Sketchnoting: Making Thinking Visible

I love to doodle.  Whenever I am sitting and people are talking, I am drawing.  I never got in trouble for this.  In fact, teachers encouraged me to sketch while I was listening. It was the only way I could still myself and really listen to what was being said.  Instead of tuning out, I tuned in. Making pictures helped me to remember.  If I couldn’t understand a word problem, I drew out the little story in front of me, and all of a sudden the solution jumped out at me.  I drew graphs, T-charts, and clocks to better understand mathematical concepts.  Drawing helped in science too.  Making pictures of cells and plants and chemical reactions helped me to ask questions and learn more. When reading on my own, I often draw in the margins, not just underline or highlight. If something is really important to me, I draw it so I can deepen my understanding.  No one taught me to do this.  I just experimented and found my own way to represent my thinking.

The first time I heard about sketchnoting as a teaching technique was several years ago in a book called Comprehension Connection by Tanny McGregor.  It was an integral part of the reading strategy of visualization. Since then, Tanny has published other books with her sketchnotes:  Ink and Ideas, and Harvey Daniels’ The Curious Classroom.  Last month, I attended one of Tanny’s webinars offered by The Rutgers Center for Literacy Development. It came right at the right time because the following week I was planning to teach sketchnoting to our 4th grade students.  Tanny showed lots of examples of where sketchnoting can be used to help students see concepts and help teachers see what exactly their students are thinking. 

The emphasis is not of the art but rather on the ideas, and I wanted to be sure I expressed that understanding to our students.  I didn’t want the girls who do not see themselves as proficient artists to check out of the lesson.  I wanted them to feel empowered, to want to take a chance and create. To do this I focused on having students visualize an object or a scene first, and then showed them how to use shapes to convey ideas.  First, I showed them some short video clips of sketchnoting. Then, I shared a slideshow I had created introducing all the elements they would need to sketchnote: banners, arrows, call out boxes, thought bubbles, shapes, lettering, and people. As I shared each element, I asked the girls to create their own version of these elements.  It was a safe space to try things out and make mistakes.  I drew on a whiteboard to model that my drawings did not have to be perfect – they were quick sketches. Once we had all the elements in place, we were ready for our first project.

I wanted to start with something familiar and nonthreatening, something the students know very well: themselves.  As soon as I explained what I wanted them to do, they grabbed their pencils and started to sketch.  The room was completely quiet, illustrating the fact that when students are completely engaged in creating, they can concentrate and bring themselves into the flow of learning.  I was able to step back and watch: They didn’t need reassurance; they weren’t off task;  they weren’t bored; they were thinking and drawing.

After the girls finished their sketches, they added color if they wanted and then shared their work.  They not only shared the content of their drawings and ideas, but also described their design process, which was marvelous. They were doing more thinking about their thinking than I had imagined!

For the next lesson, I wanted to incorporate sketchnoting while reading.  Before my lesson, I visited the 4th grade English classes and sketchnoted in front of them, while their teacher read aloud from a class novel.  I was sure to incorporate the elements they had learned the week before. Then, I asked the girls to critique my sketchnote.  What did they notice?  What did they wonder?  What did they feel? Was there something important I missed? What else might I have included?

When it was time for our second sketchnoting lesson, I chose Jane Yolen’s book, Owl Moon to read aloud because her language is so rich and visual.  Before I read, we again went over the design elements used in sketchnoting, the girls got out their papers and pencils, and they were ready to begin.  Once I finished reading, the girls continued to draw. Some asked me to reread specific parts in the story.  The rereading helped them to add more details. It was another quiet session with total concentration.  At the end of the lesson, they each had a creation they were proud of and were eager to share. As we shared, the students began to see that even though we all listened to the same story, our sketchnotes were very different.  They also noted similarities, places in the text where the message stood out to many students.  This is such a strong way to show main idea and figurative language.  The week after this lesson, during our winter break, I received a holiday card from one student noting: “I’m practicing my sketchnoting.  I hope we do more when we return. It is so much fun!”

Well, how can I ignore that?  My next lesson will be sketchnoting using nonfiction texts both social studies and science.  I cannot wait to see their results.  I cannot wait to keep learning alongside them!

Books About Sketchnoting

Draw Your Big Idea by Nora Herting

Educated Design by Michael Cohen

How to Sketchnote: A Step-by-Step Manual for Teachers and Students by Sylvia Duckworth

Ink & Ideas by Tanny McGregor

My Pencil Made Me Do It: A Guide to Sketchnoting by Corrie Boughcum

Sketchnoting in the Classroom by Nichole Carter

The Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde

Visual Note-Taking For Educators: A Teacher’s Guide to Student Creativity by Wendi Pillars

Visual Thinking by Williemien Brand

7 thoughts on “Sketchnoting: Making Thinking Visible

  1. Brilliant!! This is so cool, and so like you to try everything possible to engage the students and increase learning!! I wish you had been my teacher! Have a great weekend Xoxo

    On Sat, Jan 9, 2021 at 10:30 AM Word Dancer: Literature, the Arts, & Educati


  2. You are certainly in your element here with teaching sketchnoting to the students! Your own insight is such a gift – how you, as a child, knew that sketching would “still your mind” plus the gift of teachers who understood. In my work I often encounter students who struggle with reading; focus is a big issue for many, and frequently these students love drawing and can do it with astounding detail. Here you illustrate so well (had to use that phrase!) how students can get to deeper meanings, how intense their concentration is, and the creative reward of sketchnoting their reading. Your excitement is palpable and one thing I know when it comes to teaching is that passion is contagious! I hope you’ll share some of what comes with science and social studies as the students make their thinking visible. This to me is excellence in teaching … and this: “learning alongside them.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you, Fran. Your insights mean a lot to me. I will keep you posted on the science and social studies sketchnotes. I want to try math sketchnotes too – but I’ll have to be braver! Well, that 3 more post topics to add to my growing list!


  4. I have been interested in sketchnotes for a long time, but I have not tried it! You’ve inspired me to give it a shot. I need to grab one or two of these books as well. I really enjoyed reading about how sketchnotes helped you as a student and about your students’ reaction to them.


  5. I love sketchnoting! Have you read any of Lynda Barry’s books? She’s the queen in my opinion. My friend Carrie Baughcum also published a book and her and her daughter Annabeth host a weekly sketchnoting show (I guess?) on YouTube called Doodle and Chat. I love it!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Love Tanny…good to hear she is still advancing her sketchnotes and… wow, I love what they are doing with it in your classroom. It can even work with sharing their screens…hooray. Our kids just went back this week, but it is still horrible here in Illinois! XO


  7. This is a post I’ll need to save and reread again! I appreciate the way you organized your writing. I love how you begin with your personal story, share your process with students, and conclude with some book recommendations. Thank you so much for sharing a piece of YOU 🙂


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