Charts as Models and Mentors

In the Italian preprimary schools in the Reggio Emilia district of Italy, the environment is considered the third educator, alongside the teachers and the parents. They have successfully shown that what surrounds our children becomes influential models, whether they are the teachers, the parents, or the environment. The charts that are hanging in each of our classrooms are an integral part of this environment, which can have a powerful effect on children. Charts not only record our teaching, but they are powerful models for children to look towards and mentor themselves to in order to do what they are trying to do even better.

Models and mentors are a valuable asset when it comes to learning something new. They become even more valuable when it comes to learning how to do something even better. We often think about “mentor authors” when teaching revision and craft in writing on the way towards publishing and reaching a targeted audience. But mentors and models are useful no matter what it is you are trying to make better, whether improving one’s writing or learning how to improve one’s home decorating skills. Donald Crews and HGTV have one thing in common – they both provide models that not only inspire, but seem accessible and do-able.

But models and mentors can provide a vision and a pathway no matter the subject. Today’s post focuses on a small, but often annoying tool children are often asked to use to hold onto their thinking while reading: the post-it note. We have heard many a teacher lament that these small tools are being poorly used and not very helpful as a result. They find more post-its on the floor than in the children’s books. Rather than encourage intricate, thoughtful thinking, they are often used to demonstrate intricate origami folding patterns that have nothing to do with reading.

One resourceful and thoughtful teacher in the Bronx, Kathleen Snyder at PS 157, decided to explore this universal dilemma by thinking about why her kids had random post-its scattered everywhere, throughout their books and everywhere else. She started by asking, “Why do you use post-it notes?” and “How did you decide what to write on the post-it note?” What she discovered was that many children understood the post-its were to be used to record important places in their books, but they were less sure about what to actually write on the post-it. Together we decided to come up with some model post-its that would act as mentors that would support the children by showing them examples of what to write and to encourage them to write even better notes about their reading by providing a continuum of possible notes.

This chart is set up like a rubric and shows a progression of Post-it examples and specifically names what has been done under each post-it.

If we consider a possible progression, the first might be using symbols to mark thinking without any writing. You might ask, What can you draw to show how the character is feeling? Then, you can move towards the use of general words to describe feelings or facts. For example, you might ask, What is a word for that feeling? Have you ever felt that way? 

Using a picture plus moving to general words to describe feelings

The next step is to elaborate on this basic thinking by using more specific words along with examples or reasons. At this stage we want to encourage children to ask lots of why and how questions.

This model post-it shows that readers not only state a fact (he is sad), but they add a because (he lost his dog).

The next stage is to expand on the literal explanation for how a character might feel to adding in not only the why, but what else might happen, support this thinking with examples from the text, and talk about what has changed.

Moving to more specific words with reasons or evidence.

Ultimately we want to show children how they can use all they have learned and accumulated as they read forward in a book to make better predictions and even more interesting interpretations. Synthesizing and summarizing helps children realize there is more to reading than just figuring out random words.

This post-it models how readers think about cause and effect and also include supporting details.

Post-its are only a tool. They are not the end all reason for using them. They are actually a very concrete way to introduce young children to the concept of note taking and keeping track of thinking. The thinking is key. What makes the last post-it more powerful than the first one is it begins to answer some open-ended questions that encourage thinking. What, why, and how are great question starters that can launch further investigations. But how exactly to capture the thinking and ideas in a way that is efficient and helpful requires models children can mentor themselves to in order to make sure they have have a structure to follow and, ultimately, to move beyond.

A first step is providing models and mentors for the basic tools that will later become critical as children begin to internalize the external models they have been immersed in and influenced by the third teacher – the environment. Even something as simple as a jot on a post-it note needs to be modeled and the model displayed for children to refer to just like they refer to a mentor text to craft their writing. The charts we create have a definite influence on what we teach, but even more importantly, on the children sitting before us each and every day.

We will be taking a short break from the blog in order to  finish our book (Smarter Charts-Heinemann) and other fun stuff, but we plan to launch a new blog post by the end of February.

Until then, Happy Charting!

Marjorie Martinelli and Kristine Mraz

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