Don’t Box Me In: More Thoughts on Worksheets & Graphic Organizers

Alice in Wonderland

Several weeks ago I was in a 6th grade class that was reading Rick Riordan‘s The Lightning Thief, a book that has brought the Greek gods back to life for a generation of readers. The sixth grade team had decided to look at the book through the lens of conflict, knowing that the book was rife with conflicts as Percy Jackson struggles to not only slay monsters and navigate the worlds of both men and gods, but to figure out who he actually is. To help students keep track of their thinking around conflict the teachers had designed a graphic organizer, which asked the students to think about the kind of conflict they saw in each chapter and cite a quote from the text that revealed it. And that day, as the teacher handed out the worksheet, she said that the chapter they’d just read was great because it was full of conflicts.

“But there’s only one box,” a student said as he looked down the organizer.

Fortunately the teacher jumped right back and said they could use the boxes below that, which had been intended for subsequent chapters. But the moment raised a troubling question: How often do the supports we give students actually limit, not encourage, their thinking.

The_Lightning_Thief-1In this case we wanted the students not just to identify the type of conflict—which, whether we use Bloom’s Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, isn’t exactly higher order thinking. Instead, in our planning sessions, we talked about wanting the students to think more deeply about conflicts, exploring their causes, how they might be connected, how Percy dealt with them or not, which would ultimately give us a window on whatever Rick Riordan was trying to explore about the human condition (a.k.a., the themes) through Percy’s experiences. But unfortunately the organizer didn’t capture all that thinking; it fact, it limited how deeply students could go simply by not giving them room to write more than a word or a sentence. It also limited the students’ ability to talk more about their own thoughts by wrestling and exploring questions like, Which did they think was more challenging for Percy, fighting the minotaur or discovering that his mother had lied to him his whole life—and, of course, how and why? 

That’s not to say that we should go out and banish all worksheets and graphic organizers. But we do have to be aware of the kind of thinking they’re asking for and if they’re actually instructional tools meant to support and push students thinking or assessments of what’s been taught. The organizer below, for instance, asks students to record what they’ve already thought, not develop new thinking, and as such, I’d say it’s an assessment, not a tool. And it leaves the harder thinking work—how you figure out the main idea in the first place, especially in a text where it isn’t explicit—invisible.

Think You Know the Main Idea

This other one, however, from the National Archives online Teacher’s Resources page, actually invites students to notice more than they have at first when it asks them to “divide the photo into quadrants and study each section to see what new details become visible.” And then it asks them to make something of what they’ve notice—i.e., to grow new thinking—by asking them to “list three things you might infer from this photograph,” based on what they noticed.

National Archives Worksheet

This one seems far more useful to me because it offers a process of thinking that can lead to new thoughts and insight. And it also gives teachers a window on how students think, which the first graphic organizer doesn’t. We might see there who could identify a main idea and supporting details, but for those that couldn’t, we can’t really see where the thinking might have broken down.

No Child Has Ever WorksheetBut even the best graphic organizers can be problematic because they feel disposable. In fact, my hunch is that if we collected all the graphic organizers and worksheets that wind up crumpled in trash cans, students’ cubbies, lockers and desk, as well as those that have fallen like dead leaves out of folders and binders, they might, strung together, circle the earth as many times as discarded plastic bottles do. And they seem disposable because, even when we try to make them fun—using silly shapes or metaphors like the paragraph hamburger—they don’t really belong to the students. And because of this whatever learning might be captured in those graphic organizers might be discarded along with the paper.

So what’s a teacher to do? As I did with the students in last week’s post, we can let them determine how they want to represent whatever thinking they’ve done, which I think inherently makes it more memorable and meaningful. It certainly helped with the students I wrote about last week who were digging into metaphors. And let’s compare a graphic organizer for poetry that, by including questions, wonderings and feelings, seems much better than most, with a chart a group of students created to share the thinking they had done after reading and discussing the poem “Ode to Stone” from Nikki Grimes‘s great book Bronx Masquerade:

Poetry Worksheet

Ode to Stone Chart

Granted, the students didn’t identify the poetic devices that Grimes’s used. But they definitely got the poem—which raises another question: What’s the more critical and higher order thinking work, identifying a metaphor or thinking about what it means within the context of the poem?

Additionally letting students decide how to represent their thinking lets them practice creating organizing structures, which the Common Core writing standards require students to do as early as grade four—and which can be done even earlier as educational blogger Tomasen Carey shows in her great post “You Got the MOVES! Writing Nonfiction with Voice, Choice, Clarity and Creativity.” And finally, as students share out what they created, they can offer their classmates a vision of different ways both of thinking about the text and conveying that thinking, which is just what happens in this lovely passage about two students, Daphne and Henrietta, in Andrea Barrett‘s story “The Island” from her collection Archangel:

Archangel CoverIn the laboratory, where she and Henrietta worked at the same dissections and experiments, their notebooks looked like they were taking two different courses. Henrietta did as she’d learned in Oswego: neat ruled columns, numbered lists of observations, modest questions framed without any trace of personality, and in such a way that they might be answered. The “I,” Mr. Robbins had said, has no place in scientific study. Daphne’s pages seemed, in contrast, to be filled with everything Henrietta had expunged. Scores or drawings filled the margins, everything from fish eggs to the fringed feelers of the barnacle’s waving legs. Describing a beach plum’s flowering parts, she broke into unrelated speculations, circled these darkly, and then drew arrows from there to cartoons of the professor.

We can say that by taking on her former teacher’s ideas, Henriette put herself in a box, while Daphne made the information her own, which seems to me one of the hallmarks of true independence, which should always be our ultimate goal. So let’s be careful and more aware of when we put students in boxes—lest we inadvertently stifle and stunt their growth and thinking, which I’m sure we don’t want to do.

Thinking Outside of the Box

25 thoughts on “Don’t Box Me In: More Thoughts on Worksheets & Graphic Organizers

  1. Thank you for this important post. Graphic organizers, once used as a scaffold have become whole group practice in so many classrooms along with many other low level skills and strategies intended for struggling learners. “Making connections” strategies came to my mind as I read this post. So often it is taught in the whole group, and students are forced to make connections for the sake of the strategy instead of doing the much higher level work they are capable of. I love the poster work spaces to show student thinking.

    • I do think there’s a time and a place for graphic organizers, but the wholesale use of them, which I see, too, doesn’t really seem to help anyone. Chart paper is such a simple way around it—and it saves on ink if not paper. But I also worked with a teacher earlier this year who had an assortment of graphic organizers available for any student who wanted to use one at any point. But that meant the student had to make the choice of both when to use one and which. And that seemed like another simple move that shifted all those organizers back into the role of scaffolds or tools, rather than assessments.

  2. Pingback: Slice of Life March Challenge: March 8th., 2014 – Celebrating SOLSC, first aid equipment, and Vicki Vinton | A Teaching Life

  3. I thought of you this week as I shared King Midas and the Golden Touch with fourth grade students. We used a variation of your “Know/Wonder” chart to help us gather evidence so we could determine the theme. After lots of noticing, they wrote their ideas about the theme in their notebooks–no box to contain their thinking. They haven’t done a lot of work like this, but they were engaged and had many thoughts to contribute to our discussion. Thank you for sharing all your wisdom and helping me grow as a teacher!

    • Wish I could have been there! I liked being reminded that a real reader’s notebook also doesn’t box in thinking—though sometimes I think that kind of notebook is an endangered species, with more of notebooks being used to copy down notes, teacher-driven Do Nows and aims, which can turn it into a box. And so good to know that someone else gets excited about seeing the different ways kids express theme. For me, seeing the diversity in language and perspectives makes me NEVER want to suggest that there’s a single “right” theme—though, of course, that makes it hard for me to deal with test prep season, which we’re deep into here in NYC.

  4. Vicki,
    Your words struck me as something to ask ourselves every time we ask students to write about their reading. Will the task show me their “process of thinking” and will it “lead to new thoughts and insight.” Will it give me “a window on how students think” so I can take the next step. If it doesn’t meet those criteria it won’t help. Asking students to think about the main idea are testing words that mean do you understand the text. When I’m asked, how do you teach main idea is asking how do I teach comprehension, the whole ball of wax! There isn’t a lesson or a worksheet that could possibly do this. Never would I sit with a book or article and contemplate the author’s main idea. Yet I have the skill to name a main idea for a test. Being able to do that testing move was built with authentic comprehension work that took place far, far away from a worksheet. (Sorry I’m venting a little here.)

    So I do this dance with students, giving them space for their thinking with enough structure that they are in the ball park. It’s hard to find a balance. I usually start by offering wide open spaces. Then build in the structure to focus the thinking without restricting it too much. Frankly my favorite work sheet is a piece of chart paper! I love the way students commented on poetry. I think I’ll add that to my weekly poetry work!
    Thanks as always for adding so much to my teaching.

    • Julieanne & Vicki,
      This: “Your words struck me as something to ask ourselves every time we ask students to write about their reading. Will the task show me their “process of thinking” and will it “lead to new thoughts and insight.” Will it give me “a window on how students think” so I can take the next step. If it doesn’t meet those criteria it won’t help.”, and this entire post have just clarified for me that what we most often are doing with students is assessing their comprehension when what we meant to do was grow their thinking. Such an a-ha moment for me. It seems so simple NOW. This will be so helpful for me going forward. Thank you both!

      • Hello Allison! I read a great article on engagement recently ( that seems like a companion to Juliet’s words: “Our challenge, in 2014 is this: Can we become designers of learning, rather than delivers of worksheets? Can we create opportunities for learning which simultaneously inspire, challenge and deepen students’ innate love of learning.” That is, I think, the challenge each day, but the solution can actually be simple, which I’m glad came through!

    • I think there are times when we do ask kids to demonstrate their thinking, but personally I believe that shouldn’t be done on demand until it’s done with full support—time to brainstorm, plan, draft, revise, edit with teacher and peer feedback all the way (which is where you get to see the process of thinking). But both your ideas about the main idea and the dance remind me of one of the other points that appeared on Alfie Kohn’s list of twelve core principles which, if adopted, would do far more for schools and children than the ed reform movement has. Number 2 is “Thinking is messy; deep thinking is really messy. Therefore beware of prescriptive standards and outcomes that are too specific and orderly.” Too often we teach the main idea in an orderly, prescribed way—and the kids never get it. It’s only when we’re willing to dance through the mess that I think we get anywhere. And how I hope that at some point in the future I get to see you and your kids in action! I’d love to see the dance for myself—and dance with you!

  5. Dear Ms. Vinton,

    Would you please blog about the Odyssey Reading program? I need help with my principal. Thank you.

  6. Hello Vicki
    You really frightened me with the image of crumpled worksheets circling the globe! I believe I can improve on drawing out my students’ thinking through using more drama, more oral language tasks. What do you think?
    The poetry poster really inspired me – seems like a great way to record the thinking in a guided reading group. As I learnt through the #satchatoc on Twitter this weekend, we a growing a contributive culture in our Grade Two classroom, not a boxed-in one.

    • Hello Brette! So good to hear from you! Of course, the image of crumpled worksheets circling the globe was, indeed, meant to give pause. But, yes, while I personally haven’t used drama as much as I think I should (art is more my medium), anything that gets them talking through ideas is great. In fact, here in NYC there’s been a move to assess reading through writing about texts, and I really believe that kids need to talk about what they’re reading first before they tackle writing—even way beyond second grade. But many if we let kids talk outside the box in those earlier grades they’d internalize the thinking more, which would put them in a whole different place as they move up the grades. Cheers back to you!

  7. I’m struggling with this whole idea lately. I agree completely with all that you say but am finding I feel responsible to make sure my students can transfer their out of the box thinking to these “worksheety” pages and they don’t necessarily see the connection, With the high stakes of testing, knowing the genre of test-graphic-organizers is often key and you are right–as an assessment. But not necessarily an assessment I’d give as a classroom assessment (if it weren’t for high stakes testing). The out of the box work tells me far more as a teacher and what kids can do in the midst of real reading. But without some work with the boxes, kids look (on a test) like they can’t pick out a main idea and in Ohio, could cause them to fail 3rd grade. The balance is becoming a bigger and bigger challenge. Thanks for sharing. Lots to reflect on.

    • Oh Franki! In my mind Dublin is an oasis in all this testing and Standards-obsessed stuff: a place that believes and trusts in both children and teachers—and in reading and writing. But perhaps no school or district can withstand all these forces completely. My suggestion: distinguish authentic reading from test prep for your kids. Test takers need to know the genre of graphic organizers, but real readers don’t—unless they find them useful. And test takers do need to practice for the tests, just like real readers need to practice in order to grow as readers. That’s how I’ve made my own uneasy peace with this stuff. Confine it to a few weeks in the year and call it what it is. Good luck!

      • We do believe in all of that in Dublin but our kids are still required to take high stakes test and it is always a struggle as a teacher to know how much practice they need. I feel responsible to give them some practice and to learn a bit about the genre but always struggle with the right amount. Definitely only a little bit of time each year, but always stressful I think, no matter where you teach these days!

      • You may have seen this week that, for better or worse, I’ve had to plunge into test prep full force this month. It’s been interesting to see, however, if there’s a way to do it with integrity. And interesting, too, to see how many articles keep popping up questioning the direction we’re going. But the good news is that in just a few weeks here we can get back to real reading and writing!

  8. As I sit here reading The One World School House, Education Reimagined by Salman Khan and crafting (yes I still like that word as well as moves!) my next blog, I am again thinking about how often in eduction we try to box in everything. In his book he talks about the history of education and where even the boxing of subjects and the time allotted to each subject was adopted from the Prussian model of education. Khan writes, “the whole system was built on the premise that isolation from first-hand information and fragmentation of the abstract information presented by teachers would result in obedient and subordinate graduates.” I am loving this historical narrative that he has put together to show how we have ended up where we have ended up. He is the founder of the Khan Academy, but his writing shows his thinking and the theory behind his Academy. A must read for anyone interested in the history and the changes needed in education.
    I have never liked labels or graphic organizers because they immediately imply a sense of right and wrong. Thank you for posting this. I am sending it along to my teachers and the world of FB. And hey, thanks for the shout out. I did get some flack back about dissing the word craft, but that was not the point now was it? I was hoping to offer an idea that perhaps we could consider a variety of terms to invite in more writers. I suppose in the long run language is as limiting as those boxes unless we strive to construct and reconstruct, write and rewriter our thinking along the way.

    • Oh, another book to add to my stack! Ken Robertson, too, talks about the fact that we’re using a completely outdated model for school—though he puts the blame on the Industrial Revolution, not the Prussian. But both, I think, were looking people who didn’t ask too many questions. Hmm. . . And I still love the word craft, as well, though I’m finding that moves is easier for kids to grasp, as well as for some teachers who aren’t always sure what craft means. And as for your last line, I need to ponder that for a while. The limits of language. Maybe that’s why I like kids to express ideas in their own words, because more words don’t reduce the ideas to one right or wrong thing.

  9. I agree with the “no worksheet” idea. Although worksheets could make my prep easier, they never seem to cover the material the way I taught it. I find it more useful to make my own follow-up activities, and try to re use them each year (although I constantly find myself tweaking them or starting over, to keep up with the constantly changing standards). Yes, it is more work, making my own stuff is so much more worthwhile.

    • I’m so convinced that quick and easy solutions often gets us into trouble—and as you’ve seen the ease in planning may ultimately make you need to plan more because the worksheets don’t do what you want them to do, which is what happened in the 6th grade. I find, though, that having a small repertoire of thoughtful activities can make the planning not seem too overwhelming. And when in doubt, put them in groups and give them a blank piece of chart paper!

  10. Pingback: Slice of Life Day 11: Adventures in Informational Text | To Read To Write To Be

  11. I agree with much of what you are saying but I’m uncomfortable with your use of other teachers’ materials as an example of what “not to do”. At best it’s rude to use images of those worksheets (both available online as “freebies”) to prove your point, however valid. Why not use your own illustrations or worksheets?

    • I take your point, Jane, and, in fact, for many years have stopped using student work in classrooms to show what not to do. Also being sensitive to ownership issues, I purchase most of the images for my blog from micro-stock agencies and/or contact the photographer or illustrator directly to ask for permission. And the chart below the poetry worksheet was created by students I worked with and appears with their and their teacher’s consent.

      Those two worksheets, however, as you noted, were available as free downloads from TeachersPayTeachers, and I think when you decide to make something available online, you need to accept that once you put it out into the world you no longer can control how it will be used. I do that every time I post a blog, and that’s both the beauty and the risk of the internet. It’s richness comes from people willing to share all sorts of information and resources, despite the possible risk, in order to both create a community and be a part of a larger conversation about, in our case, literacy education. And that conversation is rich precisely because it incorporates many views and stances, all of which should be discussed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s