Charts: Purpose is Key


by Marjorie Martinelli and Kristine Mraz, Authors and Featured Speakers at the 2013 Literacy for All Conference

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Charts are here, there, and everywhere. Teachers spend a great deal of energy and time creating charts. They hang from every nook and cranny of each and every classroom. They are the expected norm, a part of pedagogy, and a sense of pride. But they are also an ongoing challenge. Why? Because in spite of this attention, interest, and passion for charts on the part of teachers, students often appear oblivious to the charts. They do not seem to grasp the reason for charts, the why of charts, and often do not use the charts as a result. For many students charts have become blended into the background like wallpaper, absorbed into the subconscious, or simply exist in schools like fire bells and cafeteria smells. They just are. But when charts seem unimportant to the audience we hope to reach, then it is the purpose that needs to be made perfectly clear for both students and teachers.

Start by asking why you make charts in the first place. We have found the most effective charts come out of a need to make our instruction crystal clear. Charts help when planning lessons because a chart forces you to break down an idea into concrete steps. They help us test out the language that will be used and repeated over and over. They lead us to think about student engagement. And charts help us consider the different learning modalities that exist in our classrooms. Which children need visuals? Repetition? Linear-sequential steps? The sketching out of a chart allows for revision and editing which leads to efficiency and effectiveness in our teaching.

Then we need to make sure our students understand the purpose behind the charts we make and how charts can help them meet the increased challenges we plan to set forth. Try asking some students what they think the charts are for, but don’t be discouraged if you hear things like, “They’re for the teacher” or “They’re when you don’t know something and you have to cheat.” This just means they really don’t understand the purpose of the charts and this is a quick remedy. Start with some real life scenarios that illustrate how people in the world use checklists to help them be more strategic or to remember complex steps. Commercial pilots know how to fly jets, but they still use charts to double-check themselves and to set the right course. Doctors are very smart people who use charts and checklists so they can look for patterns and be more strategic in figuring out a patient’s needs. Even your own use of the notes function on your smartphone shows how you need help remembering things you know but don’t want to forget. The most brilliant people in the world use charts to scaffold and support the work they do.

Finally, find opportunities to model how the charts in the classroom can be used to make students become more strategic, flexible, and innovative as they grow and learn. For example, when San Ho kept finding himself starting every piece of writing the same way, he went up to the chart on writing leads: Hook your Reader, and decided to try some of the other suggestions. He shared that he was getting bored with his own writing and that using the chart got him to try out some new strategies which helped him be excited about his writing again.

Charts are here, there and everywhere for a reason. They help both teachers and students clarify, challenge, and scaffold in ways that are authentic and useful. Charts also help teachers turn learning into an active process for students by making information visible and accessible to all.

Marjorie Martinelli and Kristine Mraz are co-authors of Smarter Charts(Heinemann 2012). They will be presenting two workshops at this year’sLiteracy for All Conference in Providence, R.I. on November 4 and 5: Visible Learning: Charts in Action and Beyond the Basics: Optimizing Classroom Charts for Independence

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