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Happy Charting: ‘Smarter Charts’ Authors Marjorie Martinelli and Kristi Mraz Share Some Tips for Your Classroom

chartchumsKristi Mraz and Marjorie Martinelli are the talented authors of the popular book Smarter Charts: Optimizing an Instructional Staple to Create Independent Readers and Writers. If you haven’t seen it already, this book provides inspiration for using charts and other tools to help your students remember your teaching, and to create resources that kids can refer back to again and again across time, allowing them to work with a greater sense of independence. Instead of relying on a grown-up to tell them what to do, they can use the charts and resources in the room to work independently. When kids can look back at a chart to remember a strategy, or find a resource in the room to help them solve a problem, they develop a sense of agency and ownership over their own learning. Learning becomes less about teacher action, and more about student and teacher interaction.

Recently, I had the opportunity to catch up with Marjorie and Kristi to ask them a few questions about their work.

Q: Both of you have a gift for representing ideas in both pictures and words. What’s your story? Have you always loved to draw?

Marjorie: I have always been a visual learner, which may be why I had trouble learning to read in first grade where all the attention was put on the words. I have always liked crafts and drawing, but I ended up being particularly drawn to graphics and design when I got a part-time job in the art department of a printing company during high school and college. I was also an art major in college, which led me to working in the arts when I came to New York. I discovered teaching when my daughters reached school age and found I could be really creative working with children in the classroom. Charts became a natural way for me to make my teaching visible and memorable.

Kristi: I do love drawing, but I love doodling even more. Even more than that, I LOVE taking notes. Is that weird? I am a visual learner. I love translating sound waves into pictures and words. I used to copy and recopy my notes with different handwriting and different doodles trying to get closer to the heart of what I felt or thought about what was being said. When I work on a computer, my first thought is always: which font conveys the mood of what I am writing? It is a big joke with my kindergarten team when we work on Google Docs, I just follow along behind everyone and change the fonts. No one will send me anything in Comic Sans anymore. This is more or less a natural translation to classroom charts. What is being said? How does that look? At first it was a way to crystalize my own teaching, and then I was like—hey—this works pretty good for kids too!

Q: What advice do you have for those who feel that they just “can’t draw” and would rather print out clip art or use someone else’s drawings for everything?

Marjorie & Kristi: Based on what we have learned from Carol Dweck’s book Mindset and Peter Johnston’s Opening Minds, we would answer, “You just can’t draw yet.” Drawing is all about seeing shapes and lines. And the drawings we use on charts shouldn’t be too fancy anyway. Simple is best. We have a few drawing lessons in Smarter Charts and on our blog Chartchums. It is not about ILLUSTRATION, it is about COMMUNICATION. Street signs and bathroom signs should be your model—which anyone can recreate.

Q: What made you decide to write about charts? Why are they so important, anyway?

Kristi & Marjorie: One of the big reasons for our book was that every time we presented a workshop for teachers, all they wanted afterwards was to take pictures of the charts we used in our presentations. So we started asking, “What is it about our charts that is so different from the charts every teacher already has hanging in her classroom?” We realized it was, in part, the way we were getting snapshots of what we were teaching through our charts. We wanted to write about the methods we used so every teacher felt empowered and able to get the same snapshots of their own teaching.

Everyone was saying they want kids to be independent, but no one was saying how. Charts provide the how by breaking down the process and providing visual reminders for children so that they can be more independent problem solvers. We, as adults, aren’t expected to remember everything that everyone has ever said to us. We take notes, get notes, write lists, and send ourselves emails. We can’t (and shouldn’t) expect children to have auditory memories far surpassing ours! Making teaching visual through charts is the same as writing a grocery list—it focuses and directs you and keeps you from buying five different pints of specialty ice creams (which, by the way, Kristi currently has in her fridge).

Q: Many classrooms now have SmartBoards and other technology available to incorporate into daily lessons. How can charts and SmartBoards work together? Should we make charts by hand AND use our SmartBoards?

Kristi: The SmartBoard is both my best and worst classroom friend. At times I am amazed by the technology, and at other times I want to kick it as the spinning wheel of death comes on during some bit of teaching. A SmartBoard is, at its core, a giant computer screen that you can interface with in really beautiful ways. I use SmartBoards for interactive writing, for annotating student work, for annotating pictures of kids doing really interesting things, but I do not use it for charts. Here is the reasoning: a SmartBoard cannot easily show multiple charts at once, and certainly cannot show them all day long.

If I post my chart on a SmartBoard, I am dictating to children which chart they should use. Children in my room are using all the charts for different reasons. One child may need the stretching words chart during writing, and another need the one that helps generate ideas. I don’t want to dictate the tool children will use by only showing one at a time on the SmartBoard. In the same vein, kids in my kindergarten room will use various charts at different times of the day: the stretching word chart gets used in math, a reading chart gets used in writing. Holding charts on the SmartBoard makes it harder for those cross-curricular connections to happen organically and at a child’s initiative. SmartBoards are great to show work in action and much of my teaching happens on it (in conjunction with my document camera) but the snapshot of that teaching is still on a chart. Here is an analogy: having pictures on your phone feels great, but can take you forever to find the one you want to show. A printed picture on the fridge is a lot easier to point out to others.

smarterchartsQ: Lots of teachers work hard on their charts, and really want to reuse them again and again, year after year. Do you have some advice on this topic?

Marjorie & Kristi: Charts help clarify the teacher’s thinking about what it is she or he is teaching, and that thinking is always evolving based in part on the teacher’s growing knowledge, combined with the children sitting in front of her at that moment. Every teacher knows that no two classes are ever the same one year to the next, therefore the charts cannot remain the same. The other important thing to consider is that the charts are co-constructed with the children, not just hung up already complete. The chart is the visual reminder of the teaching that has occurred before a live audience.

Q: I know you get this question a lot: What advice can you give for teachers that truly have very little space for displaying charts on the walls of their classroom?

Kristi & Marjorie: We have written about this quite a bit in both Smarter Charts and on our blog Chartchums. It comes back to not just thinking about charts as looking one way: written on large 24 x 36 inch chart paper. Charts are a visual reminder of our teaching and can be displayed not just on walls. They can be hung on skirt hangers or reduced in size and displayed as table top charts or put into students’ folders or bins.

Q: Marjorie and Kristi, your book Smarter Charts is so cool, and such a great resource. What can we expect to see in your next book, Smarter Charts Too?

Marjorie & Kristi: The upcoming book builds on the foundations of chart making that are laid out in Smarter Charts and focuses on how to transfer that knowledge to charting in other content areas like math, science, and social studies. In our first book we talked about the different types of charts you might use to support student learning, but now we go into much more depth about the ways each type of chart can support students’ independence in areas other than reading and writing. Expect lots more pictures and ways to push your thinking about charts if you already feel comfortable about creating them!

About Marjorie and Kristi:

Marjorie Martinelli is currently Senior Research Associate at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. She is beginning her 12th year at the Project. Prior to that she was a public school teacher in Manhattan and wrote two BrainQuest Math sets for grades one and two. She was also a consultant on the original Primary Units of Study books, was co-author with Lucy Calkins on Unit 1: Launching the Writing Workshop 3-5, and most recently Unit 1: Crafting True Stories (3rd grade Units of Study for Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing).  You can follow @Marjorie_Writes on Twitter.

Kristi Mraz is currently a kindergarten teacher at PS 59 in Manhattan. Prior to being covered in finger paint, she was a literacy consultant with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and worked with schools all over country and as far off as Taiwan and Romania. In addition to Smarter Charts, she is the co-author (with Lucy Calkins and Barb Golub) of Unit 2: Nonfiction Chapter Books (1st Grade Units of Study for Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing). Kristi also authors the blog, and tweets @MrazKristine.

Marjorie and Kristi’s blog Chartchums can be found at and you can follow the blog on twitter @chartchums.

A Note to Two Writing Teachers Readers:

Readers, now the interview is turning over to you. Let’s have a conversation! Please respond to any of these questions in the comment section below.

Q: Which charts in your classroom do your students use the most? The strategy charts? The rubrics & checklists? Behavior and management charts? Tell us.

Q: How do you solve the problem of displaying multiple charts at one time?

Q: If you could ask Marjorie and Kristi one question, what would it be?

Don’t be shy! We want to hear from you!

5 thoughts on “Happy Charting: ‘Smarter Charts’ Authors Marjorie Martinelli and Kristi Mraz Share Some Tips for Your Classroom

  1. Thanks everyone for your questions! We take down charts and store them when kids outgrow them or they no longer assist in the current unit. I try to limit myself to 3 charts per subject area. We talk about different ways this could look in our book and on chart chums (search for keeping charts close) to keep print pollution to a minimum. Having them at eye level is great, and table tents can also make this more manageable. Hope this helps!
    Thanks Kristi
    PS thanks for the opportunity to share Beth, and thanks for the kind thoughts Anna!


  2. Any ideas for teachers of middle school? Can the info in your book be easily applied to our grade levels? My kids love my charts but I’m in a bit of a rut using my “old” ones.


  3. Q: How do you display multiple charts?
    This year I have been layering charts on the bulletin board at second grade height so they can be easily flipped through (I use a fairly small chart paper, so the size is not unwieldy) However, this will not last the year. I see I’ll need to weed things out and to transfer the important charts from each unit to a more sustainable display. Still working on it!


  4. Thank you Marjorie and Kristi! This is a wealth of information, as usual. I can’t wait for your next book. As you point out often on chartchums, charting isn’t just for reading and writing workshop! It will be wonderful to get tips on using charts to support other subject areas as well. Talk to you soon! Anna


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