Right now the third graders are working hard on mastering the art of reading outside. To be entirely immersed in a delightful story, while at the same time enjoying warm sunshine on one’s face, or a breeze in cool shade- this is no easy task. To read outside is a skill that takes much practice to master.
Why? Think of the distractions. The sun’s too hot. Or the shade’s too cold. Or that line of ants is steadily creeping towards your left foot. We love the idea of reading outside, but in reality, its more about sitting outside for a while flipping pages, then vacantly gazing around for a bit, then moving on. We aren’t fully into the book, and then distracted by trying to read, we don’t appreciate the outdoors. So one or the other has to go.
Not for the careful Heights third grader, distractible though he may be. In class we discuss strategies on how to master this art, for the enormous benefits of such mastery are apparent to teacher and student alike. Now, nothing beats the value of good practice, but this practice needs the proper conditions for it to be effective.
First, find a good book and stick with it. When I announce that it’s a beautiful day in the Valley, and thus a perfect opportunity to practice reading outside, I then have to wait for the cheering to die down (I let it go a bit longer than normal classroom cheering, because it’s always good to hear excitement about reading). Then the boys slam their books on their desk, or dash to the shelves and scour the room to find one as quick as they can. They know they can choose one, and only one, and have to make a good choice. Because the first step to becoming a good outside reader is bringing an excellent book, one that’s sure to catch your interest.
Then they wait for me to announce the location. Waiting, literally on the edge of their seats. I set boundaries- for example, anywhere from the wall by the upper school to the pathway by the cabins. Or the area from the back fence to the edge of the woods, or something similar; the Valley has numerous possibilities. These boundaries must cover a big enough area to find the perfect Spot.
Rule number two of Reading Outside: find your Spot and stick with it. The Spot can be anywhere from your favorite tree branch to a special rock. The Spot will change due to weather conditions; on hotter days shade is preferable, on windy days sitting beneath a tree or within a bush is better, and so on. Sometimes students beg me to use the same boundaries as a previous day, so they can return to a cherished Spot. I switch it up, trying to balance the consistency of an effective Spot with the excitement of discovering a new one. Because, of course, this is a very serious art, and such deliberation helps focus our practice.
After the boundaries are set, I release them and the boys race out like horses at the crack of a gun. I pause, breathe, pick up my own book, then venture out to observe the art in practice. By the time I reach the boundaries the initial Spot-search has concluded and all is settled. No talking, obviously, is allowed. Nor is there any wandering. Each boy has his book and his Spot, why should he need to leave? The occasional bathroom trip is rare but permissible. Otherwise, as I watch, or read on my own, they too will read. And read. And then groan when I call them back to class after ten, maybe twenty minutes, practice time is over.
Reading Outside is much more interesting than just reading. It’s simultaneous pleasure for the mind and body. Even students that aren’t big readers love Reading Outside. It’s a skill they can continue to build and benefit from their entire adult lives; I tell them that not even Mr. Longano is a master outside reader yet. But he’s getting there.
When I assign Reading Outside for homework, there is a chorus of cheers. I don’t think any other homework assignment has ever actually been met with applause. Oftentimes it comes with an added direction to draw a quick picture of the Spot they found at home. The next day students show me the picture and together we evaluate the merits of the Spot. They sometimes bring in bits of flowers or sticks to demonstrate. One boy smeared grass on his notebook so I could smell his Spot. Yes, Reading Outside is a serious thing.