Friday, July 3, 2015

Visual Note-taking in my summertime classes

Some of you already know that my first book, entitled Visual Notetaking for Educators: A Teacher's Guide to Student Creativity is nearly ready to be published. (!!)  That doesn't mean I've stopped learning, though, and this past week, I created two sketches from my own learning at two very different workshops. As I synthesized my learning and takeaways from each workshop, I also noticed a distinct difference in how I approached them.

The first workshop, "Crafting Freedom", focused on the African American experience during the era of slavery. Not your typical history classroom teaching, this 5-day workshop distinguished enslaved blacks from free blacks, and highlighted their incredibly important roles. Many were "freedom crafters", craftsmen and women who used their entrepreneurship, creativity, and business acumen to subvert what is considered the more typical black history that we are wont to teach.
The Crafting Freedom website has a treasure trove of in-depth information, lesson plans for different age groups, multimedia resources, and a vetted bibliography. These are fascinating pieces of American (and World!) history, and we are doing a great disservice to the efforts of these historical figures, as well as to our students if we neglect to share these other perspectives.

The second workshop was a one-day exercise in sketchnoting, led by author Mike Rohde. This was the first time I had ever worked with a professional sketchnoter, since I am self-taught. Thanks to grants from my school PTA and NEA, I was able to attend this workshop in Chicago. It was an intimate setting, with only 8 participants, so we sketched, shared, and sketched some more. We reflected on our own and each others' styles, layouts, typography, and representations. We also sketched during a live Q&A with Basecamp founder Jason Fried, so we sketched an array of different inputs--from podcasts, to prompts, to live interviews. It was lighthearted and easygoing, but sketching all day can be mentally exhausting!

So, here's what happened. These two workshops were virtually back-to-back, and as I was synthesizing my notes and experiences, 3 things really hit home with me:

1. Visual notes have tone. I really wanted to honor my experiences at Crafting Freedom, and as I sketched, I realized that I wanted subdued colors--bright or primary colors didn't "feel" appropriate for such a serious subject. Nor did whimsical typography or flourishes. Definitely no stick figures, even though they're my standby.
2. Color matters. I mentioned the subdued colors and how they "felt" appropriate or not according to the subject. I also tried my second sketch without color, then added a single color to parts of the sketch. Just playing. I like the "clean" look of black and white, but adding a single color can add some pizzazz without overdoing it.
3. It's more fun to share. I feel like it's even more important to share our work as visual notetakers, particularly from a mutual experience. Others comment how helpful it is to rehash the week, or even the day, and when I know others will be looking at them, I tend to pull in other information that I noticed resonated with larger groups of participants--i.e., shared humor, quotes from speakers, etc.--rather than just myself.

If you haven't done so yet, I encourage you to try visual notetaking (I call it edu-sketching!) for yourself, for your students, or with your students, and see how new learning unfolds.

Below are the sketchnotes mentioned above. What differences make the sketches stand out? Which elements of style do you think work better for various content areas/ topics? Have you ever tried asking your students to synthesize their learning experiences with visuals? Can you imagine the collaborative efforts as your students create something like these?

Notes from Crafting Freedom Workshop in June 2015. Created by Wendi Pillars. Note the different typographies
between this sketch and the next, the cleaner lines, the set-up for possible student notes...What other differences
do you notice?

This was my recapture for an approximate 48 hour whirlwind adventure. As simple as they appear, there was a lot of
sifting through my thoughts as I determined the highlights to include. As you can see, I included not only elements of
our learning, but also some notes from my lightning round of tourism the night before the workshop. 

Here you can see how just a touch of color can wake up black and white sketches. I frequently stick to a 3-4 color scheme
(including black), but am working on how much negative space (white space) remains at the completion of my sketches.
Thanks for stopping by! Please share YOUR experiences with visual notes in your classroom or for your own personal use!

(available for pre-order now on Amazon and through W.W. Norton)


  1. This vision notes are really cool. As you maybe know all people perceive visual information (like pictures and sketches) better than texts and other. So it's cool idea and it's more interesting.

  2. Thanks for visiting--I'm glad you think they're interesting and cool. Have you created any visual notes?