I have drawn a map. It’s one of the first things I did. 

– J. K. Rowling

One of my new (school) year resolutions is to try to tap into the power of visual art. As a hobbyist photographer, I know first-hand the power of the image and its ability to convey emotion, truth, and wonder, sometimes in ways that the printed word cannot.

A single picture or image, if well-chosen, can often times communicate an idea more succinctly than words. Words and pictures, in tandem, can be powerful tools. Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like An Artist is just one of many example of this new type of “hybrid” communication.  Here, for example, is one of my favorite pages from his book:


Kleon could have written hundreds of words to describe the gap between where we are now and dreams we strive for. But the simple image above is powerful because it tells us everything we need to know with relatively few words: that the gap can be wide, that it will take hard work—and some creativity—to make it across, and that it may require a certain amount of risk to make that critical leap if we want to achieve our dreams.

My interest in Kleon’s work led me to other visual artists, including the work of Dan Roam, whose “show and tell” premise is simple, but powerful:

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Anyone who has watched a TED Talk knows that this is the basic formula for many, if not most, of them. And although I’m clearly not on the same stage as Sir Ken Robinson, Elizabeth Gilbert, or Daniel Pink, I “present” material every day to my students. Why not integrate even a little bit of these three steps into my teaching?

As an English teacher, I think I’ve got a handle on numbers 1 and 2. After all, isn’t telling the truth through story exactly what great literature does?  Alas, my actual drawing skills leave much to be desired.

The thing is, I used to love to draw when I was younger. In fact, I carried a sketchbook around with me throughout high school even though I never actually took an art class. Because I “thought” I was going to be a doctor one day, I doubled-up on science classes in high school, leaving no other room in my schedule for electives. It’s a decision I still regret, and perhaps one reason I find myself enrolling my sons in extra art classes during the summer.

But visual notetaking has tremendous potential. After all, we process so much information visually.

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Here, and below are two excerpts from a great infographic, “Why We Crave Infographics” – very meta!

We also remember information much better when we engage our visual and kinesthetic senses into our processing. Drawing, after all, is kinesthetic as well as visual.

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But like I’ve said before, my drawing skills are definitely lacking. And I imagine that while there are plenty of students who are naturally gifted artists and visual thinkers, many more may feel the same nervousness I feel when asked to draw.

But there’s just so much upside to learning how to integrate writing and drawing. I became even more convinced of the potential for visual note-taking after seeing this TED Talk earlier this year.


As the speaker, Rachel Smith, points out, visual note-taking “is not about drawing. It’s not about making beautiful pictures. It’s not about making detailed images. It’s not about accurately drawing a person or a car or a lightbulb. It’s not even about doing something that’s recognizable to anybody other than yourself.” She continues,

The thing you need to do with visual note-taking is capture what you’re hearing in a way that’s memorable for you.

Smith goes on to outline three simple steps for getting started: 1) pick a took, 2) develop a few basic icons, and 3) listen for and capture key points. After that, it’s all practice.

In my experience, the only way to conquer a fear is to face it head-on. So this year, I’ll be drawing alongside my students. I’ve already started practicing some techniques and have even ordered Michael Rohde’s The Sketchnote Handbook.  He has some amazing examples of sketchnotes produced from his book on his website, sketchnotearmy.com. Looking at these sketchnotes, it’s easy to imagine how engaging this process could be for students, and of course, for me, too. 🙂

My first feeble attempts at sketchnotes.