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Graphic Organizers Limit Creativity: Resetting Our Workshop Practices

Resetting Our Workshop Practices Blog Series - Image of a teacher erasing things she used to do from a whiteboard.

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!):

_________________(Your Name)

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.

Giveaway Information: 

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Leah Koch View All

Leah is a Kindergarten teacher who is passionate about honoring student voice and identity through writing. She believes that in order for children to see themselves as writers, they deserve trust and autonomy to learn more about themselves and their writing process. If students can identify as authors, the motivation, skills, and craft will follow! You can find Leah on Twitter @LeahKoch_.

18 thoughts on “Graphic Organizers Limit Creativity: Resetting Our Workshop Practices Leave a comment

  1. This is a great post! The year I taught second grade, my students were very independent writers and basically forced my hand to give them more control over their writing. They ditched any graphic organizers I gave them and experimented with their writing. It was the most amazing experience for me. I learned so much from that class that I now use to when teaching my first grade students. I am so happy to see this post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this post as I see kids spend so much time trying to fill out GO’s that they become frustrated with their writing piece before they’ve even begun drafting! I have newly switched down to second grade from upper elementary and struggled with when and what organizers my kids need. I will try this idea of giving students the option of using a GO and asking for their input on how best they organize their writing. I wonder how much modeling they’ll need for using an organizer to understand if and when they want to use one. I think I will need to experiment with my own writing process to see how often and what types of organizers work best for me.

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    • I love that you want to model decision-making in your own writing for students. This will show them how writers make authentic choices when planning a piece!

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  3. LOVE this post! Graphic organizers can lead to formulaic writing. I’ve seen some students write and then GO BACK and try to fill in an organizer because it’s part of the assignment. I believe there should be a choice of organizers available for students who need them but it’s best to teach ways to create your own on the fly as real writers do.

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  4. Such a great post and series! I really like using graphic organizers so that students get their ideas down, instead of just in their heads (where they’re apt to float away), but I agree that they can sometimes stifle students’ creativity.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes! And I love the example of the poems. I wonder if we reach for organizers because we are the ones lacking the confidence or the know-how to teach didfferent structures to students. At least I think that is something I have struggled with before, especially when moving to grades. The idea that we can use organizers as a scaffold is more in line with where I am in my thinking now- to use them when or if needed. But I do find some students (and teachers) never step away from them.

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  6. I so agree. As several people have already stated, graphic organizers are a tool…not everyone uses the same tool to get the job done. I can’t tell you how many times I’m trying to complete a GO for a mentor piece and I can’t…we don’t use all the parts all the time. I think we need to immerse our students, regardless of their grade level, with a plethora of mentor pieces illustrating the genre and identifying the key elements the pieces contain, as well as critiquing pieces that lack some of the important elements and discussing why/how the piece needs them. Thank you for this post…it’s liberating.

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  7. Thank you! While a go can be useful to some students, I’ve seen them restrict thinking in many instances. Studying mentor texts has been more effective.

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  8. I’ve seen this over the years-graphic organizers work for some, but not all. I love the choices you give when you do model GO’s. That’s a great way to honor that some may use them and enjoy, while others may not need them.

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  9. I love the ideas you provide to support students. I view organizers as scaffolds and scaffolds are meant to be removed as learners move towards independence. If they don’t need it, I don’t offer it. Working with older writers, I’ve noticed some who have been taught to write only through organizers become paralyzed by the thought of beginning without one. My goal is to help my learners move towards independence.

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    • Exactly, Krista. As a New Yorker by birth (no longer by residence ☹️), I know how scaffolding is necessary when a building is getting repaired. But it comes down because the project end. The scaffolding doesn’t stay up forever. It is so important for people to view graphic organizers in this same way otherwise they never leave.

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