Method to Our (Charting) Madness

Hi there! Greetings from the snowy, ice covered reaches of New York! We hope today’s post finds you ensconced in covers and drinking the hot beverage of your choice if you are in one of the colder areas of the world. And if you are in Hawaii, well, don’t tell us if you are in Hawaii.

We chartchums have been busy writing, writing, writing and are happy to report that Smarter Charts 2 is now in the hands of the supremely dedicated and talented folks at Heinemann. We will keep you posted on its progression, and have one small teaser to unleash now… it is even better than the first book. Our brains have grown, our community has grown, and it has resulted in something we are both incredibly proud of.

Now onto the short term! January is a time of resolutions, new beginnings, and the reversal of clutter. As Kristi sets forth on launching a new writing unit, she is going to take you on a tour of her streamlined planning/charting process. Pack your bags folks, because here we go:

First things first, look honestly at what your students have learned, not what you have taught

On-demands are one of our favorite ways to launch units. Though the results may not be pretty, they are honest, and you can only get to your destination if you know where you are…

Kristi launched her kindergarten story on-demand with the following language: Today you guys have a pretty exciting job ahead of you! You are going to fill up the pages of your 5 page book with a story of something that happened to you! We have read a lot of stories so you know how they usually start and some of the things they have in them – like talking and feelings. When you have a story idea in your mind, go and grab a special yellow* book from the writing center!”

* Kristi learned this trick from a literacy coach, if you make the on-demand book a different color it is easier to find it. She chooses a different on-demand book color for each unit.

Then, Kristi sat down with the on-demands and her end of unit checklist. The headings at the top are strongly influenced by her work with the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Workshop Narrative Writing Continuum and the Common Core State Standards. She will be teaching story multiple times throughout the year, so these are not the ONLY things she is teaching in narrative writing this year.

Kristi's check off sheet

Kristi’s check off sheet

A few notes:

  • the first column indicates on how many pages out of the 5 children were able to hold onto the same story
  • the stretching column indicates what sounds children are representing (Beginning, Middle, End)
  • the final column gives a rough estimate on when children stopped working

After looking at the work, Kristi came up with 4 main goals (in no particular order):

  1. Build stamina to 30 minutes
  2. Develop more elaborated drawings
  3. Develop more elaborated writing
  4. Increase the clarity and readability of the writing

There are some obvious small groups that pop up: children who need more work with stretching a story across pages or sequencing, coming up with topics, or children who had less than the average amount of stamina.

Now that you know where you are, plan to move onward!

At this point, Kristi grabbed four pieces of white printer paper and wrote the goals across the top (one goal per page). Kristi usually plans for 1-2 weeks of focus around each goal, but will probably only teach 3 or 4 things within that time to support the goal. This allows time for children to learn the new thing, practice and reflect on it.

Below is the planning page for goal 1: Staminaphoto 1    On the left hand side there is space to generate teaching points, on the right hand side is a mock up of what the chart will probably look like. At the top of the chart there will be a stair of increasing minutes to record the growth in stamina. Underneath is the likely heading for the strategies to support increasing stamina. One can not just write longer by sheer force of will, it helps to have some techniques to help you stay at something.

photo 2These are the strategies Kristi will likely teach, though she has since added: be optimistic, say, “I can do it” and add to your words. These are culled from a variety of sources: Teachers College Reading and Writing Project curricula, the second bullet comes from our resident occupational therapist, the newly added “be optimistic” comes from some of Kristi’s professional reading on growth mindset and grit. These are written in shorthand and will be mulled over to find the perfect language and the perfect method of delivery, this is the broad strokes of instruction. Next she translates her short hand into a further developed chart sketch.

photo 3Note the reduction of language, the selection of a consistent visual, and the decision to use two colors to help children see what the strategy may look like in their own work. Next to the second bullet, stretch, Kristi has made a plan for the two photographs she needs to take. Two children that regularly receive additional OT services will serve as the models, mentors, and instructors for that lesson. Much of this sketch is just that, a sketch, much like when baking soda meets vinegar and the substance changes, when chart ideal meets child there must be room made for their influence. Some of this may be made during interactive writing, the work on the right hand side will be selected from students, and the strategies may change based on their accessibility and success. Kristi always, always, always leaves room for the innovation of her class.

Let’s see it again, shall we?

The second goal is elaborated drawings. Again, Kristi went to the white paper and thought about a variety of sources: mentor texts for illustration, Katie Wood Ray’s professional text In Pictures and In Words, resources from the art teacher, etc.

photo 4On the left hand side, Kristi has written some language she intends to teach the children, e.g. for drawing characters asking, “Who else was there?” Additionally, Kristi has decided to make this chart an annotated exemplar, meaning that she will use a mentor text, a piece of children’s work, or her own illustration and mark it up for the specifics that make it a successful elaborated illustration. As a stand in, Kristi has decided to sketch her own picture:

photo 5Kristi chose an annotated exemplar as the way to display this, as opposed to a list of strategies as the stamina chart will be, because she wants the children to see the big picture (no pun intended) of illustration. It is as much the way the parts work together, as the parts themselves, that make such impactful pages in picture books. Kristi will likely blow up both a piece of student work and a page from a Marla Frazee book to serve as mentors for the class.

Kristi went through the same process for her remaining two goals, making both a list of possible teaching points and a possible chart for each goal. With all planning, one must be prepared for detours, delays, shortcuts, and running out of gas. Though she is planned, the plans are not poured in cement.

The key to planning, in Kristi’s mind, is clarity of mission. If she can tease out 3 or 4 big goals, she likely has her charts. She often asks herself: what is reasonable in the amount of time allotted in this unit? She gives herself time to revisit teaching with her students, and tries to remember what really matters in writing: active problem solving, clear communication, joy, and ownership.

As far as the charts, the key is remembering they are billboards or fliers for your teaching, they are not the teaching. Door to door salesman leave pamphlets, companies run commercials and print ads, people take notes from a workshop. The charts need to jog your students memories, not create them, so making them with your children is key. Less is almost always more, and pictures are worth a thousand words.

We hope this helps to keep your new year clutter free, and as always, we look forward to hearing your comments!

Happy Charting!
Kristi and Marjorie


Getting Off to the “Write” Start

In many writing classrooms the year starts off with children sharing personal memories and writing stories and teachers modeling how to find stories if stuck, how to tell a story sequentially, and how to elaborate a story using step by step actions and descriptive details. There are a few key charts you may want to consider making with your students to support this ambitious work – a writing process chart, a strategy chart, an exemplar chart, and a conventions chart.

Helping children understand that writing is a process is important work, especially at the beginning of the year. Donald Murray, author of A Writer Teaches Writing (1968, 2004), first described this process as a way of breaking down writing into understandable steps, to show how writing is made so he could teach others. Writers collect ideas, draft, revise, and edit. While there are many variations of the writing process this is a good basic one to teach our young writers. It lets them know that writing is not perfect the first time pictures and words are put down on paper, that it takes lots of starts and stops, trials and errors, before it ends up published. We typically show the writing process as a circle to emphasize its endlessness, although we know that that there are many times writers jump around for example from revising to editing, then back to more revising. The most important thing we want our student writers to know is that when a writer finishes one piece the cycle starts all over again. Below is a chart that Kristi made that continues to be a favorite of many teachers.

Kristi's writing process chart.

A possible writing process chart.

Another chart you will definitely need is a strategy chart, or what we now refer to as a repertoire chart. As we described in Smarter Charts, this kind of chart records a list of strategies for a big skill, which allows children to self-select the strategy that matches what they need to do. It also typically grows over multiple lessons. Increasing children’s skill of elaboration is one goal that encourages revision.

strategy chart

Setting clear expectations for what a well-written story looks and sounds like is best accomplished by showing children examples of books written by other children their same age. Then, by looking at the exemplar piece of writing together and naming what the writer has done to make it so good, can really underscore all that you have been teaching and even provide ideas for other things to teach and for students to learn. Once the piece of writing is annotated it becomes an exemplar chart that children can compare their own writing to or refer to when looking for other things they could try.

A writing sample that has been annotated with the students' noticings.

A writing sample that has been annotated with the students’ noticings.

Editing is an important part of the writing process because writing is meant to be read by others. This means that writers work hard to make their writing easier to read by trying to make their pictures clear with enough details to show what is happening and where. They also write in a way that makes the words easier to read, like using spaces, punctuation, and the best spelling they know how to do. Creating a chart that highlights strategies for these types of conventions will be a useful tool for all your students. This is the type of chart that is often turned into an editing checklist to be used regardless of genre.

This is a typed version of a chart that encourages children to make their writing easy to read.

This is a typed version of a chart that encourages children to make their writing easy to read.

When deciding which charts you will need it always helps to start with the big goals of your unit and to use these as your guide for selecting which charts might be needed most. Too many charts can be overwhelming and become more like print pollution than helpful scaffolds. And, as with any chart, make sure you and your students refer to each chart often, celebrating their use by all.

Happy charting!

Marjorie & Kristi