Clarity is Key

The new school year feels well underway, even if for some of you it only started 15 days ago. It is amazing how quickly something new can become familiar, how quickly sparse classroom spaces can become filled. Whether it has been a few weeks or a few months, many of you are seeing your classrooms fill up with supplies, student work, and charts. The curse of the classroom is beginning to creep in: clutter. While a certain amount of clutter is unavoidable, most can be kept under control with ongoing maintenance. But when it comes to charts, clarity is key.

The brilliant cognitive and educational psychologist Jerome Bruner announced over forty years ago that “we easily become overwhelmed by complexity and clutter” (The Relevance of Education 1971, 4). He advised coming up with strategies that reduce this to only the things that matter. When we consider complexity and clutter as they relate to the charts in our classrooms there are three key questions to think about: which charts need to be displayed, how much information is needed on each chart, and what is the ratio of visual and symbols to print. Let’s take a closer look at each one of these questions.

Which charts need to be displayed?

Space is limited and too many charts can quickly cause clutter rather than clarity, so you want to make sure the charts hanging up in the classroom are the ones that are needed and used by the majority of your students. Any charts that are supporting your current units of study should be available for students to use, just not too many. For example, Stephanie LaPorta, an extremely thoughtful Kindergarten teacher at PS 176 in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn has three writing charts currently hanging up in her classroom. One is about planning (process), one shows what is expected (exemplar), and one gives some tips for writing words (procedural). Because they support the current unit she and the children both refer to them during every writing workshop. They can do this because there are not too many.

process chart

This is a writing process chart.

Good Writers

This chart shows children examples of some things they can include in their drawings.

Another reason to keep the number of charts down to just the ones needed is that a jumble of charts can be disorderly and confusing. Children don’t know where to look first or where to find what they are looking for. If you are trying to determine which charts are worth keeping just ask your kids: “Which chart helps you the most?” “What is a chart you do not use?” “Why?” You can also take a few moments to observe your children. Do any children occasionally look up at a chart or walk over to a chart while they are working? We include two checklists with other questions in the Appendices of Smarter Charts.

How much information is needed on each chart?

A chart is not only a record of our teaching, but a synthesis of what is to be learned. We don’t need to write down everything we say on a chart, just the essentials. Putting this information into simple phrases and sentences work best because it is clear and quick to read. Jenna Peppaceno, an amazing Kindergarten teacher at PS 242 in Flushing, Queens, has worked hard to make the complex simple for her class full of English Language Learners. The chart she created to help her students remember and follow the rules necessary during a fire drill contains only the most important things they need to do when they hear the bell ring. The chart hangs by itself next to the door, which also makes sure the children can find it when needed.

Jenna Peppaceno's class

This chart contains the essence of what is important to do during a fire drill.

Another chart she made sets up the expectations for the writing workshop and uses simple sentences and children’s examples to show what is most important. This chart hangs above the writing center and has clear space around it. This makes it not only easy to find, but  helps it stand out and make it easy to focus on.

In writing workshop...

This chart shows the expectations for writing workshop at the beginning of the year.

What is the ratio of visuals and symbols to print?

To answer this question we look to the world of advertising where the use of visuals and symbols reign. Combine this with the fact that our young children were born into a world of icons and symbols. Just think McDonalds or Target and what most likely comes to mind first is a yellow arch-like M or a red and white bullseye, not the printed words. We should keep this in mind when we are making charts, because it is the visuals that are often recognized and remembered most. If there are more words than pictures, this can demand more reading (if the children can read the words), which in turn takes more time, slowing down how the information is processed. A chart is meant to be a quick reminder of something that was taught, so the visuals and symbols are critical. There should be at least a 1:1 ratio of visual or symbol to print.

If you look at another chart Jenna made for her Kindergarteners to remind them of the morning routines, you will actually see more of a 2:1 ratio. She has broken down each morning routine step into clear steps using clear pictures. The first step shows a picture of a pocket folder, then an arrow pointing to a picture of white bin, and the word “Folder” written on a label next to the two pictures. Because she has so many ELLs, combined with the fact that many are still four, or just turned five, the written word is not the most important thing on this chart. But every child can understand the pictures. And the arrow symbolizes the actions that have been demonstrated and practiced many times.

In the morning...

This chart uses visuals to remind children of what they should do with their belongings in the morning.

So before things start piling up, take a moment and look at the charts you have up already in your classroom. How many are important and being used or should be used? Is what’s on the chart essential? Is the ratio of visuals to print at least equal? Remember, when it comes to charts, less can indeed be more, making clarity key.

Happy charting!

Marjorie Martinelli and Kristine Mraz

Live from New York…. It’s Chartchums!

Hello Again!

We hope that this week was one where routines felt smoother, lines moved quicker, and plans were actually completed! This week brought some exciting news to the world of charts! Chartchums will be appearing on the webcast Education Talk Live with Larry Jacobs on October 9, 2012 at 3:30 PM (Eastern Time). It will also be available to you after the original webcast. You will be able to find it  archived at

We want this webcast to be as helpful as possible to teachers, so we are asking you to submit questions you’d love to hear answered. You can post the questions you would like answered in the comments below or email them to Any questions that do not get answered on the webcast, will be answered here on the blog.

Taipei American School expresses some chart love!

Additionally, we owe you all a huge debt of gratitude for advocating for our new book Smarter Charts. We have received some lovely reviews on, and we look forward to hearing from more of you. IF you read the book and found it useful, please click “like” on the top of the page, or even better, write a short review!

You can do both here.

We’d love to showcase how you have used the book, or this blog, to create powerful classroom charts and tools. Please send pictures to (no children’s faces please!) so we can post them to share with teachers around the globe! We will return mid-week with a post about making charts in the classroom, so until then- Happy Charting!

Kristine Mraz and Marjorie Martinelli

From Mine to Ours

Hello Friends! If you are anything like Kristi, you are in the middle of labels, emergency cards, photographs of your new wonderful class, and you haven’t cooked dinner in a week. This is one of the best and busiest times of the year! It is the time when you meet your class and discover their unique personalities, begin teaching, and revel in the small successes. This is also the time when you realize that your writing center is too close to table 1, the routine you were going to use for getting clipboards needs to be revised, and the sand table is just going to make things sandy and there is not much you can do about it. In short, this is the time when what was mine becomes ours and you realize the classroom you set up so carefully was built with no input from the little people that now inhabit it.

A quick story. When Kristi’s husband (Geoff) first moved in to the apartment she had lived in for years, she marched him into the least used room and said, “You can put your stuff here.” When Kristi expressed concern that she never saw Geoff because he was always in that same room, Geoff said, “This isn’t our apartment, this is your apartment and I have a room. Nothing feels like mine outside of this space.” So slowly, Kristi relinquished her control and her artfully displayed books were scooted over to make room for Geoff’s vinyl records, and the pictures on the wall were replaced with pictures of the two of them, until the line was blurred and the apartment became a place where a family lives.

We tell this story because teachers are masters of control, you have to be to move 25 little bodies out safely during a fire drill, but in order for children to truly feel safe, at home, and have agency, the space you share must truly be shared. Shanna Frazin, a colleague of ours at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, once drove this point home by inviting teachers to measure the square footage of their classrooms and divide that number by the number of students plus one (the teacher). The resulting square footage was a teacher’s equal share of the classroom. Yes we need space, but our students need it more! This creation of a classroom family extends to the charts that you make during this critical time of year. Your routines my not be the same as last year, because this class is not the same as last year. Your charts will change because your children have changed.

Charts Reflect the Current Needs of the Current Class

Katie Lee, one the gentlest, smartest, calmest kindergarten teachers you will ever meet created this chart for her students. The beauty is Katie didn’t save this chart from last year and show it this year, she created it with her students just a day or two ago. The bin they put their folder in really is red, and the bin for lunch really is green. That really is the table the children sit at in the morning. Katie has a beautiful chart with its simplicity and its visuals, but more importantly, she created it with her students, and with her students in mind.

Creating Charts Together

When Kristi wanted to teach the signs and symbols to calm children on the rug, she first used post-its as visuals for the steps. Then as children practiced the routine over a few days, she began snapping pictures so her drawings became replaced by photos of students in the classroom. Additionally, the writing charts that initially showcased her created examples, now have authentic student examples for children to look back to for support. Just like Katie Lee’s chart, these charts reflect all the members of classroom, not just the teacher.

Using Student Interest to Guide Routines and Charting

Kristi’s class is train crazy. When the “book fairy” brought a train book, the class just about died with happiness. When the lines in the hall were more like knots in the hall, Kristi named the two lines after New York City subway lines (the E train and 6 train) and reworked a line chant to reflect the theme. This chant was written on a chart and serves double duty as a routine chart and a beloved shared reading.

Line Chant (Call and Response)

It’s line up time

It’s line up time

Trains on track (photo of a straight line)

Trains on track

Mind the gaps (photo of children close together)

Mind the gaps

Watch for signs (photo of Kristi making a stop hand)

Watch for signs

What time is it?

It’s line up time!

(Thank you to Sarah Carolan, another brilliant, thoughtful, and gentle teacher at PS 59 who passed on the original line up chant)

Kat Cazes (one more smart, dedicated, and insightful teacher at 59) suggested that children bring home these charts to read as shared reading and reinforce routines. Parents have expressed delight at not only knowing the routines their children are learning, but seeing pictures of their children doing them! Kat snaps a photo of the chart and prints it out to go in the shared reading folders and/or notebooks.

Lucy Calkins emphasizes this indisputable fact: the better you know your children, the better you can teach your children. When you use what you know and what you see to guide your teaching and form your charts you create a community. There are so few photos in this blog post because all of Kristi’s charts have photos of children and examples of children work (parent permission is needed and forthcoming, so soon you will see all these beautiful faces).

Until next time, happy charting!

Kristine Mraz and Marjorie Martinelli


Keeping Charts Close

For many teachers the last few weeks have been spent sorting, moving, tossing, cleaning, and sighing as classrooms were set up, rearranged, and organized. But there is nothing like the feeling one gets when all the work is done and you stand back to view the results of all your efforts. Everything has a place, the clutter is cleared, and the room sparkles. Take pictures now because this will not last long.  Once the children return and the nonstop teaching and learning gets underway every space that was blank will be filled with charts, kids work, and books. While this too is exciting, there will also be a need to keep the clutter at bay and this includes the charts.

Everyone knows the expression, “Too much of a good thing,” which can ring true for anything, from ice cream to charts. In our classrooms it is a good idea to anticipate which things we usually end up having too much of and to come up with some possible scenarios so this does not happen too quickly. Charts are often the thing that ends up cluttering our classrooms first and foremost. There are several things teachers need to consider and we will offer some possible solutions so that the charts in your room will add sparkle and energy no matter where they are displayed in the classroom.

In Smarter Charts (Making Charts Accessible and Adaptable, p. 43) we suggest creating some designated spaces for your charts that make sense by placing charts near the areas of the classroom that focus on each topic. For example, reading charts near the library, writing charts near the writing center, math charts near the math manipulatives, and placing reciprocal charts near each other, like reading charts near writing charts, or science charts near math charts.

Writing Charts Hanging Above the Writing Center.

Another thing to keep in mind is the size of the charts. Not all charts need to be huge just because the commercial chart tablets available are huge. Cut them down to the space needed, both height-wise and width-wise. Have you noticed that even big books have started becoming smaller so they are not so unwieldy. These so-called “lap books” are easier to handle and they last longer because they don’t bend in half or keep falling off the easel.

Also consider whether a chart needs to be hanging up on the wall permanently or whether it might work even more effectively on the tables closer to the children as they work. Shanna Schwartz in her book, Making Your Teaching Stick, called these small versions of charts, “Table Tents.” Table tents bring the charts closer to the children and allow them to be brought out only when needed. This helps deal with chart clutter as well as making the charts more accessible.

Office supply stores sell them as “Presentation Easels” or “Portable Display Easels.” The advantage is they can hold quite a few charts, can quickly be changed, and stand sturdily on the table.  They also have Velcro closures and can be carried easily in a briefcase or backpack. The downside is their cost. They can cost anywhere from $10 to $25, or even as much as $50 for use by professional photographers and graphic designers.

This is a store-bought presentation easel being used to display a reading chart.

The good news is that you can easily make these by using simple file folders or three ring binders.  Three file folders make a sturdy three-sided table chart that can be stood on end for vertical charts or sideways for horizontal charts. On end allows for hanging three 8-1/2 in. x 11 in. charts. This is nice because the children at each table have three charts at their fingertips. Tip: When you tape together the three folders, keep one side open so the table chart can be folded flat and kept with each table’s container of writing folders, math folders or book baggies.

File folder table charts being used in two different ways, vertically and horizontally.

Three ring binders can also be used to create table charts if you turn the binder inside out so the three rings are pointing up and create a base so it stands. One way to make a base is to use a heavy pocket folder and tape one side to the inside of the binder. The other side of the folder can be bent up and secured to the binder with velcro. This makes it possible to close the table chart up when not in use. Sheet protectors make it easy to add several charts that can easily be flipped to as needed.

A three ringer binder turned into a table chart.

With any type of table tent you can include a variety of charts that will support your students as they work. For example, you could include one miniature word wall, a strategy chart, and a routine chart. You might also use one side to include a copy of a class rubric you want students to refer to often. Setting up and taking down the table charts can become part of the table captain’s job as they set up for the workshop each day.

Table charts closed up and ready to stow away.

Table charts have many benefits. They are extremely important if you have little wall space for hanging charts and also help diminish “chart clutter” that can happen when too many charts are hung up in the classroom. Table tents bring the charts closer to the students who will be using and needing them the most. Kids can easily flip to the charts they need at the exact moment they are needed without having to get up and walk around the classroom. And the more a chart is touched the more it is used. The more it is used, the more children are trying out what is on the chart, which will lead to them no longer needing the chart. It also makes revising and adding new charts quick and easy.

Reading and writing charts side by side.

Lastly, you can use table tents side by side to highlight the reciprocal nature of two subjects like reading and writing. Or you can use the binders to include both reading and writing charts. Color-coding the charts can help distinguish them from each other or you can use dividers to separate the charts by subject or by type of chart (routine, strategy, rubrics, or exemplars). The possibilities are endless and we can’t wait to hear about some of the ways you use table charts to bring your charts closer to your children.

We would like to thank everyone who has shared with us their excitement about finally receiving their copies of Smarter Charts. Feel free to write your reviews on or Barnes and

Until next week, happy charting!

Marjorie Martinelli and Kristine Mraz