I have been teaching sketchnoting to my 8th grade science students for two years now. While I am far from an expert on the subject, I have learned a thing or two along the way. It is safe to say sketchnoting is also not something I think the majority of my students really enjoy. But I do think learning the process provides them a solid foundation in developing the skills they will need to read, interpret, and organize complex, content-rich science text. I have developed a simple, step-by-step process that seems to work well for most of my students.
We begin by helping student learn how to annotate and effectively highlight a reading passage. We call this practice Marking Up The Text (MUTT). While this process might seem simple, many students think it is more about how much you color on each page. One strategy to help prevent excessive highlighting is to utilize a set of symbols students use to annotate and add marks to the text. The purpose of these symbols is to help act as visual markers and add meaning of the text but also helps to build a bridge to using doodles or images to represent ideas.
Most reading passages and textbook pages are sent to my students as a PDF file. They then open the file on their iPads in Notability. I love this app for MUTTing of reading passages. Before iPads, I hated printing out page after page of articles to give kids the chance to practice annotating. I would never have dreamed of printing out chapters from the textbook. The iPad removed these feelings. I can now send a digital copy to each student and allow them to MUTT all they want. I demonstrate the process for my students and share student examples with my AppleTV (via AirPlay).
While the MUTTing of text is done on the iPad, I find it is most effective to then transfer this information into a composition-style notebook. This step is a reflective step to help determine if students were effective at finding the meaning in their reading and can effectively summarize the main ideas. This is done on the right side of the notebook pages. Many science notebook advocates call this right side page the input page. I teach a simplified Cornell-style form of note-taking so these details are not “new ideas” but simply reflect a summary of the main ideas. As I did with the MUTT step, I will model this for my students and often, we will do the first page together to get them started.
Armed with this self-generated outline, the students is now ready to sketch the left side page of their notebook. Think of this page as the output page. This page is a source of anxiety for many of my students. “I can not draw” is often the excuse I hear from my reluctant adopters. No matter how many times I tell them it is about ideas, not art, they just do not buy it. The way I deal with this anxiety is to provide several sketchnote strategies to help address this challenge.
The first is to teach five basic elements from Mike Rohde, author of the The Sketchnote Handbook and founder of the Sketchnote Army. These five basic elements are shapes anyone can draw but when combined together, can be used to make almost anything. These simple 5 elements are a circle, square, triangle, line and dot. Once students see these simple symbols are be used to make up all types of other objects, it is easier for them to doodle their ideas. Mike talks about developing a image library students can pull from as they sketch their ideas. I provide a helpful worksheet that allows students to practice their drawing and develop their image library. We also share ideas on content specific words and develop simple images that go along with the vocabulary words for that unit.
Another helpful resource I use are some videos and materials from Doug Neil, founder of Verbal to Visual. My favorite is his blog post on 8 ways to build your sketchnoting skills. As a former teacher himself, Doug seems to appreciate how to break these tasks into short, achievable steps.
Structure, font and color also play a big role in adding meeting to a sketchnote. Students are asked to spend some time organizing their ideas and mapping out the theme or topic. Some will even use Post It notes to make a model of the page. This process helps to review and make connections to ideas and content. This is used to help spot patterns and set up main ideas as headings. Using bold fonts or frames also helps to add emphasis to important aspects of the page. I also find color is very useful for this. For example, when we examine phases of matter, temperature and thermal energy, red and blue colors are very helpful at showing change in temperatures.
I see this process as just another tool in the toolbox I try to provide my students. Some will embrace the idea of using sketchnotes while others will resist it. I do take time to grade their notes. I have them submit a photo of a right and left page they are feel represents their best work about every 2 weeks. I use as simple 5 point rubric to assess the student work and understanding (5 Great, 4 Good, 3 Completed). I would be interested to look at how many students continue to use parts of this process in high school. At the very least, I can trust that I have provided them some skills to help them with content specific literacy.