Sketchnotes: Paper Prep that's FUN

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When my parents attended my school conferences in tenth grade, they brought back a mysterious comment from my history teacher. 

"She's so engaged some days. Other days I feel like she has disappeared into her own world." 

You see, it all depended on my doodle of the day. Every day I chose a different theme with which to decorate the margins around my history notes. If the theme was highly absorbing, I really didn't have time to participate in discussion.

If only someone had taught me about sketchnotes! Sketchnotes channel all that incredible doodling energy into actual learning. When you teach students how to do sketchnotes, you give them a huge boost in their ability to process what they are learning, get it onto paper, and remember it. 

Mike Rohde, a designer in Wisconsin, originally coined the term "sketchnotes." His website, Sketchnote Army, summarizes sketchnotes like this:

"Sketchnotes are purposeful doodling while listening to something interesting. Sketchnotes don't require high drawing skills, but do require a skill to visually synthesize and summarize via shapes, connectors, and text. Sketchnotes are as much a method of note taking as they are a form of creative expression." 

The great news for students and teachers is that doodling your notes purposefully actually helps you learn better. It's easier to remember what really matters when you connect your notes, your own thoughts, and images. 


The sketch noting process is quite simple. It starts with listening/reading/experiencing information and beginning to put down the important stuff on paper as you process it. As you go, you add emphasis to the things that seem most important to you, making them bigger, bolder, brighter. You add connecting arrows and lines, shapes and containers, symbols and sketches. You try to bring the information to life on the paper, so it truly represents what you've learned and what you think of it, and the connections between different elements are clear. 

As I first began diving deep into sketchnotes, I decided to sketchnote the article I was reading about them. It was so much fun! I did it while I was on duty in the dorm where I live, and other students and faculty kept dropping by to ask me about what I was doing. I took a photo and popped it onto Instagram, and soon other teachers were commenting that this was how they used to take notes in high school.  

Though sketchnotes are most often used as a tool for processing and remembering lectures, they can also make a great prewriting activity for students who do not know what to focus on in a paper. 

Start by introducing your students to sketchnotes with a short and fabulous video. 

Then say you'd like them to create a page of sketchnotes based on the text you've just read. I tried this out for The Hate U Give, and I was surprised by the results. Though I had enjoyed reading this book thoroughly, I had no particular idea what I would write about if I was going to do a paper on it (not having much need to write papers these days!). As I began to sketchnote, I enjoyed the process of paging through and remembering what stuck out to me as I read. I easily covered my paper in quotations, thoughts, and important points. 


After students sketchnote their text, they suddenly have a one page version of the book. It's far easier for them to examine it and consider what to write about than it is as they face a two or three hundred page novel. Not only that, but they are probably feeling more connected to it, now that they've adapted it into their own language and used their own personal style of design. At this point it will be easier for them to come up with a thesis and choose key points and quotations to help support it. 

I've designed a pair of free handouts to help you walk students through this process. The first succinctly explains what sketchnotes are, using a sketchnotes format. If you don't want to watch the video with your students, or you just want to give them the basics in case they forget as they work, this handout is perfect. The second handout helps them dive into their sketchnotes and pull out the nuts and bolts of their papers. 


If you'd like to download this freebie, you can grab it right here. I hope it will help guide your students through their writing process in a creative and engaging way. I'd love to have your feedback after you try it out! 

If you're feeling intrigued by the sketchnotes concept, and you'd like to keep learning about new ways to use it in your classroom, check out my Sketchnotes Pinterest board, where I pin everything I find about this exciting strategy. 

Good luck with sketchnotes! I hope you'll try them out alongside your students, it really is so much fun. 

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And if you're looking for some structure in getting students from identifying their thesis and main points into the solid work of paper writing, you might like my featured resource: Teaching the Introduction. In this thirteen page packet, you'll get the step-by-step handouts you need to have students write a strong and clear argument, taking the guesswork out of the process. Teaching students how to nail the introduction has saved me so much grading and commenting time! 

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About the Author: Betsy Potash from Spark Creativity


After almost a decade of teaching across all the high school levels and grades, in both the United States and abroad, Betsy now joyfully spends her time helping high school English teachers escape the podium and teach creatively. Betsy runs the blog Spark Creativity and the The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast. Her degrees and a lot of happy memories come from Pomona College (B.A., English) and Middlebury (M.A., English). Betsy loves to travel the world (she'll be back, Morocco!), play playdoh with her little ones, and cook a range of desserts that would make the Hogwarts house elves proud. When it comes to writing instruction, she brings a creative twist. Whether it's teaching her students to use quotation burgers in their formal papers or launching a student-authored one act play festival, Betsy always hopes to help students enjoy writing by keeping it fun and engaging.