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Apr 17, 2017

It’s Monday night, and your child is agonizing over starting the essay that is due first thing on Tuesday Why your child won't use a graphic organizer and what you can do about itmorning. Suddenly you remember the graphic organizer that was recommended last week at parent-teacher conferences. But when you present your son or daughter with what promises to be the antidote to those writing woes, the kid glares at you like you’ve handed over a dead fish.   

Many students feel skeptical, to put it lightly, of using templates, such as graphic organizers, to plan an essay. But why? Below are three common problems that prevent students from using graphic organizers, along with practical solutions.

Problem #1: Change is hard

As a parent, you may be familiar with the vicious cycle, wherein a child’s past failures lead to reduced confidence, which leads to anxiety, which leads back to failure, and so on. It’s a difficult mindset to be in: it’s like they’ve been knocked down too many times to be able to get up and take action. “I’ve always done it this way, and it works well,” they say, though the teacher's comments indicate otherwise. Presenting a student with a graphic organizer before she is ready is like tossing the car keys at someone who is still in her pajamas and hasn’t even considered leaving the house.

Solution: Take baby steps toward change 

As Executive Function coaches, we help students to develop a better understanding of their own thinking processes,  and we show them the steps they can take to overcome resistance to change. Students tend to feel more comfortable adjusting the little things first, such as tweaking their homework routine, before attempting to overhaul their entire approach to writing. Once they have some small successes under their belts, trying out a graphic organizer might be something they’re willing to consider.

Problem #2: The terminology is confusing

A “story map” graphic organizer asks for examples of theme, rising action, climax, and resolution. But what if a student doesn’t know what’s meant by one or more of those terms? Some students sit in class all semester long without fully understanding the basic terminology that is being used, often because they haven’t yet developed the self-advocacy skills that would be needed to ask for clarification. While learning to self-advocate is an important long-term goal, what is a student to do in the meantime, before those skills are fully realized?  

Solution: Scaffold the conversation to help them know what they don’t know

When students feel confused by the language being used within the organizer, they may need an adult to scaffold a conversation to help them pinpoint which specific words within the graphic organizer are giving them trouble. That’s the first step. The second step is buckling down to learn the definitions. One way to do that is by using Quizlet, a program that offers students creative ways to learn new vocabulary . Quizlet even has ready-made study sets of literary terms that commonly appear in graphic organizers.

Problem #3: The graphic organizer is geared toward younger children

Perhaps it turns out that the problem is not a lack of understanding, but the feeling that they’re too mature to need some “gimmicky” graphic organizer. Despite the dramatic eye rolling, your teenager is right: many graphic organizers with their cute ice cream themed graphics, while quite charming to a fourth grader, were not designed to meet the emotional or academic needs of a middle school, high school, or college student.

Solution: Find graphic organizers that are more age-appropriate

Here are some bare-bones graphic organizers for expository writing that are geared toward older students. They work well for a student who knows what the essay needs to include but needs help visualizing and planning how it will all come together.

Or perhaps a student has a good sense for how to outline the main ideas, but has trouble finding quotes from the text to use as evidence. A visual system for tracking quotes can be instrumental in moving that process forward.

But what if a student has trouble getting started in the first place? Mind mapping is a technique used to generate and organize concepts in diagram form. Though it can be satisfying to dust off those colored pencils and draw a mind map by hand, a program such as Mindmup allows a student to create and share maps digitally. Regardless of the method one uses, mind mapping is a versatile tool; it’s an effective way to brainstorm new ideas, but it can also be used to elucidate connections in a text, such as the connections among the characters in Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Once a student is in a position to access it, a carefully chosen graphic organizer can make the writing process easier and more enjoyable. One might even go so far to say that a suitable graphic organizer can make writing fun. The right tool for the right purpose means fewer homework struggles and maybe, just maybe, one less "dead fish glare" cast in your direction.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Pia Cisternino

Pia Cisternino, M.A., M.S. is an executive function coach at Beyond BookSmart and a speech-language pathologist, with over a decade of experience working with students diagnosed with ADHD, autism, Asperger’s, and learning disabilities. She received her B.A. from Tufts University, where she majored in English and Italian, and continued to study literature at Johns Hopkins University, where she received an Master’s degree in Creative Writing and Poetry. She went on to receive a Master’s degree in Speech and Language Pathology from Teacher’s College at Columbia University. A strong advocate for students with special education needs, Pia founded and facilitated a support group for parents of 2e (twice exceptional) children, and served for two years as co-chair of the Parent Advisory Council on Special Education (C-PAC) within her local school district.. Pia’s approach to coaching centers around enabling students to build skills by utilizing their own individual strengths. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and children.

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