Saturday, March 16, 2019

Take your class to read outdoors

     Did anyone else have such a beautiful Friday as we did in Pennsylvania? By March standards, it was the perfect day: windswept blue skies, bright sun, and warm temperatures.
     After lunch, a student said, "Maybe we can go read outside after we finish our spelling test." I glanced at the clock and made a doubtful face. I hadn't planned reading outside, mostly because it had been five months since our last session and I didn't think we'd have time to run down the expectations again.
     Still, we finished our assessment quickly and the students looked at me with such hope in their eyes that I gave in. "We'll try some outdoor reading," I said. It was Friday, and I didn't really expect much reading to happen. However, with colder weather on the way, I thought giving kids more time outside was the nice thing to do.
     To my surprise, students remembered every detail of our September reading sessions. They pulled Popsicle sticks to assign the cushions, found my bag of blankets, and grabbed their books. When we got outside they chose spots without delay. Five minutes after making the decision to go outside, suddenly everyone was reading in the March sunshine. They had remembered everything!

Getting ready to read outdoors

     I admit that I have an exceptional location for outdoor reading. I mean, this view is amazing, right? (Don't be too jealous; we don't have air conditioning and I'm a good half hour from the nearest Target, so there are trade-offs.)
     I'm sad to admit that for the first ten years of teaching here, I didn't really think of reading as an outdoor activity. I took students outside for science walks, and perhaps we read once or twice a season as a special activity, but it wasn't part of my consistent instruction.
     Then I moved to the end of the hall. I had an entrance twenty feet from my door. Could we read outside more often? I started to dismiss the idea. Students wouldn't want to sit on the hard ground, they wouldn't stay focused, there would be too many complications. But the pull of the outdoors was strong enough to overcome these issues. So I did some prep work to get everything ready. Here's what to do!

Collect blankets and sheets: I pulled together a collection of old blankets and sheets from my house. You know, the character twin sheets that the kids don't want to use anymore, the blankets that just feel weird, the beach towels that are frayed on the edges. I was able to pretty quickly get about 12 together, enough for my entire class. Alternatively, you could ask students to bring in beach towels or see if any parents have some to donate.
Get some old patio cushions: I didn't plan for these, but someone was upgrading their patio furniture and offered me the old and faded cushions. They are perfect for outdoor reading!
Check school procedures: When I take students outside, I always email the school secretary first and take the walkie talkie from my hallway. Be sure to find out what your school's procedures are.
Check schedules and locations: The last thing you want is to have a PE class walking through your reading session. Think about the school sessions and find a location where you won't be disturbed. You'll also want to think about how big of an area you want to control. Spreading out the students can be great, but can also make it harder to see what students are doing.
Consider the sun: Depending on the time of day, bright sunlight can make reading uncomfortable. It helps to find a location that is part sun/part shade so that students can choose what is best for them.
Grass will be wet in the morning: If you want to read first thing in the morning, the grass will be wet and will soak through your blankets and sheets. Trust me. We know. You will want some flannel-backed vinyl tablecloths instead of blankets if you are reading first thing, OR you will want to be sure to read on blacktop. As you can tell from the pictures, my reading locations vary slightly depending on the time of day and outdoor conditions.

Setting up expectations

     I like to create a looks like/sounds like chart with students before our first outdoor reading session. We talk about how reading outdoors can be a fun and relaxing activity for us. But what would a class of engaged readers look like? What would it sound like? We talked about how there would be things outdoors that we may want to look at--an overhead vulture, for example--and how we could switch our attention back and forth between what interests us and our books.
     For the first few sessions, I had my co-teacher watch the class for a few minutes while I slipped outside to arrange the blankets. I set them a good distance apart so that students can spread out. After I do this a few times, students pick up on the expectations and can arrange everything on their own. (Funny story: When we went outside on Friday for the first time in months, students fished their favorite blankets and sheets out of my bag as if they were long lost friends!) The cushions are given out by picking Popsicle sticks.
     I also made sure to take some high-interest picture books outside for the first few sessions. In August and September, students are still settling into the reading routine, and one or two will inevitably finish their books during an outdoor reading session. Having some books on hand makes it easy to get those kids right back into a book.

Managing behavior

     I never have any behavior issues outdoors! It always goes perfectly!
     Hahahahahahahahahahaha. Working with sixth graders is never dull, that's for sure. Some issues are bound to occur! For this reason, I don't generally get a chance to read myself when we are outside. Instead, I circulate to check in on what students are doing.

Kids talking instead of reading: This is by far the most common issue. Sometimes the talking is related to the novelty of being outside. I've found that talking peaks around our third outdoor reading session. After I strategically separate certain groups for a session or two, students get the message that this is important reading time.
Bug freak-outs: Some students are more concerned about this than others. We talk about how to handle bugs and have a few volunteers who will handle spider removal if necessary. If there's a student who really really doesn't want to sit on the ground, talk with them to brainstorm a solution. One year I had a student who would carry a stool out with him. It worked!
Daydreaming: I'm not sure of how big of an issue this is. Sometimes students will be outside and will just look into the mountains or sky instead of reading. I keep an eye on this and alternate indoor with outdoor reading to make sure that some reading gets done. But then...with a view like ours, who can begrudge some moments to enjoy? 

Delighting in the teachable moment

     Spending time outside always brings unexpected delights, like the bald eagle flying overhead or the robber fly stopping by. In October, when the insects are sluggish and easy to catch, we usually bring a collection container with us when we read outside to catch our six-legged friends.
     I usually take two minutes before we go inside to share what's new and interesting that day.  If students don't know what's there, they won't miss it when it's gone. On Friday, the killdeers had returned, so we spent a few moments listening for them.

   Outdoor reading time is a way to combine two wonderful activities for students. It's surprisingly easy to manage, and students find it enjoyable. Give it a try!

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Teaching Grammar: A Content-Rich Approach


The teaching of grammar has always been fraught with peril. Since I started teaching in 1997, the general consensus seems to have been this: "Whatever you're doing, you're doing it wrong." Using worksheets? That's inauthentic and useless. Teaching parts of speech? That's not going to help student writing. Skipping grammar to add more writing? That's not going to get you good standardized test scores!
    There are some valid concerns with traditional grammar instruction. When students see isolated sentences with trivial content, their awareness slides right over what we are trying to teach. What students can get correct on a worksheet does not always transfer into their writing. And grammar instruction can seem painful and boring to both teachers and students.
    However, an awareness of grammar is vital! In order to make stylistic choices in their writing, students need to be able to recognize what words they're using and why. In order to identify aspects of writer's craft, students need to know how words are used.
    But what are the best ways to teach grammar? Wouldn't it be great if we could just conference with every child about key concepts that they need to use in their writing? However, with a class of 25-30 and a finite lifespan, I've learned that I can't address everything through a writing conference. There are definitely times when a whole-group lesson is the most efficient and helpful approach. And there are times when worksheets (the right ones!) work. To this end, I've developed an approach to grammar that I can live with and enjoy: a content-rich approach.

What Is A Content-Rich Approach?

    Kids need to know things. They need to know some of the language of formal grammar, but they also need to know about our world as a whole. What if I could make grammar instruction that combines both? Enter my content-rich approach to grammar. No more isolated sentences. Instead, grammar examples carry meaning and build up to a deeper understanding of the world around us.
    For example, recently I was teaching about appositives. (I love appositives! They are one of the best grammar concepts to teach!) As I prepared my examples, I used photographs and sentences about reptiles and amphibians. Not only do these examples grab students' attention, but they also show how the grammar concept can be applied in real writing situations.
     In worksheets, too, we can create examples that carry meaning. After students learned about appositives, they practiced identifying and punctuating appositives with sentences about sea turtles. These sentences led to further research and questions from students, who extended the grammar lesson into their own inquiry. 

Preparing Examples

     What content to choose for grammar examples? I like to explore topics that fit in with the typical curriculum, but go a step beyond. For example, when my husband asked me for some third-grade level adjective work, I used the cloud forest as a theme. His students had read a story about the quetzal in their literature anthologies, and grammar activities had the potential to extend their understanding. (Plus, it was fun for me to research and write about.)
     Sometimes there are topics that fit in well with a particular grammar concept. When I was working with possessives, I knew that birds would make the perfect topic. Not only could there be sentences about bird's beaks, but I could also use the irregular plural noun geese to show a particular case of the plural possessive!
     Content and grammar are of course tied together, and seeing multiple examples related to the same topic helps to create a solid foundation on which to build grammatical learning. The same students who don't remember the words plural possessive perk up when I say, "Remember? What we did when we were reading about the Appalachian Trail?"

Try It Out

   Here are some of the grammar units that I've been working on this year.