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Incorporating Sidewalk Chalk

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by Michelle Lindsey

Some of my favorite school days are when we get outside the classroom and enjoy the fresh air. In Florida, those days are sparse and should be treasured. I’m sure northern states have a similar feeling too because those fall and winter days can be brutally cold. So, how can we monopolize on those nice days when everything would just be better if we were outside?

Several activities can be done outside and can still be rigorous. Some supplies I like to keep on hand for these spontaneous in-house field trips are sidewalk chalk and clipboards. The clipboards that are also dry-erase boards are the best because then the kids can write on the board and we don’t have to worry about paper flying away, which has happened before.

Here are some ideas for those of you who want to break out of your classrooms and take kids outside to work with chalk:

History Classes

  • Character Autopsies: Have students choose historical figures you’re studying in class and have them draw and dissect them using sidewalk chalk. They can analyze their person’s significance to the historical period, their influences, what influenced them, etc. Follow your standards and your goals. Or, for something more generic, have them draw the character with clothing that represents their traits. Then, have them draw 3–4 thought bubbles and illustrate this historical figure’s influence regarding culture, economics, science (this includes social sciences), war, etc. By doing it with these lenses, you’ll be touching on AP Seminar tasks too.
  • Mapping: Have students illustrate some causes and effects of important historical moments. For example, for World War II, one group can tackle propaganda, another group can tackle economic crises, etc. Or, for any global moment, have each group tackle a region or continent and illustrate the causes and effects or problems and solutions. If your course has a written exam (I’m thinking AP History courses), then students can use mapping to plan essay responses too.
  • Textbook Work: For those of you who might be smack dab in the middle of your textbook, sidewalk chalk can still shake things up. Instead of writing out answers on paper, students can work in groups (or individually) to illustrate their answers using sidewalk chalk. The brainpower is still there. Or, they can deconstruct the main ideas in the chapter and illustrate those main ideas using the chalk.

Math Classes

  • Relay Races: Have students draw a long line with the chalk that measures the same as every other line. Then, they can number the line 1–5. They should map them out about the same distance apart. Either in groups or individually, students can race to correctly work through and solve math problems. As the teacher, I would keep the next problem a secret because the kids might cheat—let’s be real. But, having the problems ready to go on small pieces of paper (or those clipboards) might be great because If you control the questions, you will have the opportunity to check their work before releasing the next question.
  • Practice Problems: Practicing with problems doesn’t have to be a race, of course. Working on problems from the book could be a fun activity to bring outside with chalk. Students could work together or individually.

English Classes

  • Character Autopsies: After reading a text, have students draw a main character and conduct an autopsy. I like to use illustrations instead of words, so I would have kids draw a character’s motivation, personality traits, relationships with the theme(s), inner and outer conflict, etc.
  • Essay Planning: For AP Literature, we plan more essays than we actually write. I like to have them use sidewalk chalk to plan an essay, and I make sure I save time toward the end for the groups to present their thoughts. This takes a lot less time to grade than actual essays, and it works for quick checkpoints.
  • Illustrating Annotations: After studying a speech or poem, I like to have students illustrate their strongest annotations. They do this collage-style. I make sure they have a big blocked-off space that they need to fill with their ideas. Then, sometimes I’ll read a prompt and have them circle which annotation ideas they could use in their essays. Or, I’ll pair them up with someone else and have them compare and contrast their ideas using a Venn diagram or other map.
  • Theme Illustrations: Whether we’re reading fiction or nonfiction, I want students to track the theme or message of the piece. Oftentimes, well-written pieces have multiple themes so I’ll have students choose 2–3 to illustrate. Once they illustrate the theme, below it, they need to illustrate how that theme is developed in the text.
  • Plot Diagrams: It isn’t very rigorous to just diagram the plot. Instead, I have students diagram the plot the typical way with the exposition, rising action, etc., but then I also have them illustrate the development of the theme in each plot point and the character growth. I would then ask them to explain how the plot points contribute to the development of the characters and the theme.

Before tackling the great outdoors, kids must know your expectations. I always have them meet me in class first. I get the class settled, I explain the procedures, tasks, and goals, and then we move outside. Then, once outside, I time them. While timing them, I shout out a countdown in 5-minute intervals. It creates a sense of urgency.

Another helpful tip: I like to warn them the day before that we are going outside and they need to dress accordingly. I don’t always tell them it’s for chalk and I don’t always know I’m going outside with enough time to give kids proper notice. It happens on a whim sometimes. I like the spontaneity of just switching up my schedule. But, if you can, it’s nice for students to know they may not want to wear their best pants or shoes.

The integration of art and play into the curriculum is game-changing. Students become reinvigorated and I, in turn, become reinvigorated. I like when my kids enjoy my class, and I enjoy them more when they enjoy my class. It’s a cycle. Sometimes a vicious one. Whenever you can sneak outside and enjoy the beautiful weather, do it. It’s good for morale, and it’s good for our teacher-souls.

Michelle Lindsey

Michelle Lindsey

Michelle Lindsey has been a high school teacher in Florida for over ten years, and currently teaches AP® Capstone as well as literature and writing courses.


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