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October 17, 2012 Anchor Charts: Academic Supports or Print-Rich Wallpaper? By Alycia Zimmerman
Grades PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5

    Am I the only teacher who rewrites anchor charts to make them presentable? Because I have a confession to make. Until now, I’ve only shown my “pretty” charts on this blog. The ones that I took the time to rewrite in my neatest handwriting. The ones to which I’ve added cute graphic supports and fancy lettering. At the very least, the ones without crossed out text.

    I know some teachers who can create beautiful, presentation worthy charts in front of their students. I am not one of those teachers. I scrawl my charts as fast as my hand can fly, hoping not to exhaust my students’ attention spans while I’m scribing their words. I contort my wrist into a backwards claw so that I write while still facing my students (because I honestly don’t have eyes on the back of my head — shhh!) These are functional charts — and I point out to my students that the drafting process is necessarily messy. 

    Then I wage an internal battle: Do I hang this authentic but messy chart up in my classroom, or do I painstakingly rewrite the chart after school ends? While I understand the value of creating anchor charts that my students will actually use, at times it feels like charting is simply an Olympic sport for teachers to create the most photo-worthy “wallpaper.” What do you think? Should I hang the sloppy charts?


    A "real life" sloppy chart (left) and a doctored chart for display (right). 

    Fellow teachers, I’m throwing down the gauntlet. Here are my real, no-holds-barred thoughts about anchor charts. I realize that some of you may disagree with me –— and not to worry, I’ll keep pinning your stunning charts on Pinterest and dreaming about the days when my charts look like yours.


    When I'm charting with my students, I'm not going to take the time to make perfectly near bars or to color them. This is real life - and it's messy! My rewritten "Transition Words" chart took a while - is it worth it?


    Anchor Charts … What’s the Point?

    Sure, some administrators look for these “footprints of learning,” to gauge what’s going on in a classroom, but there’s a lot more to charts than serving as advertising banners. The best charts serve as a scaffold for students, reminding them of a new understanding, an academic experience, or supplying academic vocabulary. Students refer to these charts during follow-up lessons and independent work times. Effective charts help students transfer their learning across contexts and allow students to work independently.

    How do I try to make the charts on our walls meaningful? I organize my classroom walls, so that my students know to look for math charts on the east wall, writing charts on the north wall, and so on. I gesture towards our “archived” charts during lessons. I ask my students, “Where can you look to find some help with transition words?” By constantly referring to the anchor charts around my classroom, students begin to use these resources naturally. Over time, they point each other towards the charts they need. Since I teach at a textbook-less school, our anchor charts serve as the reference materials for my students.

    I constantly point at this chart while I talk, until the students are using the chart to help with their accountable talk as well. This chart becomes meaningful because we refer to it so often, not due to how it looks.


    Anchor Charts in the Digital Age

    I love my document camera (which my students think is named for a furry red Sesame Street friend.) These days, when I’m not teaching on my Smartboard, I’m usually modeling with my document camera. Shared writing, modeled writing, filling in graphic organizers, marking up text — it is all so much easier with my document camera!

    Where does this leave room for creating anchor charts, though? When I can write in normal-sized print and have it enlarged digitally for all of my students to see, writing on chart paper just seems contrived to this digital-girl.

    At times, I rewrite materials that we’ve created using the document camera onto chart paper. I also keep folders at the front of my classroom near the document camera with all of my “projected texts” and “mini-charts” organized by subject. Rather than referencing a chart, my students know to look in those folders to find the shared texts we’ve “digitally charted.”


    Student-Created Charts

    Let’s face it, most elementary students’ handwriting, enlarged to “size 72 chart-paper font,” isn’t picture perfect. But inviting students to create charts in their own handwriting and take over the charting burden really does make the charts more meaningful. Students take a different level of ownership for charts they write themselves. Just last week during a writing lesson on revision, I heard one boy tell another, “Look at Josie and Brandon’s chart of active verbs.”

    To get all of my students words onto one chart, post-it notes keep things interactive.

    To get all of my students’ “voices” onto one chart, sometimes I create a graphic organizer and have my students post their responses on post-it notes. When my students aren’t writing the charts themselves, I try to mark each student’s response with their name as I transcribe their words. This also helps the students establish a sense of ownership for a chart.

    Students love to participate when their contributions will be named on a chart.


    When “Pretty” Charts are Worth It

    There are definitely some times when going the extra mile to illustrate a chart really feels worthwhile. For students who are just learning to read or just learning English, picture cues are so helpful towards making anchor charts a meaningful reference.

    Small picture cues help ELL students and struggling readers, and you don't have to be an artist to pull this off.

    Likewise, in the subject areas (social studies, science,) a labeled diagram or illustration can provide a lot of content area support. Students build their tier two and tier three vocabularies with these sorts of charts. I am most definitely not an artist, so it is painstaking work to copy diagrams onto chart paper — but I find it is worth the work when my students refer to these content charts throughout our units of study.


    In the content areas, illutrated charts are worth it. These diagrams help with content vocabulary.


    “Mirror, mirror, show me yet, the prettiest charts on the net!”

    While I’m in a confessional mood, I’ll admit that I’ve browsed the museum-quality anchor charts on teacher blogs, and of course Pinterest. And I’ve fallen prey to chart-envy — and even lost my way to the point of copying a beautiful chart or two to hang in my classroom. I’m not proud of this, dear teachers. Sure, these copycat charts were pretty, but were they authentic? No way!

    Pretty? Perhaps. Authentic? Not really. (We created the list using the document camera - this is a rewrite.)

    So I give my word; going forward I’m going to steer clear of Internet temptation, and only use that eye candy for general inspiration. The point of charting is not to prove what an awesome artist or how creative I am. Will I still rewrite some of my crummiest looking charting attempts? Probably. But I am through with laminating charts to save some for next year. Charts are meant to be ephemeral – and thanks to my handy camera phone, I can capture the spirit of my charts for recycling but not reuse.


    What are your thoughts about charting? Am I speaking blasphemy? Do you feel that there is an educationally sound reason to create “chart-art”? Or should I hang my scribbly first draft charts? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!


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