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Read Aloud Podcast: Enhancing Literacy and Learning Outside the Classroom with StoryWalks

ReadAloud Podcast with Valerie Bang-JensenHave you ever thought about what literacy might look like outside of the classroom? 

Research shows that outdoor learning can boost academic performance as well as support physical, mental, and emotional health. When you provide outdoor and indoor learning experiences, students can expand their knowledge and apply concepts to the real world. Valerie Bang-Jensen's book, Literacy Moves Outdoors, provides the rationale, resources, and information to help you get started. And today, in this preview of the audiobook, Valerie walks us through how to design and implement a StoryWalk.


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Valerie Bang-Jensen:

Picture this, it's spring and everyone is eager to get outside. Your students pick up their clipboards and pencils and head out to the park next to the school. In front of a big tree is the cover of a book, Mama Built a Little Nest, by Jennifer Ward, and page one is visible a few paces away, enticing students to walk along a path that will reveal page by page the way that different birds build their nests.

It's easy to imagine how this book would compel readers to look carefully at the trees and shrubs around them to see whether they could find any nests. Developed and trademarked by Anne Ferguson with the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier, Vermont, StoryWalks invite readers to walk along a path with staked pages of an engaging book related to the setting. Like Mama Built a Little Nest, whose exploration of birds and their nests matches up perfectly with a walk near trees, the best walk books deepen the reader's understanding of place.

You may encounter StoryWalks by other names, such as poetry walks, book walks, story hikes, song walks, and on a bike path, story cycles. Why a StoryWalk? Even before and after social distancing challenged all of us to be outside in safe and rewarding ways, StoryWalks have enticed families, classes, and individuals as a perfect way to experience the outdoors together to get some exercise and to share the rewards that stories offer regardless of setting.

A StoryWalk at a farmer's market in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, features Michelle Schaub's book, Fresh Picked Poetry: A Day at the Farmers' Market. Each poem is carefully matched to its booth. The poem Market Melody is nailed to a wall next to the gathering place for musicians. Other poems invite shoppers to picture the farmers up at dawn, harvesting produce for market, or to inhale the scent of fresh-baked goods.

In the garden of a local elementary school, Kate Messner's Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt offers readers a glimpse into those parts of the garden that we can't usually see. The illustrations take us down into the soil, showing us the components of the unseen garden ecosystem. Seeing both views of the garden, the visible live plants above the ground and the illustrated world below the soil, enriches our understanding of the whole garden.

Whether at the farmers' market, in the garden, or in a school hallway, a StoryWalk not only adds to the enjoyment of the moment, but shows us the power of books to offer information that enhances our lived experiences. Even when we reach the end, StoryWalks have staying power because they invite readers to experience the universality that literature offers. I see my experience in this book, and likewise, characters in a book are having an experience similar to my own. In other words, content shared through StoryWalks can reflect one's own experience, but also deepen this experience through new information or perspectives.

What makes a good StoryWalk book? Here are a few ways to get you started thinking about book selection. Look for books that might provide a deeper look or connection into a setting. These might be nonfiction, books about ecosystems, history of a place, or characteristics of a neighborhood. They can be fiction or nonfiction books that relate directly to a setting. Books like Amy Ludwig VanDerwater's Forest Has a Song, Sidney Smith's Small in the City, Gordon Morrison's Nature in the Neighborhood, Janet Schulman's Pale Male: Citizen Hawk of New York City, Shira Boss's Up in the Leaves: The True Story of the Central Park Treehouses, and Matt de la Peña's Last Stop on Market Street, all offer ways to connect, wonder, and imagine in a particular setting.

Walks featuring nonfiction books like Tell Me, Tree by Gail Gibbons, The Thing About Bees: A Love Letter by Shabazz Larkin, or A Place for Butterflies by Sarah Stewart, offer the chance to immediately connect local surroundings with literature in the science curriculum. Jacqueline Woodson's The Day You Begin, or Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal, help launch an inclusive tone for the school community.

Look for books that offer a sense that the experience is universal and invite the reader to relate. These books are often story-like, enticing the reader along the reading path. These books might present family and friends in lifelike situations, picnics, playing games, being with friends, facing struggles, and celebrating. All relatable for many children.

Where to do a StoryWalk? Everywhere. Playgrounds, hallways, gardens, wooded areas, libraries, nurses offices, cafeterias, and classrooms, can all be the perfect setting for a special book. What could cheer up six students better than reading A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon, or Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies, as they take a rest. Tomie dePaulo's Strega Nona or Pat Brisson's Before We Eat could make lunchtime more fun or informative, especially if there is a line.

As a kindergarten teacher, I used to laminate pages from joke books and other quick reads for the walls of our classroom bathroom. Some students would undoubtedly appreciate the relevance of Taro Gomi's popular title Everyone Poops. Often the choice of site will come down to access, but if you're lucky, your colleagues and administrators will see the value in having books become integrated into physical spaces, because StoryWalks give the message that books and the written word belong everywhere.

Logistics, how to make a StoryWalk? The book. You'll need two copies of the book, three ideally. While there are copyright restrictions for copying books, once you buy the book you can take it apart to post the pages. You'll need two copies because pictures are printed on both sides, and ideally you'll have a third for revisiting in the classroom as a read aloud or for students to pick up on their own. Budget considerations? The paperback version, often less expensive, is fine, as you'll be taking it apart and laminating the pages. If the library owns or can purchase a copy of the book for read alouds, you'll save there too.

Lamination. You'll want your outdoor story to withstand rain, snow, and wind. Laminate the pages with the thickest possible laminating sheets so that they don't curl and you can use them multiple times. One librarian's signature move is to mount each illustration on cardstock to make it sturdier before laminating. And to ensure the longevity of the pages for future use, don't staple through the lamination as rain or snow may seep in.

Posting pages. You've got lots of choices here, depending on what works best for your site. Outdoor natural areas or gardens can use stakes or fences. Indoor walks can be displayed on walls or bulletin boards. Sturdy wooden garden stakes are stronger, but more expensive, green metal ones can become part of a permanent path or be installed when you're featuring a StoryWalk. Some setups feature a page attached to a stake or pole. Others use a rectangular piece of plywood as backing support for the pages.

Page height. How tall is your audience? The height of your most likely or intended audience will be important to consider, whether it's you and your colleagues setting up a walk for your students or your class designing their own StoryWalk for others.

Attaching the pages to the foundation for display. Many experienced installers swear by industrial strength Velcro strips with the fuzzy part on the stake and the loops on the page. If attached to a rectangular board, large binder clips work well. Cup hooks at the top of a stake work with the hole in the binder clips.

Fence or wall setups can include punching a hole into the top of each page. Reinforce these with duct tape or hole reinforcers and hung on a nail, hook, or pushpin. Think of the structures as hardware and the pages as software. Once you've got your foundational pieces in place it becomes easy to swap out the pages each time you want to post a new book.

Orient your audience. The great thing about StoryWalks is that you plunge right in. You see a beautiful page that invites you to look at it, begin reading, and literally take steps to seek out the next. You may decide to post a welcoming note explaining the idea of the StoryWalk, giving credit and brief thanks to the author, funders, or acknowledging the class who set it up. If there are numbers to follow, here's the place to let your walkers know.

At the end you might post a way for viewers to respond to their experience, particularly one created by students. A QR code can be a tool to easily lead your reader to a feedback form. This provides a feedback loop for your writers who would like to create a new StoryWalk based on readers' reactions. If you, as the educator, have the feedback delivered to you, you'll have a chance to monitor the comments before sharing with your writers.

Sharing resources. Once you have created a walk out of a picture book or your students have written one, the lamination preserves it for use the next school year and allows you to create a reusable resource for the entire school or even district. The story pages might be checked out of a central library for other schools or classrooms to use. After the initial energy of installing the stakes or hallway hooks, your main focus will be selecting new books for the walks.

From reading StoryWalks to writing them, helping students create their own story experiences. Getting started. Once your students have experienced a few walks, they'll be eager to create their own. Ask them what they've learned about StoryWalks in general, and which ones appeal to them specifically. To start, you might create anchor charts titled "What Makes a Good StoryWalk", followed by ideas. Keeping in mind that your students' lists will be based on their experiences, here are a few starting ideas to guide student writers as they consider what makes a good StoryWalk.

The start and finish places are clear. The order of reading is clear. The book makes readers want to keep reading. It has a cliffhanger, an interesting story, or lots of information. The book includes illustrations and/or pictures. Next steps would include their ideas about how to achieve these goals. For example, using numbers on each post would make the order clear for the readers. Brainstorming ideas for these general goals before writing their own will allow students to focus on the most important criteria before setting off to write their own.

What should they write? Anything and everything. Any of the genres they are already writing in your classroom can work well as story hikes. Poetry, stories, and nonfiction are easy to picture, but with a little imagination a relevant persuasive essay or procedural piece could work too. Think of placing a basket of materials for a procedural walk about drawing a chalk picture, categorizing types of clouds, or identifying deciduous or coniferous trees while following the posted steps. What could be more persuasive about a topic like Kids Need More Time Outdoors than reasons displayed on a StoryWalk?

Launching student-written stories. Haley Hamlet's first-grade class created an ABC book using photos that she had taken of them in the first few weeks of the school year. Each student wrote a scaffolded sentence for their letter inspired by the photos. R is for rain, Q is for queen of the potatoes. Even challenging letters like Q and V did not faze these writers. A simple collaborative project like the first-grader's ABC book makes sense as a first attempt. It provides a model, is an inclusive project, and it's quick from start to finish. Teachers may recognize this as a sequence similar to Pearson and Gallagher's Gradual Release of Responsibility Model. Because everyone experiences it at the same time, all students can learn and discuss elements of effective writing for walks that they may use later when they write partner or individual pieces.

When their school went virtual, brothers Frank and Rufus DeMore co-wrote and published a lengthy story, Ralph W. Witherston: A Truly Special Dog, with a story experience in mind. Knowing ahead of time that they would be posting each page shaped many of their planning and writing decisions from characters, not too many. Consideration of how much of each page should be text and how much illustration, a good balance. And discussion about how cliffhangers for each page would keep readers moving from post to post.

Planning for an audience motivated careful editing too. Frank noted to Rufus, as they edited a page of their story, "No, we can't write 'muttered Bob.' We wrote what he says in all caps." Knowing that there will be an audience is an authentic reason for writers to consider the needs of their readers. Haley's first-graders decided to go over their penciled letters with markers so that everyone could see them easily. Frank and Rufus knew that they wanted their story to be interesting enough to keep the walk going. Just as with any type of writing, you will want to discuss author's craft, audience, and page layout with your students. Writing for an audience means not only anticipating your readers experience, but also poses a new challenge of how to connect your writing to the walk setting.

A StoryWalk is a way to publish student writing. You are already finding ways for your students to publish and share their writing, and now you have another hopefully outdoor option.



Thanks for tuning in today. To learn more about Valerie's audiobook, visit blog.heinemann.com.

Valerie Bang-Jensen

Valerie Bang-Jensen is Professor of Education at Saint Michael's College, where she has earned the college's Rathgeb Teaching Award. She received her A.B. at Smith College and MA, M.Ed., and Ed.D. degrees from Teachers College, Columbia University. Valerie has taught in K-6 classrooms and library programs in public and independent schools in the U.S. and Paris, and was the district elementary writing coordinator in Ithaca, New York. She serves as a consultant for museums, libraries, schools and gardens for children. Valerie's areas of interest include children's literature, nonfiction, and connections between literacy and first-hand experiences. Valerie co-founded the Teaching Gardens of Saint Michael's College, including one called Books in Bloom, which features flowers found in children's books.

Topics: Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Valerie Bang-Jensen, Read Aloud Podcast, Literacy Moves Outdoors

Date Published: 06/10/24

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