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Commuter Series: Moving Literacy Instruction Outdoors

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Literacy moves with us in the world wherever we go. Valerie Bang-Jensen writes, "When we move literacy practice outside, we give students the message that reading, writing, and thinking, go with them no matter where they are." Valerie, a professor of education at St. Michael's College, who has also taught in the K-6 classrooms, writes about how try new things can be hard, especially in or in this case out of the classroom but can also yield some pretty amazing results.

This week, we're going to hear about trying something new in an excerpt from Valerie's audiobook, Literacy Moves Outdoors, which explains how you can, well, move your literacy instruction literally outdoors.

 

Heinemann Audiobooks

 

Below is a transcript

Brett:

Hi, this is Brett from Heinemann. Thanks for joining me on the commute this morning. Literacy moves with us in the world wherever we go. Valerie Bang-Jensen writes, quote, "When we move literacy practice outside, we give students the message that reading, writing, and thinking, go with them no matter where they are." Valerie, a professor of education at St. Michael's College, who has also taught in the K-6 classrooms, writes about how try new things can be hard, especially in or in this case out of the classroom but can also yield some pretty amazing results.

This week, we're going to hear about trying something new in an excerpt from Valerie's audiobook, Literacy Moves Outdoors, which explains how you can, well, move your literacy instruction literally outdoors.

Valerie Bang-Jensen:

Haley's first-graders bundle into their snowsuits and boots ready for the grand opening of their ABC story walk. Each student has written a page based on what was growing in the school garden in the fall, prompted by a photograph. Ivy looks for her contribution, T is for trowel, and Ray for his, D is for dirt.

The class walks from post to post chanting the words aloud, and during the course of this literacy-based walk, they practice alphabetic order, revisit garden curriculum content, and enjoy being outside. Haley has created an outdoor literacy experience that invites her students to consider purpose, audience, and discovery, and she's confident that they will also begin to see that they can take their emerging literacy skills wherever they go.

This example from Haley's first grade classroom is a story walk, a simple but ingenious structure invented and trademarked by Ann Ferguson with the Kellogg Hubbard Library in Montpelier, Vermont. But this is just one way to move literacy outdoors. If you're wondering what literacy might look like outside the classroom, it's everywhere.

The first word a young child may learn to read is stop, a useful directive encountered at crosswalks and streets everywhere. Supermarkets use signage to direct us to items on our shopping lists, and once we find them, other signs identify the product and the price. At the local museum, a docent engages a gathered group with snippets of history stories bulleted on her clipboard.

We may encounter poetry chalked on sidewalks or stapled among advertisements on the bulletin board of a local convenience store. Pages of a gorgeous picture book are posted to entice hikers on a story walk up a hill through the woods, alerting them along the path to the way that different birds build their nests.

Literacy can be everywhere. Like Haley's students reading and writing outside the classroom enables us to appreciate and connect to our broader community and world. These experiences also offer young writers power and agency and considering audience for literacy in authentic settings.

Why move literacy outdoors? If there has been a silver lining of any kind to the pandemic, it's that social distancing compelled many teachers to think nimbly, and this meant that when they could, they moved their classes outdoors. A tough challenge at first, but once new routines were established and curricular adaptions made, think sensory paths, nature journals, and phonics treasure hunts, teachers discovered unanticipated benefits.

During a recent focus group discussion, anecdotes poured in. Third grade teacher, Abby, noticed that everyone is calm and more settled back in the classroom after being outside for a lesson. Special educator, Kristen, observed that her students are better able to focus on learning when she balances outdoor and indoor experiences. And Caitlin, an upper elementary science teacher, described how twice-weekly nature journal writing has been transformative for her students. Their ability to make specific observations is transferring into all of their writing.

Outdoors is the new classroom. My thinking about literacy outdoors pays homage to powerful thinking about outdoor learning, learning about nature, and ways of being outside with children. Recent leaders in the field like Richard Louv, David Sobel, Juliet Robertson, Herb Broda, and others have provided compelling arguments about the value of getting children outside.

Richard Louv writes in his book, Last Child in the Woods, that nature demands, quote, "the full use of the senses," end quote. Being outdoors invites us to notice in new ways, to be affected by sound, smell, and tactile experiences that are part of our world yet are different from those available indoors.

In her book, Dirty Teaching, Juliet Robertson observes that quote, "Outdoor learning is an umbrella term which covers every type of learning experience which happens outdoors," end quote. Robertson envisions outdoor learning as including playground games, environmental education, and what she calls adventurous activities. She notes that being outdoors is a key part of physical development, requiring navigation of territory and problem solving.
 

Much of the current focus is on nature-based education, and the proliferation of forest kindergartens, outdoor classrooms, nature centers, and nature oriented summer programs reflects this. In Herbert Broda's accessible and thorough book, Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning, he notes that, quote, "Language arts concepts seem more immediate and compelling when you are trying to share what you have experienced in the environment," end quote.

Finding ways into outdoor literacy learning. For many students, literacy means the reading and writing they do in the classroom, yet reading and writing happen everywhere we go. Purpose, audience, and place are compelling reasons to shape writing and reading when literacy moves out of the classroom and into real world settings, both natural and engineered. Your school setting will shape the ways that you might implement the approaches in this book, and I have made suggestions along the way for rural, suburban, and urban schools.

You will also find some beginning guidelines related to universal design. These include efforts to make learning experiences accessible to all students, enabling them to be independent and participate in a variety of ways. You'll want to consider space, safety, and strategies to support a wide range of literacy and language skills. Specific and expanded guidelines plus the seven principles may be found on the website for The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design.

Starting places for moving literacy outside in the classroom vary based on your access. In woods or natural areas, ways in may be entryways, trails, or outdoor classrooms. In your school garden, consider garden beds, garden fences, or the entryway. On the playground or in the school yard, look at blacktop, a building wall, entryways, or parking lots.

School common spaces that can serve as starting places might be hallways, the cafeteria, the gymnasium, the library, art or music classroom, nurse or health room, or the main office. And in your broader community, consider parks, libraries, businesses, or municipal buildings.

Think about moving literacy outdoors as a continuum. You can dip your toe in, wade in up to your knees, or plunge in depending on your setting, students, curriculum, and interest. There are lots of reasons to get your students outside from a simple change of pace to the development of an appreciation for the outdoors no matter where you are. Reading and writing are tools for learning about new environments, and outdoor settings offer the chance for your readers to use their senses to observe and experience elements not typically encountered indoors.

Start by grabbing a book. Grabbing a book and going outside requires little to no preparation. One fifth grade teacher in New England confided to me that the first sunny spring day after a long cold winter is all she needs to grab the current read aloud and head outside.

Diving into a chapter or two of a familiar book means that students already know the characters and setting, and you can get right to it. Cold ground? Savvy teachers include an old towel or yoga mat on their class supply list or stockpile these to share with their classes. Listening to a favorite book together outside builds a communal sense of literacy and offers the message that reading is a great activity for outdoors.

If you have independent reading time on your schedule, students can grab whatever they're used to reading at this time from a book bag, a guided reading book, or a current personal favorite, and claim their own reading spots. You may want to bring along a few extra books with you for any early finishers, books that would appeal to a broad range of readers and are easy to get into. Think graphic novels, wordless picture books, or browsable nonfiction.

Sitting in on a second grade professional learning community team meeting recently, I heard one teacher gently encourage colleagues to just try one thing. She was acknowledging the exhaustion that many of her peers were feeling and wanted them to take one small step to get their students outdoors. She urged, "We don't need to worry about a budget. The reality is that kids are content sitting on simple towels, yoga mats, stumps. A clipboard is all you need."

Like Haley and the first grade ABC walk, this teacher knew that literacy outdoors is motivating and can provide authentic purposes for student readers and writers. We can use literacy to weave learning together and to build strong school communities. While classrooms are separate and discreet spaces, the outdoors belongs to everyone, a shared space for everyone in the whole school to explore and gather. Outdoor learning initiatives can lead to shared inquiries, problem solving, and celebration, supporting literacy learning all the while. Pick a chapter and try one thing.

Brett:

There's some great glimpses of kids in this chapter, but I think my favorite part is Valerie's invitation to try one thing. You don't have to do everything, just one thing to make a change. As you're heading in today, what's one thing you could try that you haven't tried before?
 Well, that's it for our commute this morning. If you'd like to hear more, you can stream or download Literacy Moves Outdoors wherever you get your audiobooks.


valeriebangjensen

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. Valerie can be found on Twitter at @VBangJensen.

Topics: Podcast, Comprehension, Heinemann Podcast, Valerie Bang-Jensen, commute

Date Published: 09/05/23

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