Saturday, August 31, 2013

Special Columbia Edition of How To: The First Rule of Chart Club Is ...

When we first started teaching, if you were to happen upon our classrooms at the beginning of the year, you would have seen beautiful, perfect teaching walls filled with colorful and informative teaching posters. They would have looked a lot like this:

Look at all of those beautiful posters!!!
We filled our walls with everything we knew our students would need to reference throughout the school year. And when parents walked in, they would think, "This is a prepared classroom. My kiddos will do well here." But, guess what? All those beautiful charts adorning our walls, a virtual cornucopia of reference material, and what would happen ...

 Child (oh so innocently): Ms. H, what's the name of this shape?

Ms. H (with infinite patience and nurturing care): Dear child, let me point you towards our chart on shapes and their defining attributes.

Different child, two minutes later: Ms. H, which one of these is a triangle, again?

Ms. H (losing just a bit of her cool): The chart. Check the shape chart. On the wall. The math reference wall.

Yet another innocent darling, just one minute later: Ms. H, is this a circle?

Ms. H (cool is completely gone, voice is at a level of shrill that only dogs can hear): WHY ARE YOU ASKING ME? CHECK THE CHART!!! ... I need to sit down.

While this is obviously an exaggeration, we're sure every teacher has experienced a similiar moment of frustration at some point in their teaching careers. But we learned and we grew as educators, and this is what our classroom looks like at the start of the year now.

Our reading/writing instructional wall as it stands right now ... and as it will look on Day 1.
No, your eyes are not failing you. Those are, in fact, blank walls you're seeing. And yes, they are completely blank when the parents walk in on the first day. And, guess what? They're usually pretty blank during Back to School night as well. Ok, we know what you're thinking:

Those are 2 bad-booty chicks!

That's right - we are rebels, baby!
And while we are pretty bad-booty (though probably all potential street cred that we had just evaporated when we used the word bad-booty), we do it because we know the secrets of Chart Club. We learned them from Teacher Camp at Columbia (here's an entry about us going on our Pilgrimmage to Columbia's Teacher College for your reading pleasure). And we're going to let you in on them too.

The Rules of Chart Club
1. The first rule of Chart Club is you don't talk about Chart Club. If they don't create it, they won't connect it.

The reason that the children were not using our charts in our previous years of teaching is that they held no personal relevance or connection for them. They came into the classroom with the charts already hung up, which relegated them to the status of brightly colored wallpaper in the eyes of most of the children. They are completely baffled by the response of "Check the chart!". What chart? All I see is your fancy teacher decorations.

Dang it!
So how to overcome that response? Well, like this:

Create your charts together.

Now, we know we're supposed to create our charts together, BUT ... We want the chart to look perfect. We already know what we want the chart to say. We want the chart to look perfect ... did we say that already?

Sooooooo ... we would plan our charts out beforehand and even pencil in what we were going to write so we could make a perfect chart right in front of our students' eyes. That's okay, right? Because they're watching it be created, right? RIGHT?

Well, erm ... no. As we learned in Columbia, co-creating a chart means allowing student input and then actually placing it on the chart, even if it was not part of the original plan. 

At this point, you may be feeling a little short of breath. Queasy even. We feel you; we really do. But the students have to feel a part of creating the chart in order to connect to it. And if they don't connect to it, then really, what's the point?

So how can you accomplish this without losing your OCD beautifully organized and perfectionist mind? Well, you can still make a plan for your chart ahead of time. Just be sure to leave room for student input. At Columbia, they showed us a bunch of charts using post-its to add student ideas.

You can also add student examples to your chart.
Or you can use a piece of student work as an exemplar and label it together as a class.
2. Strive for a billboard

Now whaddya mean by that, you might be thinking. Well, this is the part where you have to channel your inner marketing major. You need to think about your charts as highway billboards. They should be advertisements of your teaching. They should catch the eye. Imagine your students zooming by at 60 miles per hour; what would they be able to get from your chart? Your charts should be designed to give information efficiently and effectively. So, what does this boil down to?
  • Catchy headings (think about what would catch your students' eyes as they are zooming around your classroom)
  • Clear headings - It could be a big idea, a question, a reminder ... something to quickly tell your students what the chart is about and how it can help them.
  • Teaching points - Include the language of your teaching BUT just the gist of it. Brevity is key.
  • Always consider the reading level and vocabulary of your students to make the chart accessible. It's not a resource if they can't read it, y'all!
3. A picture is worth a 1000 words

Visuals are where it's at, baby! Visuals are the key to an effective chart. Why, you ask? Well, let us tell you. First, visuals are essential for memory recall. The visual provides a hook for information retrieval within the brain. Second, children develop a strong visual literacy before even attending school. It's our job to capitalize on that. Third, reading levels vary greatly among classmates, but everyone can access a picture. You gotta work with what you got.

So where can you get these oh so essential visuals? You can use photographs, clipart, student work, google images ... you can also draw images. Be sure when you are drawing, though, that you draw in a way that the students can emulate. For example, children draw using shapes so use simple shapes as the basis for your drawings as well.
Example of drawing people that children can draw from
You can also develop icons that you use again and again. For example, an ear might become an icon for listening. Your students will recognize and associate a consistent meaning with the icon. 

4. Get obsessed

If you want your students to use your charts, you have to use them all the time ... we mean, like, ALL THE TIME!!! Touch them often. Refer to them. Have your students touch them while you are referring to them. Think to yourself while you are lesson planning: "How can I use my charts more? What can I reference on my chart for this lesson?" Have your students use the charts for goal setting. Have them write their names on sticky notes and then stick them on the part of the chart that they are planning to work on that week. Move the chart around and make a big fuss about it when you do. Revise the chart. Add new learning. Get creative ... do what you have to do in order to ...

Use that chart!
5. Less is more

While this is true for the quantity of text on your chart, this rule has a broader meaning. It's a reminder that instead of making a new chart for everything that you're teaching, try to make charts that can be added upon or that can span over many topics. Children are more likely to refer to a chart when they've spent a long time working with it. Look for a big idea or theme that weaves through your teaching points for the unit then create a chart around that idea where each lesson adds a little bit to the chart. 

Okay, check in. Real talk, how are you feeling? If you're anything like us after our week at Columbia, you were nodding your head through this entire entry - yes, yes, I agree with that, that resonates with me, I already knew that - but now you're feeling a tad bit overwhelmed about where to start and how to apply this to your own practice. Well, thank goodness we have a wonderful resource to share:

This website is a goldmine for everything you want to know about charts. The authors of this website also wrote an excellent book called Smarter Charts.

The ultimate resource for chart making
Well now you're ready to make your own charts. And remember the first rule of Teacher Club: share everything you learn with anyone who will listen!

Inspired by "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)" by Beyonce

From the limb,


  1. You two crack me up! But, hey! Awesome information here! Smarter Charts ordered! I love the simplified drawing tips. Have to highly recommend the use of Sharpie Flip Chart Markers....hardly any bleed through!

    1. Hi Colleen! Thanks so much for reading our blog and for leaving the tip about the Sharpie Flip Chart Markers. We will be heading over to Staples to pick up a pack :) That should be the sixth rules of chart club: have a good chart marker!