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BELLTONES: Embrace Your Inner Doodler. Join the Sketchnoting Revolution!

By Mary Ann Bell - Posted Mar 1, 2015
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Picture if you will a first grade classroom circa 1950. The boys and girls are in old-fashioned desks arranged in straight rows. About halfway back there is a dreamy little girl who keeps her head down. Her mind is often off on adventures instead of following lessons. She’s doing her work in a red Big Chief tablet, using a fat, dull pencil. The top margin of her page is filled with doodles of animals, flowers, trees, shapes, stars and planets, none of which tie into her arithmetic lesson.

Tonight her teacher will call her mother and tell her that Mary Ann needs to pay attention in class, sit up straight, and stop doodling. Yep, that was me. I was not happy that old Miss Amos ratted me out to Mom, who decreed, “No. More. Doodling.” This was a sad thing, because the doodles were one thing that got me through the boring parts of my school days.

From then on, I did not give up my ways, but rather went underground. I continued to draw, but learned not to give myself away by decorating my classwork. Most everybody I knew was doing the same. Boys were always drawing airplanes and cars, while girly girls drew hearts and flowers. I was in the middle of the spectrum, drawing birds, insects, and trees. I never stopped, not even in graduate school. In staff development meetings, faculty meetings, and other times of forced attendance, my scribbles kept me from getting in trouble by openly showing my disengagement. But then I got swept up in technology. I put down my pencils and pens and began a busy life online. I forgot all about the power of the doodle.

‘Sketchnoting’–Embracing the Inner Doodler

Now all of the sudden I am liberating myself from old edicts and online time-sucks and embracing my inner doodler! I was doing some research in spring 2014 about visual literacy and came across a term that was new to me: “sketchnoting.” This piqued my interest and I took a detour to look into the meaning and use of “sketchnotes.” What I found really resonated with me. Essentially, sketchnoting is a self-descriptive term that refers to taking notes enhanced with sketches, doodles, or simple drawings as well as text. I have always had an interest in simple drawings, but, without realizing it, I let this part of my thinking go fallow in recent years in favor of online activities. I could easily go several weeks without picking up a pencil and several days without using a pen. At the same time I would speak out about the wrongness of taking art out of schools and requiring kids to write as well as keyboard. I was not practicing what I preached.

The more I looked into sketchnoting, the more it beckoned to me as something I wanted to try. I included it in a presentation this fall about infographics and knew then that I wanted to concentrate just on this topic, which I consider a subset of skills related to infographics. One of the most compelling things I noticed was how passionate people are about this tactic after having taken it up.

If you go looking for information about sketchnoting, you will not be disappointed, but you must look in the right places. A simple web search will turn up a plethora of information. Suffice it to say that lots of people are interested in this topic. Some people use the term combined with superlative terms, as in “sketchnoting movement” or “sketchnoting revolution.” One very active group of proponents is business professionals, especially those involved in presenting at meetings and conferences. One person associated with this topic from the early days of interest is Mike Rohde. He does come from the business world and has written a number of books about sketchnoting, as well as offering presentations and web resources.

Interestingly, this topic does not appear in Wikipedia, nor does Mike Rohde’s name. One of the earliest occurrences of the term “sketchnoting” that I found was at a 2009 SXSW presentation by Rohde. In the years since, the interest has really taken off and has extended beyond business and marketing. While there is excellent information available via simple searching, I discovered a lack of scholarly writing on the topic.

My university library has one title, Mike Rohde’s Sketchnoting Handbook (2012, Peachpit Press), a great first acquisition. I was happy to see it shelved with education titles rather than business. Searching my library’s periodical databases yielded just one article, by Veronica Erb, “How to Start Sketchnoting” ( Erb’s brief article offers a nice introduction to the topic but no more. The lack of scholarly writing on visual note-taking makes me think it is relatively new to the body of knowledge available for teachers and librarian. We can be cutting edge!

Digging In

Before I move on, I want to say a bit more about available information on the topic of sketchnoting. You should explore Flickr, Pinterest, Instagram, and YouTube for excellent information. You might try searching for “visual notetaking” and “visual vocabulary” as well. Additionally, if you are like me and need help with drawing, you can find a resource, either a video or a series of steps, showing you how to draw almost anything you can imagine. I just tried out this last statement, and did a search for a concept instead of a concrete object. I asked how to draw “frustration.” Yes, I got some results, which would be helpful if I really wanted to illustrate that feeling. The best online presentation I’ve found about sketchnoting for teachers is by Silvia Duckworth, a French teacher from Canada, and titled “Sketchnoting for Beginners (On the iPad).” Here is the link:

Why Sketchnoting?

I am going to admit that what first beckoned me to explore sketchnoting was that it sounded like fun. But that is not a sufficient reason to spend valuable time if you are a busy professional juggling work, family, and everyday challenges. Thus, it is fair to ask why you should be interested in this topic:

* It is good for kids to use their motor skills.

* It brings into play different parts of the brain than those activated by online work.

* In our visual world, images speak louder than words to get a message out.

* Visual representations can provide images that bring up concepts and help students remember them.

* It is fun!!!

Now that I have (hopefully) established the value of visual note-taking, the next question is, how to incorporate it into instruction? Here are a few ideas:

* Obviously, the first idea is to have students take notes. These could be on information offered by the teacher, on podcasts, on videos, or on presentations from any other medium. If I were in a secondary classroom, I would share an informational podcast or video and join in with students to take visual notes. I strongly believe that I should not ask students to do something new and different if I am not willing to do the activity myself.

* Next, I would turn to activities that some might term scribing, where the creator has plenty of time to organize and put together a visual depiction of events or information. Ideas for this are limitless: timelines, characterizations, book reports, science experiments. Others will come to mind that relate to your subject.

* I also recommend scribing for educators to produce and share instruction. I have done so with my own students and again think the possibilities are endless.

Getting Started

Maybe you are saying to yourself, “OK How to begin?” The drawings you see online as examples look deceptively simple if you are already a devoted doodler. If not, they may look daunting. Either way, you will find that sketchnoting can be difficult. Even if you are not put off by the idea of creating and sharing your own drawings, you need practice putting sketches together in a meaningful structure to communicate with others. Maybe you are one of those folks who says, “This is not for me. I don’t have an artistic bone in my body.” That was the big barrier for me, and finally I decided to jump in anyway. If I succeeded, I could become a poster child for sketchnoting, because, as they say, “If I can do this, anybody can.” Here are my earliest steps:

* I bought some books. There is so much online, you can get off to a great start without using a book, or certainly get something from the library. One book is hands-down my favorite, and I heard about it online from someone who shared about a professor whose entire syllabus is done in sketchnotes. This led me to the discovery of Lynda Barry, artist, illustrator, and professor, whose many accomplishments might be intimidating if it were not for her reassuring message that anybody can draw and also write. Her book, Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor (2014, Drawn & Quarterly) is the course outline for a class she teaches at UW-Madison on creative writing and drawing. This gem of a book should be in every high school library!

I bought some nice supplies. Again this is optional, but after playing around a little with just ballpoint pens and #2 pencils, I decided to treat myself to some serious art supplies. I bought some sketchbooks and writing instruments, including a set of Staedtler drawing pencils, which I dearly love, some quality pens, and Prismacolor pencils. I think this did indeed help motivate me. I got a little thrill at the office store checkout wondering if the salesperson would think I was a real artist.

* I latched onto books on how to draw. At the library, I checked out a couple of books that I highly recommend: Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book: Make a World (2006, LB Kids) and Mark Kistler’s Draw Squad (1988, Simon & Schuster). When I first tried using my wonderful art supplies, I followed instructions in both of these books for practice. They were instrumental in helping me gain confidence about sketching. These books should be in any library, especially school libraries.

* I read all I could online as well as in books.

* I heeded the advice of many sketchers that one should develop a visual vocabulary, meaning a collection of drawings that you can do quickly and will use often. This is like my mental clipart collection.

* I practiced. Actually, I have been doing so every day since late fall, and my New Year’s Resolution is to continue as long as I find it rewarding. Mostly, I use my super-cool sketchbooks, but I also keep a small notebook in my purse for odd moments of inspiration.

The Tech Connection

My final question is: What about technology? The classes I teach are related to librarianship and technology, and this journal is about tech as well. If you are sketching using pen or pencil and paper, aren’t you going old school and leaving out technology? Here are some ways to answer this question:

First, many of your students may prefer to use online apps or programs to sketch. It never ceased to amaze me how any kids were super adept at using Draw on PC computers while their teachers didn’t even know the program was there. Beyond that, there are the many apps for iPads and phones. These make online drawing of sketchnotes a perfect use of mobile devices. I did not find sketching on my iPad terribly appealing until I found a really good, fine-point stylus. The name of mine is Musemee. It is pricey and a bit fragile for youngsters, but great for interested teens and adults.

* This will be obvious to many readers, but sketchnoting and whiteboarding are natural allies. When I wrote my dissertation about using interactive whiteboards, I stressed that the proper use was to have students at the board rather than teacher. I think the best configuration is two students at a time, sharing the sketching duties and taking cues from classmates.

* Also, regardless of how you create your drawings, you will want to share them online. My first effort in this realm was a presentation on how to succeed as a graduate student. I used Screencast-O-Matic and a group of drawings all on one page. I just moved the pointer from one illustration to the next and recorded myself describing their significance as points that I wanted to get across.

* Another way to share notes online is through the many Web 2.0 apps that are for showcasing visuals. My next endeavor was to use Prezi and have my information move from one sketch to another. Sketchnoting Pinterest boards abound.

* I am an admitted novice in the sketchnoting world, so why trust me? See Kathy Schrock’s great presentation on the how’s and why’s of visual note-taking:

I am not one to jump on every bandwagon that passes me by in the long parade of my life. But drawing visual notes has really got me energized. It came to me that I have gone hog wild for sketchnoting! I don’t expect everybody to be as excited about sketchnoting and scribing as I am, but I do highly recommend that you look into it. For me, the biggest payoff is that spending time sketching every day makes me very happy, in a way that passing time with Facebook or other online activities does not. Maybe you will find that to be true for you and for your students as well!


Contact Mary Ann at

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