – text structures, grammar, coding and programming, cultures and celebrations – not to mention all the patterns at work in the math and science fields. It might start small, with simple shape recognition, but this kind of analytical thinking and the ability to see pattern and structure in the world around them is a skill upon which students can build as they grow into life-long learners.


Meet the Blogger

smcelhannonA former librarian/technology teacher for PreK-6th grade, Sherry serves as a freelance writer/web designer for SIS4Teachers. She is also the cofounder of Literary Fusions, a team of international education consultants dedicated to helping K-12 teachers effectively integrate social studies, reading and writing, and technology in their classrooms through on-site workshop style training, instructional coaching, and curriculum assistance. Sherry has a B.A. in English from Baylor University and an M.S. in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. She resides in Texas, and is passionate about using her librarian powers of organization for good as she helps capture ideas and communicate them effectively!

Email Sherry


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