Let’s Talk About Sketch

Note taking can be a torturous task for students and teachers alike. Let sketchnoting be the innovative approach for note taking that transforms this mundane task in your classroom.


Taking Notes

Some of you probably already rolled your eyes or groaned just reading those two words. Even before I knew the research (including this piece on NPR) backed my feeling up that taking notes vs. being handed notes or typing notes had benefits, I always appreciated the act of note taking. It seemed that writing the information down made it stick better, for me and for many of my students. But…I also realized that even though I valued the act of note taking, I wasn’t truly engaging my students in this process, and they weren’t making the notes their own.

So What?

So one day I was looking at posts on Twitter, and I saw something that caught my attention, #sketchnotes. Once you start looking, you’ll be amazed at what you find, both from adults and the student examples out there. Sketchnotes allow a person to combine doodles and text to better process the information. Best of all, the students are deciding what doodles/icons/pictures will connect with the text they’re writing. They’re note taking, but they’re making it meaningful.

There are many examples of sketchnotes available, but I’ve found that Carrie Baughcum @HeckAwesome is a fantastic resource for all things sketchnotes. Carrie practices sketchnoting in her classroom, and she is passionate about helping other teachers learn about and embrace sketchnoting in the classroom. Check out her video, My Pencil Made Me Do It: A beginner’s guide to sketchnoting in the classroom. And her newest addition, Sketchnoting: I Just Don’t Know How to Start, is excellent support on taking the plunge.

But I still know that fear lingers, and she has been practicing it and growing with it, but you haven’t…so is it really doable? YES! And I’m going to show you how I jumped in and made sketchnoting part of my classroom.

But I can’t draw. This is definitely not for me.

In the last quarter of the school year, I started implementing sketchnoting with my students, and although I was just a tiny bit terrified to try this new process, it was a much-needed and welcome change! It doesn’t matter that you don’t have a talent for drawing. In fact, that’s one of the things that made the process so much fun for my students and me. For example, we laughed together at my obvious “talent” for drawing swans, especially when one of the swans turned out twice the size of the pond. By showing them that I could laugh at my own representations but that those pictures still made sense, I allowed them the opportunity to view their own doodles in the same way.IMG_5452

Obviously everyone has to find his/her own comfort level in any new task, but maintaining a sense of humor was essential in my experience.

Try it yourself.

My first step was actually to try sketchnoting for myself. I didn’t want to instruct students on something I had never done. Quite honestly, I still wasn’t sold on whether it would work for my eighth graders, an age group prone to being self-conscious about everything, especially artistic endeavors. I also knew that I was going to have to model the process at some point, and that made me nervous. My building had started applying ideas of standards based grading, so I decided that a sketchnote to help me organize those ideas might be a good place for me to start.

first sketchnote

When I finished, I felt better. I realized there really wasn’t a right or wrong way to approach scketchnoting, and that I didn’t need amazing drawing skills to effectively convey and organize my thoughts. As I completed it, I also tried to think of things that might help students and came up with these:

  1. Decide how you want your sketchnote oriented before you begin. Are you a person that wants a larger icon and title in a top corner, or do you prefer a central image? Are ideas radiating from the image, or are ideas meant to flow in order?
  2. Don’t worry about perfection. You’re bound to have a spelling error or picture that has a funky line. Correct it if it bothers you (and you notice it at that point) and move on. If you cross a word out and have to rewrite it, not a big deal. (They seem to struggle with this at first.)
  3. Use pen or pencil or markers or colored pencils…whatever you want to use. Although I do encourage those students who are more timid about using colors to try it out, at least with a couple colors at first.

Jump right in.

I told my students that we’d be trying a different kind of note taking. I’m big on explaining the “whys” of my decisions to my kids, so I told them why we were trying this new technique and how it could help them “in real life.” We watched this short video narrated by someone who sounds as if he’s close to their age and created as a sketchnote.

first student sketchnotes

As a class, we had just finished reading and discussing the story “Stop the Sun,” so it seemed like a great starting point to take the plunge. With no other guidance than the video and a short discussion about what it meant to create a sketchnote, i asked students to create one for the story. I gave the option to use notebook paper or computer paper, colors or not, with the guiding instruction that it should act like a summary of the story since summarizing was a skill we had been practicing and assessing on.

I was so encouraged by the results the next day in class! I was able to conference with each student quickly as the class worked on another task. As I conferenced with students, I pulled examples to project that we could talk about to encourage creativity and build confidence.

Keep Going!

The next day I projected an Internet article about analogies on the board. As we read through, students told me what they thought were important details to represent in my sketchnote. While I completed my sketchnote on the white board with their help, they each completed one of their own as well. The students finished up the last section of the article as homework, so when class started the next day, I was able to conference with each student quickly as the class worked on another task. If they were heavy on text and really light on doodles/images, we discussed that. If they were heavy on doodles/images and text was nearly nonexistent, we discussed that.

It became a common note taking practice for us. They sketchnoted as we read through a story or novel. The first time we did this, I participated with them and projected mine on the SmartBoard using my ELMO. Yes, you’re doing it in real time. Yes, you might make a mistake. Yes, you may struggle at first to figure out how exactly you want to represent an idea. But…that’s exactly what your students are going through, and through your participation, you’re showing that those missteps are a part of the process. If you see a student doing something inventive, creative, logical, or brilliant, stop and point it out. Hold it up, project it, talk about why it’s such a great idea.

The story we started with was “The Third Wish,” and the first sketchnote shows how I progressed through the story using a style comfortable for me. The others are student examples from different books, and you can see that even though I modeled sketchnoting, students made it their own in a way that was comfortable and meaningful for them. And really, that’s the point.

Quick Feedback

One of the greatest benefits for you the teacher in having students use sketchnotes for note taking is in how quickly you can check for individual student understanding. Instead of waiting until the end of a unit/concept/story after you’ve given students notes or sifting through all of their traditional notes to see if they understand, you can quickly look through the visuals and their text counterparts. If you see a problem, you can address it. Maybe it’s a class misconception that needs further class explanation. But you know. Quickly.

Sketch Away

You’re ready. Something different is always a bit intimidating, but you have a plan, and it’s time. Your students are ready. They’re tired of regurgitating notes that teachers have given them without a say in their creation. They’re ready for a better solution. Give them a chance to show you what they can do with this new formula. Be prepared for the students who will be scared at this new idea. You’ll be taking them out of their comfort zone, too. Remember that making that move isn’t a bad thing; it just makes us nervous.

If you take the plunge, please share your experiences and examples here! Happy sketching!




4 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Sketch”

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