21 May

Graphic Organizers

If you walk into my classroom, you’ll instantly see my obsession with graphic organizers.

Graphic Organizers

My kids eat and breathe graphic organizers.  They hardly ever do an activity that doesn’t include them.  The reasoning behind this is pretty simple: graphic organizers improve achievement.  And truth is, it has shown in my kids data.  Kids who effectively use graphic organizers while reading understand what they’re reading better.*

I say effectively because… some kids will draw a graphic organizer because Ms. Coldren is making them draw a graphic organizer.  They’ll write some stuff into the various different sections of the organizer.  Then they’ll get upset when they still get a bad test score.  It’s taken all year for my students to finally get how to use graphic organizers.  And even now, a couple are still just going through the motions.  But the kids who have really bought into the whole concept are seeing results.  And then it’s been a snowball effect these past two months as students see the results of other students and buy in as well.  It’s pretty exciting.

When using graphic organizers, I’ve learned a couple things this year that really help students engage with them.  Here we go…

1.  Let students draw the graphic organizer.

If you have limited copies (don’t we all!), this is just a survival tactic.  But it’s also good for kids.  When they draw the graphic organizer, they understand the parts better.  They’ll come up with creative ways to think about things.

Example: We use a bubble map to identify key details and the main idea/central message of a story.  One of my kids started turning all the outer bubbles into skeleton keys that “unlocked” the main idea.  The graphic helped him understand main idea conceptually, which is the whole point of graphic organizers.

Key Details

This is also really important when students are reading on their own.  If they’re reading to put events in sequence (at home, on a test, with another teacher), they have access to the tool (a timeline graphic organizer) that helps them put events in sequence.  This allows them to apply the skill any time and anywhere, which obviously fosters independence and confidence within the students.

2.  Start small.

I won’t say my students didn’t use graphic organizers before this year.  But I will say that they never used graphic organizers as universally as they did this year.  Because of that, I had to start small.  Telling kids there are 15 different ways to represent main idea and key details can be a bit overwhelming.  So we created one (a bubble map), and we’ve stuck with it all year.  For each concept, we have a go-to graphic organizer (these are displayed on the cabinets in the pictures above).  I never tell my students that these are the only ones because they’re not.  But I do tell them that these are the ones we’re using right now.  The end goal is to have students start to create their own graphic organizers.  For these kids, that will have to be next year because it’s taken so long for kids to actually buy in.  I’m excited to know that one of the 4th grade teachers is really good at this, though.

3.  Require students to use graphic organizers in context.

It’s easy to require graphic organizers when the whole activity is a graphic organizer.  It’s a little more complicated to require a graphic organizer on a test.  But I made the decision that if I were going to get kids to actually buy into what we were doing, they needed to use graphic organizers constantly.  Failure to use a graphic organizer on any reading activity would result in “moving your clip” and a classroom consequence.  In truth, only a few kids violated this rule before they all caught on.  Every once in awhile, a student forgets and I remind them.  But for the most part, it’s become a way of life in our classroom.

4.  Make graphic organizers a priority.

I know there are a thousand things we have to put up on our walls.  From student work to district and school required displays… instructional posters… the list goes on.  But if students are going to use graphic organizers, they need to see graphic organizers.  There are a thousand reasons why we don’t display these in our rooms.  We really just need one reason: it helps kids process through a text.  And now it’s just about making it happen.


*If you understand what you’re reading better, then you’ll answer more questions on a standardized test correctly.  This is absolutely true, though I do want to note that the focus of this strategy is to help students better understand what they’re reading.

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