In August, I wrote about saving classroom space for anchor charts. Leaving some precious wall space blank will save you money, sanity, and most of all, will make room for instruction that you’ll actually use throughout the year. Although anchor charts are something that many elementary teachers are pretty adept at using, as a secondary teacher, I’ve just begun dipping my toe in these waters over the past few years, and let’s just say that sometimes I feel like I’m just barely staying afloat.
That’s why, when Amy Estersohn @HMX_MsE said that she struggles with “making them simple and not too texty,” I thought to myself, “sing it, sister.” It seemed like I was constantly struggling to balance including enough information with being visually appealing and easy to use. So, I made the decision to really focus on this aspect of my anchor chart craft this year. And now that I’m just about at the halfway point of the year, I figured it was time to take stock of how that’s been going.
The Purpose Must Drive the Poster
When you’re first getting your feet wet with anchor charts, it’s easy to make a couple of mistakes. First, you might be tempted to use the anchor chart to document the whole mini-lesson. Pretty soon, the chart is filled with so much text, it’ll never be read again. Second, you can get lost in the world of Pinterest boards, replicating creative and visually appealing charts. Those often look great on your wall but pose the same problem as the posters you bought at the teachers’ store: they don’t get much use. To help me avoid these pitfalls, I have to keep reminding myself that I have to let purpose drive when it’s time to make an anchor chart.
I don’t chart all of my mini-lessons. Not by a long-shot. Most of the notes for my mini-lessons remain in digital form for students to see that day. If we absolutely need to refer back to them later, it’s easy to pull them back up, but most of the mini-lessons are small enough that we don’t need to refer back too often. If the concept is big enough that we might need to check back with it in the future, that’s my first clue that it might be a good candidate for an anchor chart. But before I uncap my markers, I’ve started to use the following questions to help me decide if information should go on an anchor chart poster:
1. What will students need to know tomorrow? Next week?
This helps me keep the chart limited to just the biggest ideas. Cut out the details that are important to mastering this particular mini-lesson, and keep only the ones that will be really important in helping students when they are doing the next task. Remember that anchor charts are meant to be resources. If they’d only need the resource for a day or two, a different medium (like a handout or a digital slide) works much better for me.
2. Can the information help students gain more agency?
It’s important to me that my students feel empowered in my classroom, and I know I’m not alone in holding that value. I don’t ever want to be seen as the keeper of all the knowledge who only doles out tidbits one lesson at a time. Instead, I want my students to be intrinsically motivated to do well. In my district, we’ve done a lot of research and professional learning digging into Moss and Brookhart’s Learning Target Theory of Action, and they call this component “success criteria.” In short, “success criteria” is something that both teachers and students share so that they know how well they’re understanding a concept. It’s one thing to say, “Today we’re learning how to write introductions,” but it’s the shared language of the “success criteria” that allows students to answer the question, “How will you know when you’ve written a good introduction?” This is what allows students to self-evaluate and make plans for revision. Since the writing process is ongoing, I want to make sure this information is constantly and readily available, so it’s makes for a prime candidate for anchor charts.
Let Your Mentor Texts Speak for Themselves
Once I’ve decided that information should be shared on an anchor chart, I’m faced with the task of, as Amy Estersohn put it, not making the chart “too texty.” Shanna Schwartz explored this concept in her book A Quick Guide to Making Your Teaching Stick, a companion resource to Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study for Teaching Reading for grades K-5. To help teachers create anchor charts that are readable resources that help students to remember their lessons, Schwartz outlines what she calls “stickiness principles” of instruction. Although her book was geared toward K-5 teachers, the advice is still just as relevant to secondary teachers, too. Essential to sign construction, she explains, is keeping them simple and using illustrations.
That illustration part is the one that has caught me over and over again. At first, I thought it always had to mean that I needed to illustrate each teaching point on the chart. I toiled away at trying to make stick figures creative – and I failed miserably. This, I thought, meant that this secondary teacher was not cut out for this elementary teaching method. I’ve been working on adapting the concept for high school students, though. Sure, sometimes hand-drawn illustrations are totally appropriate, and now I try to ask for students’ input and help with this as much as possible.
But, Schwartz also explains that to illustrate an anchor chart does not necessarily mean to draw artwork on it. Instead, students just need a visual representation of the concepts. Where this has worked particularly well with me has been in using the actual mentor text on an anchor chart. When we have a short, shared text that we use together as a mentor, I get out the ol’ glue stick and put the text right up on the anchor chart. Then, we annotate the big teaching points on the chart around it. The students often have much more detailed notes written on their own copies of the mentor texts, but simplifying some teaching points alongside a photocopy of the actual text helps to give students a visual reminder that’s easy to access in class each day. That way, when I’m conferring with students, and they’re stuck on a concept like which strategy to use, I can point to the anchor chart and ask if any of those sound good. That will refresh their memory enough that they can get out their own copy of the mentor (as well as others that they’ve worked with) and they can dig into the concept more deeply. In this way, the anchor chart is just a starting point as a resource, not a representation of all there is to know about a topic.
Like I said, I’m still just barely treading water some days when it comes to anchor charts. I’m halfway through the year, and I feel like I’m making good progress with a useful tool, but I know that I have a long way to go. From now until June, I’m going to continue the quest to cut down the text. I’ll continue working with Schwartz’s “stickiness principles” to keep it simple and use visuals. When I’m not using a mentor text, I want to get more comfortable with using other visual cues like colors, illustrations, and references to other, more “texty” resources like handouts, cards, table tents, and more. Staying focused on the purpose as an ongoing resource and using actual mentor texts as visuals on the poster have both been great starting points, though, in keeping my charts from getting “too texty.”
How do you keep your anchor charts from getting too texty? What have you done to make them work well with older students? I’d love to hear from you! Join the conversation by commenting here or finding me on Twitter @megankortlandt