I used to restrict student thinking by assigning graphic organizers.
And you probably did (or do) too! I grew up using them as a student and learned about them in my teacher preparation program as a scaffold to help students construct their writing. Below are examples of graphic organizers I used to use (click to enlarge):
When I used similar formats, I believed success to be all student writing looking and sounding the same. I assumed all writers write the same way. In fact, if a student didn’t understand a genre, I increased the rigidity of my expectations by assigning a more explicit organizer in an attempt to help them meet my goal. I’ve come to understand providing students with a rigid format for their work communicates that I don’t want kids to experiment, take risks, or be creative.
And now I give students the freedom to organize writing in a way that showcases their voices and propels them toward their goals.
This post may contradict what you’ve been taught. Many teachers believe their students need a physical model in order to independently organize their writing, or that kids can’t learn about structure without a teacher-designed graphic organizer. I believe that after studying the organizational moves writers make, young writers can discover and apply structures and strategies that fit their needs and further their own goals as writers. There may be times when a student decides a graphic organizer is a helpful strategy, but we should not expect all students to use the same one. This decision belongs to the empowered writer, rather than the teacher.
Rejecting graphic organizers for all requires a philosophy shift:
- All writers deserve the freedom to make authentic choices about their writing.
- All writers are worthy of developing a unique voice.
- All writers are capable of growing their own writing processes.
- All writers learn about structure and organization more effectively when their voices are honored in the planning process.
Not convinced? Neither was I, at first. So I started with an experiment while instructing students to write a poem about themselves. I used to give an organizer similar to the one below (And, yes, the irony of dictating how kids should write a poem about themselves is clear to me now!):
Who likes: ___________________
Who needs: _________________
Who gives: __________________
Who fears: __________________
Who lives in: _________________
Who loves: _________________
___________(Repeat your name)
For my experiment, I decided to introduce the organizer and offer three choices:
- Use the organizer to write a poem about yourself.
- Write a poem about yourself without using the organizer.
- Write a poem about something else.
The beauty in the last choice is that young kids, as every teacher knows, are self-centered. Of course, every student in the class chose to write about themselves but allowing students to “choose” made the activity more motivating. After I gave the choices, only two students reached for the organizer. And, after trying it once, they had the confidence to write another poem without it! The poems crafted that day were more meaningful than those from students in years past. I could hear each child’s unique voice as they wrote about their interests, families, personalities, and stories. This is more beautiful than twenty repetitive poems that follow the same teacher-directed format. When we encourage students to write in their own way, we’re saying, “You are an author. You can do the challenging thinking that authors do. You choose how this piece of writing will go.”
When you’re ready to stop mandating graphic organizers for all of your students, here are some ideas to support authors without them:
- Provide plenty of tools students might need to develop a story: Post-it notes, index cards, revision strips, colored pens, and blank paper will help them get started!
- Share a variety of mentor texts with different layouts and highlight how each format helps the author communicate with their audience. Avoiding graphic organizers doesn’t mean student writing doesn’t have structure. Instead, let’s guide students through an authentic inquiry about how and why writers organize their writing in intentional ways.
- Help students understand that as authors, they can have an individualized process for writing. Melanie Meehan discusses the importance of honoring individual writing processes in a September 2020 blog post.
- Invite students who’ve created a method for organizing their writing to lead a minilesson or small group. I’ve seen kids develop color-coding systems, Post-it note timelines, and other creative ways to plan a piece. When they share their method with a group, listeners may be inspired to choose or alter it in a way that works for them.
How will you free your writers’ thinking, planning, and voices this year? Try the experiment or suspend using graphic organizers altogether! You’ll be surprised what your young authors can do when granted the power to direct their own writing.
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