The Limits of Graphic Organizers, or More Tales from a Second Grade Author Study

In Content-Area Writingauthors Harvey Daniels, Steven Zimmerman and Nancy Steineke make a distinction between writing to learn or to think and writing to demonstrate what was learned or thought. Writing to learn, they say, is usually short, spontaneous, exploratory and personal—that is, it’s writing that helps the writer probe, discover, understand or clarify something for him or herself. Writing to demonstrate learning, on the other hand, is more substantial, authoritative, polished and planned, and it’s aimed for an audience.

This fits nicely into my own belief that writing is both a tool and a product. It helps the writer figure out what he thinks then allows him to convey it to others. I worry, though, that we don’t always make this distinction clear, both for ourselves or our students, especially when it comes to graphic organizers, which Daniels & Co. list as a writing-to-learn strategy that can help writers map and cluster ideas. Students, I think, often see graphic organizers as products or assignments to be quickly dispatched and completed rather than as tools to push thinking. And I have to wonder whether they do so in part because we set them up that way.

This was brought home to me and the teachers I worked with in the second grade author study of Tomie dePaola I wrote about several weeks ago. To helps students keep track of individual books, consider how the elements of a story worked together to support the author’s message, and eventually discover patterns across the books they read, we designed two graphic organizers aimed at helping students think deeply. The first was a large attribute chart where the students could note the elements of each story, with a final column left for whatever connections and observations they might notice and make between books. The second was a Venn diagram that we thought would support the comparing and contrasting of the books for that final column.

Both were designed with the best of intentions. And both didn’t work quite as intended because the students seemed to view them as products to complete, not as tools to deepen their thinking. And so we had to push our own thinking to revise and refine these tools.

With the attribute chart, for instance, what the teachers and I noticed was that the students saw each of the columns as separate and discrete. They could identify the elements—the characters, the setting, the problem and solution and sometimes even what they called the lesson. But they weren’t thinking about how the elements were connected and how they contributed to the overall effect of the story. In particular, they weren’t considering how the kind of person a character is affects how they do or don’t deal with their problems, nor how the way those problems get solved can shed light on the themes or lessons of the story.

Instead they tried to pin adages, such as “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” on the stories. And while sometimes those sayings did, indeed, fit, they didn’t always capture the richness of the stories, nor the various things the students had noticed. And so we made two critical decisions. The first was: No more canned adages or maxims. We’d encourage students to use their own words and consider how the lesson was embedded in the story, not something tacked on at the end, which we made more explicit by adding a question beneath the element headers, like this:

The second was that we wouldn’t reduce each book to just one lesson or theme. Instead we’d open the door to multiple interpretations in acknowledgement of the fact that different readers notice and attend to different things and that even simple picture books can’t always be summed up in one idea. Here, for instance are transcripts of two different interpretations of Tomie dePaola’s The Art Lesson:

We had to go back to the drawing board, as well, with the Venn Diagram because, not seeing the organizer as an opportunity to stretch thinking, the students simply took what was on the attribute chart and plugged it into the organizer. And, as you can see, the results were superficial:

Venn Diagram comparing and contrasting The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush and Andy by Tomie dePaola

To counter this, we decided to put them into groups with a basket of books at each table and ask them to talk solely about what similarities or patterns they noticed recurring across the books. Then once they had a chance to trade ideas, we asked them to individually jot down what they’d noticed on a sticky note. And this time their thinking was far more insightful.

Adelita and Gopher tried to solve their own problems. For example, Adelita tried to make Javier come to her, and Gopher tried to find the right colors to paint the sunset.

Both characters Adelita and Little Gopher have a helper to solve their problems. For example, Esperanza helped Adelita to the party and the dream vision let Little Gopher to go to the hill and paint the sunset.

Through this process, students came away with a deep understanding of Tomie dePaola as an author. They saw how in seemingly very different stories—from original tales like the Strega Nona books to retellings of Indian legends and Irish folktales to the more autobiographical stories—he kept circling some of the same ideas or themes: The need to be true to your own self, even if that path is hard; the great gift of having people who help and support you; the consequences of meddling with what you don’t understand; the need to give back to others what they have given to you; and the importance of advocating for yourself.

At the very end of the unit, students watched a video of Tomie dePaola talking about his life, and they literally gasped at the connections they heard between his life and the themes in his books. This allowed them to also circled the writing truth that F. Scott Fitzgerald so eloquently articulated when he wrote:

“Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves—that’s the truth. We have two or three great moving experiences in our lives—experiences so great and moving that it doesn’t seem at the time that anyone else has ever been caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded  and humbled in just that way before.”

As for those graphic organizers: At best they served as a pre-assessment, showing us what the students could already do and where we, as teachers, could push in. What helped far more was setting up the students with opportunities to talk—and with us, as teachers, having a deeper vision of where that talk could lead.