Thursday, March 5, 2015

Graphic Organizers: The What, Why and How of Implementation

Picture this:  You are a junior in high school with 6 classes a day, a part-time job, you have a boyfriend or girlfriend and you are vice-president of the student council.  Additionally, you have the demands of text messages going off on your phone every four minutes and you really need to sleep at some point.  You walk into your 1st hour math class and your teacher casually reminds you that you have a test, tomorrow, on an entire unit of material that was 9 sections long.  You have to work tonight and have a paper due for Government in two days!  Panicking yet?  I know that I would be!  

All hope is not lost, however, as your teacher starts handing out a set of graphic organizers that she made ahead of time.  These handy little sets of paper include flowcharts, tables, Venn Diagrams and other organizational tools designed to help you summarize the most important parts of the unit.  You are start to breath a (small) sigh of relief because at least now you have a place to start and maybe, just maybe, you can still work and study in order to pass the test!

For me, I wish graphic organizers has been used, publicized (as I'm sure they must have existed - we just never saw them) and/or encouraged as a study and organizational tool.  I had (and still at times have) issues retaining concepts for longer periods of time, partially because I was busy and partially because of how my brain worked.  Given that it was 20+ years ago when I was in high school and we didn't have the high stakes standardized testing pressures that students have today, I probably got off easy.

As a teacher at the secondary level, I see what my students have to deal with.  It goes beyond the scenario I outlined above to also include studying for the state testing, taking care of younger brothers and sisters, applying for colleges and scholarships and so much more.  As a result, I have spent time trying to find a way to help my students be able to better visualize that material, the connections between topics and to help them retain the knowledge beyond a unit test.  I want them to develop study skills that will aid them not only in finishing high school but to also help them succeed in college and the workforce.  I see graphic organizers as a way to do that for 4 reasons.

1)  Graphic organizers are a visual way to "see" relationships.  In math so many topics are interrelated but sometimes the relationship can be difficult to see.  Through the use of bubbles, rectangles and arrows on a graphic organizer you can see how concepts effect each other.  For example, I teach that quadrilaterals form a family tree and teach it in flow chart format.  We create a graphic organizer together to show how the properties are "passed down" from one "generation" to the next.  My students really start to respond and "get it" once they can see how the quadrilaterals  are interrelated.

2)  Graphic organizers help students to organize the information in such a way as to highlight and summarize the important concepts.  As much as I would love to believe that every word that comes out of my mouth when I am teaching a lesson is pure gold, this is not true.  Realistically some of it is just filler, examples or ways of explaining a concept multiple ways to help students understand.  It is not always the meat of a topic but the sides dishes as well!  Graphic organizers help students to cut through the extra information to get to the foundational parts.  For example, when I teach my unit on Right Triangles and Trigonometry, I give my students a set of graphic organizers at the beginning of the unit that they can fill-in as we go along.  These organizers are designed for students to include all of the formulas and an example of solving or applying that formula since this is truly the crucial part of the unit.

3)  Graphic organizers appeal to visual learners.  In addition to helping most students see the relationships among topics, graphic organizers can help some students just simply see that information.  For some students, notes are just words on paper that they need to try to decode, often without success.  Graphic organizers can help them to make sense of those ideas and translate the information into a medium that speaks to them.  For example, when we do our unit on Circles, a unit that is extremely visual, my students who learn best visually are known to color coat the parts and constantly refer back to the organizers as they solve problems because they really help them to see, understand and be able to apply the concepts.

4)  Graphic organizers are a tool that students can use to hold on to information long term.  If students fill-out the graphic organizers as each unit progresses, then at the end of the semester, they have a great study tool to help them prepare for the final exam.  Instead of having to sort through notebooks full of notes or folders full of handouts, they have the most crucial information from the entire semester condensed down to a more manageable number of pages.  If the student is truly organized, and can really hold on to the papers long term, they can carry them through prepping for the state testing, entrance exams for college or even on their jobs.  

Whatever the reason or method, the course you teach or the level you teach at, I highly recommend implementing graphic organizers into your classes.  Not only will your students benefit, but you will too!  I have other graphic organizers than the ones listed, please click here to see them all!

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