Sunday, February 23, 2014

Why I Love Charts...And I Do!

I have now been in my role as the district's Writing and Social Studies Coordinator for a year and a half and I have learned so much in this position. One of the most important lessons for me has been about the importance of charts in classrooms at all levels. Yesterday, Melanie Swider wrote an amazing post about how her students use the charts in her classroom, demonstrating the importance and power of the charts. While I knew that charts were important from working so closely with Melanie for two years, I had not given as much thought about why they are so important.

I started to think about why when Emily Smith, a TC staff developer worked with some of our teachers and rattled off the words independence and repertoire in the same sentence. I loved those words and have held on to them, as my goal for all writers in our district is to have pathways that lead to independence and repertoire. A chart is an important place to pause on that pathway.

I'm going to pause and state some of the assumptions that I am making about charts in the classroom that serve as tools for students:

  • They are co-created with students, meaning that students in the room have been a part of or have directly watched them being developed. Therefore, the charts are not laminated or pulled from a cabinet of saved resources from past years of teaching. They represent the tracks of the teaching and learning that has happened within the room in front of the current students.
  • There are designated anchor charts and process charts. An anchor chart develops throughout the unit and contains the necessary skills for a particular unit of study. For example, Mel posted a picture of her literary essay chart on her last post about how her students use the charts in her room and it looks like this:
This chart is one that I would envision being created over the course of several days, or being created as students are about to begin drafting literary essays, but may be at different stages in their growing of ideas.

  • A process chart reflects the work of a much shorter time period, maybe even just one day. For example, a teacher may create a process chart to show students how to make sure that their story is focused:

  • The charts retire after a unit and are therefore representative of the unit and lessons that are going on at that time in the classroom.
Given that these assumptions are true, then I love charts because students can use them in order to be independent and develop repertoire. I loved when I was working in Melanie's classroom and students would look at the wall during a workshop. "What are you doing?" I'd ask. "I'm checking on that chart to see if there is a way that I could start my story," a student might say. Or, "I'm stuck and I know that there is a chart that will help me get un-stuck," another student might say. If we think about the gradual release model, this is exactly what we want to have happen. First, students receive explicit instruction. Then, they have the opportunities to practice the skills and use as much scaffolding as they need, provided by the charts on the wall. Eventually, they get to the point where they own the skills and strategies and they don't need the visual reminders in order to demonstrate their knowledge. 

Selfishly, as a coach, I love charts because I can tell exactly where a class is in a unit when I walk into a classroom if teachers are creating charts with fidelity. This helps me to coach both the teachers and the students-- I can see if students are practicing a skill that has been taught, which shows me that there has been effective instruction, and I can point to the chart and say to students, "It looks like you have had lessons on this--why don't you try..."

While there is more to love about charts than what I have written, I am sure, I also love charts because they focus the work for teachers. I would never say that a chart should be perfect; in fact, I would say exactly the opposite--a chart should NOT be perfect. Mel's charts tend to look perfect, even when she is making them with students. I am including here a chart that I made with a teacher spontaneously that is way less than perfect, but the students all find it helpful as they have been working on varying their introductions. In the case of this chart, I was writing students' responses on post-its as the classroom teacher was asking them about what introductions should include and they LOVED having their contributions publicly acknowledged on the chart--each post-it has a student's name on it. When you look at many of Mel's charts, as well as this one, you will notice that students' names are all over them and I think that this creates such a strong sense of ownership and pride that students are more apt to use the charts.
So, if you haven't checked out Mel's post about how much her students use her classroom charts, be sure to, and if you have any additional ideas and thoughts about charts, please share. is also a wonderful resource for learning about the importance of charts, especially for the younger grades.

Happy charting,

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