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!

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