By Amy Mount
One small change in the classroom can make a big difference. And the same is true when it comes to professional development. In the past year, the switch to visual note taking has impacted my thinking. Visual note taking, also known as sketch noting, is taking down notes and information using both words and pictures. When listening to a speaker or reading text, we naturally form mental images. In sketch noting, the note taker captures those images and creates sketches and doodles on paper or a digital device, such as a tablet.
I made the switch because I’m going to doodle in my notes anyway. I’ve always filled the margins with patterns and little sketches—out of boredom, frankly, as I find it really difficult to sit still and do one thing. Now my sketches and doodles are a major component of my note-taking process, and I find it is much easier to stay present and engaged in the material. In traditional note taking, there’s the tendency to want to capture each word the speaker says. In visual note taking, the process is more about listening with intent so that you can synthesize and visualize information and then convey your own ideas about the topic.
You say you’re not an artist? That’s okay, neither am I. I’ve always aspired to artistic ability; the problem is that I really just don’t have much talent. In high school, I convinced my mom that signing me up for a series of art classes with a local artist was a good idea. Four classes in, when I still hadn’t managed to paint a single acceptable holly leaf for our still life assignment, the artist gently suggested that pottery might be more my style. I spent the remainder of the series banished to the pottery studio. (For the record, it turns out that I’m not any better at pottery.) In sketch noting, quick sketches, stick figures, simple designs, and patterns are encouraged. It’s OK to be a little messy. After all, deep thinking usually is.
To get started, all you need is either blank paper or an inexpensive sketchbook, a pen, and perhaps some colored pencils or markers. I find it helpful to pick just a few colors at the beginning and stick with those throughout the note so I’m not overwhelmed by choosing the exact right color. Alternatively, you can also use your tablet and a stylus. I made the switch to digital in the fall and have been really happy. There are lots of choices for apps and styli, but my favorite iPad app is Paper by Fifty-Three and their stylus, Pencil.
After you’ve gathered your materials, it helps to start by labeling your page. I include the speaker or author’s name, the title of the session or text, and my Twitter handle in the top left of the page. I try to visualize the page in quadrants or columns and organize my thoughts accordingly. I listen for big ideas and important quotes and capture those in words. I sketch visual representations of my ideas as I’m listening and synthesizing information. I tend to draw frames (boxes, circles, etc.) around similar ideas to group them and arrows or lines to show connections and relationships. With time and practice, you develop your own visual shorthand, like big question marks to note things I’m still wondering about or light bulbs for ideas I want to try.
If you want to try your hand at sketch noting, watching videos like TED Talks is a great way to practice. A few of my favorites are Simon Sinek’s “How great leaders inspire action,” Diana Laufenberg’s “How to Learn? From Mistakes,” and Sunni Brown’s (very short) “Doodlers, unite!” Another opportunity for me to practice is reflection after church. During the sermon, I jot down notes and cues in the bulletin and use them later in my personal journaling.
Another benefit of sketch noting is the sharing of ideas with others. You can find examples of sketch notes on Twitter using #sketchnote, #sketchnoting, or #sketchnotes. At conferences, I like to share my notes using the conference hashtag and tagging the presenter. Admittedly, I didn’t start sharing my sketch notes for a few months after I’d started, but don’t be being shy like me. I’ve made really great connections and received awesome feedback from being brave enough to share my sketch notes with others.
In December, I attended a workshop with Alan November. He asked me to share my notes with the audience and give a quick tutorial.
So, if you’re looking for one small change to try out this new year, sketch noting is an awesome, accessible practice for everyone. If you’re ready to jump in, here are some links to great places to learn more and get inspired:
- Sketchnotes 101 for all of the basics
- Sketchnote Army’s showcase of sketch notes
- Sketchnotes Tools and Resources for the iPad
- Kathy Schrock’s Sketchnoting in the Classroom
- Stephani Bachetti’s collection of sketchnotes from TED Talks
Amy Mount is the preK–12 social studies coordinator in Garland ISD (in Texas), an ASCD Emerging Leader, the TSSSA vice president, a doctoral student at UWG, and a wife and mom to the world’s cutest 3-year-old boy. In her nearly nonexistent free time, she bakes a mean cookie. Connect with her on Twitter @msmrocks.