Yes, charts can indeed be magical, but only when the children using them become magicians and learn how to transform simple words on paper into powerful tools for problem solving. When children learn to use a chart to remember a forgotten procedure, to help others help themselves, or to share what has been learned with others, they become not only more confident, but they engage with learning in a pro-active, can-do way, that can lead to lifelong success in school and beyond.
As primary teachers we long ago discovered never to make any assumptions about what young children understand and know about even the most basic of things. Have you ever said something like, “It’s time to end our writing time,” only to have several youngsters jump up, head to the cubbies, and start gathering backpacks, lunchboxes, and coats, thinking the ‘end’ you mentioned meant the end of the school day? Well, we can’t make any assumptions that our children will know what we mean when we say, “Use the chart to help you,” or to even know what we are doing when we write in front of them on a gigantic piece of paper that is bigger than the average first grader. Some children think charts are just for decoration (especially the store-bought ones), like the borders surrounding the bulletin boards or the art prints hanging up around the room. We know charts are more than decoration, no matter how nice we try to make them look, but do our kids know?
With this in mind, we started to think about some ways teachers might introduce the actual purpose for charts that will be showing up in abundance across the school year in a way that makes no assumptions about what kids know, and don’t know, about charts. One idea is to just ask, “What are charts for?” Then listen to the responses for signs of understandings and perceptions held by the students. Don’t be surprised at the range of answers you might hear, from “What’s a chart?” to “It’s for the teacher.” Chances are no one has ever asked them this question before. This is a great way to benchmark your children’s early understandings and will help lead you in a direction built on reality, not dreams or fantasy.
Once you have a sense of what kids know and don’t know about charts, you are ready to proceed. Share with your students why you use charts in the classroom. You might explain what charts are for and why we have them, how they can be helpful, and when they can be used. This then becomes one of the first charts you might create in your classroom. It can be created first orally, then made more permanent using shared writing or interactive writing, then reinforced through shared reading. Below is an example of one such chart created using such a sequence. As the teacher looked over some of the key points the word ‘magic’ began to appear. She then organized the points as an acrostic and it became one of the shared reading texts read together across several days. This type of chart is important early on, but is rather short lived once the children understand the purpose and intent behind the chart and why we see and use charts in the classroom.