Can we talk about graphic organizers?

My writing process does not look anything like the one I used to require my students to use in class. When I write, I have multiple posts started. Some are just titles, some are a couple of paragraphs, and some are almost fully formed but not ready to make their entrance into the world. Sometimes a post takes me an hour to write, sometimes a week. My last post took a year from the initial idea to publishing. This particular post has been bothering me since Tuesday.

The way I plan a post often varies as well.  I might make a few point form notes in advance, but most often I start paragraphs with the ideas I want to cover and then quickly move on to the next one. When I’ve sketched that rough outline, I go back and fill it out, over and over again. Whole paragraphs get moved or deleted.  This is all just a part of my thinking.

So why have I denied my students this experience in the past? Why do I ask them to conform to a writing process that I do not even use myself?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how the graphic organizer often contributes to this limiting of process exploration and, as a consequence, thinking. Before anyone runs to the defense of the graphic organizer, I am not here to suggest they should be taken away; however, I would like to challenge when they are used.

I’ve used graphic organizers for essays, short stories, news reports, etc. One issue that has consistently cropped up when I use these organizers is that students often do not know how to transfer their work from the organizer to a draft copy. An organizer may have all the different paragraphs laid out, but when a student writes it out, they lump it all together into one giant paragraph. This is not the organizer’s fault. It’s not the student’s fault. It actually tells us a lot about the gap in the student’s learning. This type of error seems to communicate that the student does not know the function of a paragraph. This is a significant learning gap.

So now the question is how to fill in this gap, and another graphic organizer is not the answer. In fact, I would argue that giving out a graphic organizer too early in the reading-writing process may cause this problem. There is a difference between using an organizer to help students outline their ideas, and using an organizer to tell students how to organize their ideas. If we control their writing too early, students are never given the opportunity to think about the organization of their writing. We’ve already told them what should go in paragraph three, so why should they think about it? On the essay organizer it says that they need to start with a hook, so why would they consider using a personal narrative or an analogy to begin their introductions? We need to let go some of this control.

Before we give students a graphic organizer, there are some instructional questions that may help us to determine when and where to use it in our instructional cycle:

  • Have students been exposed to enough mentor texts in this particular genre?
  • Am I using the graphic organizer to replace instruction about the complexity of organization and structure? If I am, I need to slow down and increase my use of mentor texts before I start passing out the graphic organizers.
  • This graphic organizer is one way to visualize this text. What are some other visual representations students can use?
  • How can I help students draw/create their own organizers? If our goal is to create writers who select strategies independently, they need to be able to identify when they need an organizer and what that organizer should look like.
  • Is the graphic organizer overly scaffolded? I’m not going to lie. I’ve used a fill-in-the-blank essay organizer where all the transition words were already in place. I’m pretty sure none of my students learned how to move smoothly from one idea to the next when it was already done for them (in a very mechanical way at that).
  • Does this graphic organizer limit thinking? Some students may think better with the use of an organizer, while others may find it restrictive and limiting. We need to know which students need the scaffold, and when that scaffold is just going to get in the way.
  • Am I giving students a graphic organizer because I have given them a task on which they have little chance of succeeding? If so, the completion of a graphic organizer does not mean that they can now complete the task. This is another place where we need to slow down and fill in the gaps rather than using a strategy like a graphic organizer to place a very temporary band-aid on a problem that is not going away.

My thinking about this topic this week has reconfirmed that I need to slow down my writing instruction, while simultaneously increasing the number of mentor texts I use in class. I also need to dramatically increase the amount of practice writing I do with my students ( see a previous post “In Praise of the Quick Write” for ideas on this). Some of my students may need a graphic organizer, and I’ll help them decide which one at the right time, but I think I will have to recycle the stack overly prescriptive organizers in my filing cabinet.