Teacher to Teacher: The Importance of Charts in a Writing Classroom
By Lynne R. Dorfman
When I first read Reading with Meaning: Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades (2013), I was struck by Debbie Miller’s question: “How can we hold thinking—making it both permanent and visible?” I’ve always been a big fan of anchor charts, using them as visible representations of students’ thinking. Not only does the collective thinking become permanent and visible, but the charts can also serve many purposes. Charts help students achieve greater independence by providing the information they may need o plan, draft, revise, and edit their writing.
Naturally, when Melanie asked me if I was interested in being part of her blog tour for her new book, Every Child Can Write, I was thrilled to be able to take a closer look at Chapter 6: Co-Create Classroom Charts as Pathways Toward Independence. Immediately, I was captured by Melanie’s statement of rationale for using classroom charts, linking their use with Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a way of teaching and learning that helps teachers give all students an equal opportunity to succeed. Yes! It made perfect sense that charts can remove obstacles to success by building in flexibility in the ways learners can access information.
Melanie opens with an anecdote that describes how she used charts to help her daughter learn to cook, sharing that, as in the gradual release of responsibility model, the more her daughter cooked, the more competent and confident she became. One day, the cooking charts were taken down. Cecily had reached her goal.
Melanie gives us many reasons to use charts:
- They can actually replace the minilessons for thriving writers.
- Strong writers use them as memory joggers and scaffolds.
- They provide choices or options student writers may want to try.
These big ideas are explored in this chapter. First, Melanie tells us we should decide on the types and purposes of the charts we display in our classrooms. The important thing to remember here is that a chart is a living, breathing tool. It can change and grow as the class thinking evolves. Always accessible and reflective of the work the students do, it does not need to be “perfect, beautiful, or laminated.” The important thing is that charts are created as a joint effort of the students and the teacher. A sense of ownership fosters a sense of commitment and pride in using the information the chart provides.
Chapter 6 explores four types of teacher-created charts: anchor, procedural, strategy, and inquiry. Meehan defines anchor charts as instructional tools that provide the overall skills necessary to complete a task. One use of this type of chart is to reflect the expectations for the overall tasks of each genre of writing.
Procedural charts can help students follow the steps of a process. How do I publish my writing? How do I gather research for my opinion piece? How do I participate in a peer conference?
Strategy charts provide choices for a particular skill. I like Melanie’s suggestion to place sticky notes below the goal as suggestions are shared. Some examples of strategy charts are about using transitional links and phrases, creating citations, ways to spell words, and using punctuation. Again, a variety of charts are displayed to help educators imagine how they can be created.
A large section of this chapter discusses what can get in the way of creating relevant, responsive charts and how to overcome these obstacles. Melanie suggests that resources such as the Common Core State Standards help us create effective anchor charts, using the standards and restating them in student-friendly language and perhaps using some icons or illustrations to help.
“Don’t let perfect get in the way of the good. Charts should not be perfect – they should be tools that students recognize, access, and use.” (146)
Wow! How many times have you created a new version of a chart because it became too messy? But that’s part of the creative process, and students can appreciate the hard work – the revisions and edits – all the re-imaginings. This is part of the writing process. Melanie suggests using different colors to highlight important words or to differentiate between big ideas and supporting details.
An important point to remember is that charts do not have to be completed in the lesson. They can continue to evolve and change over two or more days. The real purpose for charts, of course, is to get students to actually use them. Therefore, teachers must monitor the charts displayed in their room so they do not become clutter. Often, some charts will be taken down to make room for the charts the students need to use for a unit of study.
For easy access, charts can be reduced to smaller sizes and stored in pocket folders on a bulletin board. Multiple copies of each chart can be made to service more students. That way, a student can borrow a chart and take it to his seat where he is drafting, revising, or editing. This helps the teacher by significantly reducing the number of questions to address. Students become more independent.
The chapters in Melanie’s book close with a page designated for end-of-chapter questions and some suggestions for taking action. Naturally, these pages can provide an opportunity for professional learning communities to develop at grade team, school, or even district levels. An easy-to-read, engaging book with lots of practial advice and great ideas – do not miss Every Child Can Write by Melanie Meehan, published by Corwin Press. Join the twitter chat at 8:30 p.m. EST with #G2Great on Thursday, Oct. 3rd to discuss the big ideas in Melanie’s book.
Lynne R. Dorfman is a co-director of PAWLP and am adjunct professor at Arcadia University. Lynne became a PAWLP fellow in 1989. She looks forward to particpating in roundtable discussions at #NCTE19 with fellow PAWLPers and conference attendees, Continuity Days with Janice Ewing and Liz Matthews, Unbook Club discussions, meetings with the writing group facilitated by Dana Kramaroff and Matthew Bloome, the 2020 PAWLPday, and PAWLP’s celebration of 40-years-strong as a Writing Project!