Rethinking Graphic Organizers for Writing

I started writing in my adult life about four years ago. It was a huge awakening for me as a teacher of writing. Oh, how I wish I could go back in time to 2001 to my very first class of sixth graders and have a do-over. I think I might have been a terrible writing teacher that first year.

I can’t even tell you how many times I had the entire class sit and fill out a graphic organizer as their prewriting activity. Fast forward fifteen years (yikes), and I have learned much about the writing process. I didn’t know then what I know now about writing and generating ideas and seeds and the writer’s notebook.

The truth is, though, I still see a lot of graphic organizers being used in a lot of classrooms. You know what I’m referring to, right? Venn diagrams, the Top Hat, the Hamburger. Just Google “graphic organizers for writing” if you are still unsure.

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The results of my Google search

The thing about these organizers is that not all of our students need them all of the time. Graphic organizers are not a must-have tool for writers. Truth be told, I can’t remember the last time I used one in my own writing life. Now, you might argue that I am a proficient writer so I don’t need an organizer. I would argue that our students can be proficient writers, too… without filling out the Hamburger first.

I think teachers (but not necessarily students) like graphic organizers because writing is really hard. We want our students to be successful. We want to take a really complex task and simplify it so our students can tackle it. That’s why we’re teachers, right? We scaffold. It’s what we do.

I wonder though if we could use other, more authentic scaffolds instead. For instance:

  • We could use the gradual release model. (You watch me write this introductory paragraph. Now, let’s quickly write one together. Now you try.)
  • We could use mentor texts. (Let’s see how this author introduced this essay.)
  • We could use the writer’s notebook. (Try four different introductory paragraphs in your notebook.)
  • We could use talk. (Tell your partner how you might begin.)

Most of these scaffolds, with the exception of the gradual release model, are scaffolds that exist in the real world for real writers.

Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate the Top Hat organizer. I think for some kids it might help as a prewriting tool. However, not all kids need that tool. More importantly, by giving that tool to all kids we might actually be limiting their writing in structure or form, rather than making it better. What if a student can write a stellar paragraph that would knock your socks off without the Hamburger? Kid writers have a unique writing process just like grown-up writers, and the one-size-fits-all organizer just doesn’t honor that truth.

That’s all. Now get back out there and teach writing. It’s the hardest job in the world, if you ask me.