Stories of Innovation: Cross-Curricular Online Graphic Organizers

Written by Alissa Martinka

Are Your Students Really Reading Their Textbooks?

Our story begins about ten years ago when we decided to return to graduate school. Mary Gruis and I wereboth composition and literature instructors, but our college is a small institution, so when we needed reading instructors, several of us decided to add this field to our English backgrounds. We could not have known how much those courses would change our own teaching.

Most experienced readers do not think too deeply about the processes and strategies they use while they read: annotating, note-taking, and asking and answering questions to comprehend the material comes “naturally” to us. However, for many of our students, readers with less experience, these behaviors like visualization are unknown to them. We learned in our own classrooms that offering our students explicit reading instruction helped them create their own toolbox of reading strategies that they could go to for the various and demanding texts they would encounter in college. We saw them feel empowered by their ability to read difficult materials and the deeper learning that took place when class wasn’t simply “a lecture” of the day’s reading.

Then, we heard from casual conversations with our colleagues from other disciplines that reading was a challenge: complaints ranged from “my students don’t read,” to “my students can’t read,” to “I’m not even assigning reading anymore.” This last one was heart-breaking for us. We decided to pick one tool, graphic organizers, and show our colleagues a strategy for supporting reading and deeper learning in their classrooms. We told them: “If you’re assigning reading, you’re teaching reading.” We showed them how graphic organizers could be tailored to specific disciplines and specific texts buy designing “roadmaps” for reading. The key is to start by asking ourselves, as instructors: what do I what my students to get from this? That purpose is key to creating graphic organizers that are intentional and meaningful.

Graphic Organizers

We sat down with Practical Nursing instructors, read and studied their textbook, and had conversations about how their updated concept-based model (versus a disease or disorder-based model) was a positive change but also brought reading challenges. We decided this text needed two organizers. One for the concept and one for the exemplar AND methods of connection between the two parts. We did the same thing with colleagues from Psychology, Environmental Science, Early Childhood Education, Non-Destructive Testing, and others.

We taught our colleagues how to model using organizers with their students. The key is doing it cold. Your students need to see you think aloud through the content and write on the organizer in your own words. Students need time to practice using them in groups before they’ll feel confident on their own. Students need your feedback early on, on the first few during those initial weeks of the semester. Then, they’ll see their impact, and hopefully you’ll see the impact to reward them with participation points or some other incentive. Of course, in the end, the intrinsic reward of learning the material and learning a practical reading strategy that they can modify and take with them to other courses is the most powerful benefit.

Faculty are returning to us and sharing the ways our organizers have impacted so many aspects of their teaching! It is incredibly powerful when faculty share their experiences. For example, an Environmental Science instructor shared that because of way he was using the graphic organizers, his students were more complete in their responses to short-answer questions on his exams. They were also scoring better on those short-answer questions. Another instructor came to us and admitted that he now needed to plan differently for class because his students were coming with the material read, and were now asking questions and engaging on a deeper level. Now, he has the opportunity to spend more time working with the students on activities or discussions that go beyond the cursory overview of the reading material. Lastly, an instructor whom we worked with came to us with suggestions about how she could use the organizers differently. We loved having the opportunity to help her see that she could easily redesign her organizers to better suit a particular assignment; they were just Word documents that she could edit and save for herself. Whenever we have been asked about changing an organizer, we have encouraged faculty to “make them their own,” but please share back with us, so we can continue to see the different ways they are being used.

We’ve been sharing our work not only with faculty from our institution, but with faculty at regional conferences and even national conferences. We have partnered with faculty at another Minnesota State university because they received their own grant funding based on our work. This project has been rewarding and humbling and has pushed us to grow professionally by getting us out of our institution and state and by encouraging us to share our materials in an OER format. We always have a bit of disbelief when our sessions go swimmingly and participants are grabbing all the examples we’ve brought and excitedly exploring ways in which they can tweak this tool for themselves and their students. We remind them: graphic organizers are not rocket science…just boxes!

Watch the video on MediaSpace

The project Cross-Curricular Online Graphic Organizers was given innovation funding through Minnesota State. Learn more about the upcoming innovation funding period, focusing on “Teaching through COVID-19.”

Questions? Contact Alissa Martinka and Mary Gruis

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