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The Importance of Charts in Classrooms: Resetting Our Workshop Practices

I laughed when I read the chart near my mother’s refrigerator. My daughter’s handwriting described the steps for using Uber Eats, the service that will deliver food to her house from local restaurants. My mother has asked one of my daughters to do it for her or to help her with orders several times. Clare must have decided my mom could be more independent with a visual reminder. 

Clare’s chart of directions for my mom on how to order food hangs on the side of my mom’s refrigerator.

Like my mom, students benefit from visual reminders. Throughout my years as a coach, I have created many notebooks and toolkits full of charts I’ve created within specific units. During the pandemic, I developed many digital pathways for accessing those charts, including a collection of Padlets that serve me well, but part of my reset will involve reconnecting with the hard copies of my charts. Why? Because my hard copies are more closely related to the physical charts that exist in classrooms, and I want to make sure that I support the practice of creating charts with students and coaching students and teachers to lean into the power of these resources. 

Within classrooms, charts are critically important elements for shifting the responsibility of learning. Sometimes, when I’m in a room where students work especially independently, I’ll ask students what helps them and they almost always point to a chart or two. Those charts are hanging on the wall in plain view. Sometimes when I kidwatch during a writing workshop, I’ll see kids look up and around, checking in with a chart they recognize. If I had access to how their brain was working, I’m pretty sure the transcript would go something like this: 

  • Wait, we learned something about what I’m doing right now in my writing. 
  • Where’s that reminder that will help me remember? 
  • Oh yes, it’s on that chart… where’s that chart? There it is.
  • Oh right, that’s what I was trying to remember!

Side note: I’ve never, ever seen a student head to a teacher’s computer, open up a slide deck, and find the visual cue they are looking for in order to keep writing independently. 

Gradual release is an important concept in many aspects of learning, whether it be how to use Uber Eats, internalize classroom routines, or write a jaw-dropping narrative. Within the gradual release model, transfer shifts from the teaching to learning, placing more responsibility for the task on hand on the learner (Fisher and Frey, 2013). That transfer happens when and if students have the knowledge, skills, and scaffolds to be or become independent. The gap that exists between not doing something yet and the knowledge and skills to do it requires scaffolds. 

Those charts on the walls are key scaffolds. 

I made this chart to illustrate the role charts can play in students’ movement from learning to mastery. The pink notes describe the continuum of scaffolding charts provide.

The really beautiful thing about classroom charts is that students control how much they use them. It’s also important to consider the added impact of charts when students are part of their creation. When charts are co-created with students, the information belongs more to students, and consequently, the information is more accessible and meaningful  to them. Furthermore, the charts serve as scaffolds with a natural and organic ending. When do students stop using those charts? When students have internalized the skills and reminders so that they no longer need them in order to complete the tasks on hand. 

When the charts are on the wall, available any time to all students, students have the choice and the accessibility to use those charts. Students control the decision making process of what to use. If those charts are on a teacher’s slide deck within a digital teaching folder, then it’s much less likely that students are going to look around the room and find it. Yes, maybe the chart exists digitally and there’s a digital folder for students to access. (High five to that teacher!) However, given the challenges of opening a digital folder, toggling to the appropriate chart, and then opening it without wandering into the digital world of distraction is a big ask of anyone, let alone young writers. Writing, in and of itself, requires significant executive functioning, and I want as much of the students’ cognitive energy as possible to be channeled toward their writing!

Given the abundance of resources on the internet, I’m certain that Clare could have found a resource to print and post for my mother. That resource might even have looked more polished and perfect, although Clare has really nice handwriting. (Can anyone guess where I’m going with this?) Pinterest, other internet sites, and even commercial curriculum is full of beautiful charts made by other people. Sarah Valter, one of TWT’s new co-authors pointed out the care and attention that teachers who create charts put into those charts. Students appreciate the care and attention, and they are likely to pay more attention to them when they themselves have contributed to the development of their own learning resource. 

Thinking about my mom and her Uber Eats directions again, she could absolutely take a picture of that chart. She could keep it in her phone and pull it up when she needs it. But, until she is a more proficient food orderer (and digital photo organizer), there are some problems with this idea. First, the concept itself may not occur to her. The visual presence of the chart can serve as a stimulus for taking a next step. If she doesn’t have the initial thought, then she won’t take the next step of consulting the chart. This sequence of action steps occur for students in classrooms, as well. If they don’t think of a step or a concept, then they won’t actively seek the chart.

When it comes to charts in classrooms, one of the issues I hear from teachers is that there is not enough wall space. Sometimes, I think about wall space and bulletin boards in terms of real estate. When space is at a premium, you have to make the most of it, making sure that whatever is hanging on that wall is an important learning resource, and once it isn’t, off it goes. And sometimes necessity is the mother of invention– when I was working in a classroom a few years ago, we created small charts to combat the challenge of wall space. Students could “borrow” charts from what we called an interactive bulletin board. 

We offered charts for the taking on this bulletin board in a third-grade classroom.

Instead of chart paper for some of the concepts, we also used smaller pieces of construction paper. Initially, this was because they took up less room, but we also gained the power of being able to say, “Look at the yellow chart. I think it will help you with what you’re working on.” This bulletin board was a valuable resource for students throughout the unit, and the teacher duplicated similar boards for subsequent units.  

Necessity was also the mother of invention when much of my teaching was virtual. I created several Padlets for specific grades of all genres, and you can link to an example of one here. These Padlets are important saving, storing, and sharing mechanisms, and occasionally, I show them to a student. However, they do not take the place of a chart hanging in a classroom because they don’t have the power of visually reminding. Students don’t look up and around them and think oh yes, I could do that with the same power of a physical chart. 

I know that at some point those handwritten directions that are next to my mother’s refrigerator will come down or at least be hidden inside the cupboard, in the same way that we retire mastered charts throughout the school year. Maybe my mother will tuck them into a memory box because she loves Clare’s notes and letters. When that happens, my mother will either be an Uber Eats convert who sometimes has something other than omelets when there’s not much in the fridge or she will have decided that the product isn’t worth the effort and she has preferred ways of getting food. 

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Giveaway Information: 

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Melanie Meehan View All

I am the Writing and Social Studies Coordinator in Simsbury, CT, and I love what I do. I get to write and inspire others to write! Additionally, I am the mom to four fabulous daughters and the wife of a great husband.

21 thoughts on “The Importance of Charts in Classrooms: Resetting Our Workshop Practices Leave a comment

  1. I had the pleasure of working in a master teacher’s classroom, before covid, where writing anchor charts were posted all over, even on the window blinds. Technology, while wonderful in many respects, seems to have placed less of a value on visual reminders in the physical classroom. As mentioned in the blog, students are not likely to navigate away from their writing to try to find a digital “reminder”, esp. if they are not even sure of what they are looking for. I look forward to hanging more anchor charts this year after reading this blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Melanie, for the reminder to make learning visible, clear and physically accessible to our students. As a teacher of multilingual students, I am always thinking “we need a chart for that!” Finding the “real estate” in our classrooms and knowing when to retire charts is a good reminder for me. I love the idea of making charts easy to interact with so students can pull them off the walls themselves and will be thinking about that as I work with my co-teachers to prepare for our students to return in September. Thank you again for these timely reminders!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love that this post comes right as I’m setting up my room and thinking about routines! I migrated away from mini anchor charts last year for no real reason. This makes me think it’s time to bring them back. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for pointing out loud and clear of the importance of a physical chart in a classroom. So much of a students’ school life is found through clicks on their ipad. But it is that glance up to see the importnat steps to take next that must be hanging in our classroom.

    Fav line: Writing, in and of itself, requires significant executive functioning, and I want as much of the students’ cognitive energy as possible to be channeled toward their writing! So so true and as the teacher, I need to use charts to aid them as they channel their writing energy!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is such an important idea! I’ve unfortunately shied away from a lot of charts in recent years because my space has often been crowded, not my own, or just plain virtual. I’m eager and anxious for the coming year, because I’ll be able to put these ideas into practice!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is such a great reminder that technology is only as good as the purpose it serves. Sometimes I get caught up in technology for technology’s sake instead of in the service of my students’ learning. Many times, plain old paper and markers is all that we really need!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I have not used charts to my students’ advantage, but I’ll be changing that as a result of this post. I have the perfect unused board to post them. I can’t wait to get started. It’s true, if they are there too long, they become invisible. I want them to be used and be useful for students.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Charts are a teaching, thinking, remembering tool. I’m thinking of the range from laminated charts to Cornelius Minor’s student created charts. So many options. What’s our goal?

    Such a well crafted post, Melanie, with your cautionary side notes!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I loved this post as a reminder of the important strategies we use to help our students become independent learners/writers. The really fun part about charts is the students help to create them, making them useful when it is time for independent writing. Thanks for this reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I want to try offering mini-charts to my third graders; I always have the best of intentions to hand out copies, but the idea of fostering independence and finding their own chart of value is key!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This is so good! As I move to a new grade level and classroom, it’s great to rethink where I want to put charts and resources! In so many ways these charts become like the supercharged ELA version of a number line posted on the wall. I have experimented with students taking photos of charts that I then print out as mini charts – but the students didn’t use them too often (though I did when conferring); maybe this year I’ll see if I can give that another try.

    As a side note, I think I need to make my mother a chart for how to switch between her fireTV and her cable channels. : )

    Liked by 1 person

  12. While we’re in the process of unlearning, I’ll be transparent. I used to keep my charts up for too long when I started teaching. Often the “IMPORTANT” ones would hang from clotheslines high up in the classroom. Someone would have to help me take them down to rehang new ones. As a result, they didn’t get changed too often and so they blended in and became wall paper of sorts. I used to wonder why kids didn’t use them. Eventually, I realized they just didn’t SEE them anymore so I stopped relying on them. (But that took me a couple of years to realize.)

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Thank you for this! Charts on the walls also do a lot to support kids with executive functioning/working memory struggles. Many of us with ADHD have trouble with object permanence (really!) Out of sight, out of mind, truly. So, those beautiful mini charts that kids tape into their notebooks, and especially the digital resources that are in a particular file on the cloud literally cease to exist for kids with working memory issues.

    We can’t use something that we’ve forgotten exists. I’m thinking this year about how to group my teaching points/strategies in a way that helps my middle schoolers establish routines for reviewing and practicing them more regularly.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I love the real- life example of Claire helping your mom to remember the steps for Uber with a chart and how you used that to explore the importance of a visual chart in the classroom. One of my goals this year is to do a better job of making learning visible and helping students to be independent learners. I need to up my chart game and this post is great inspiration to do so!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. This was a great reminder on the importance of anchor charts and that it’s better to create them with students. I love the idea of smaller charts on a bulletin board to save space! I also love the idea of using construction paper to make them in different colors. I will definitely use these ideas in the coming school year. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. What a beautifully structured post! it’s also a great reminder to think strategically about charting, especially as I head into a new grade level. I love the ideas for how to deal with space limitations, and, even without space constraints, I can see the value of having those small “take away” charts. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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