Today on the Heinemann Podcast, we’re learning about creative ways to grow our thinking.
Tanny McGregor is the author of Ink and Ideas: Sketchnotes for Engagement, Comprehension, and Thinking. In it, Tanny explains the power behind putting words and pictures together in the method of “sketchnoting.” One of the benefits of sketchnoting is bringing focus and strengthening memory. It also allows for multiple perspectives in the classroom to be represented in authentic and personal ways.
Our conversation begins with Tanny’s first introduction to sketchnoting and her grandfather’s profound influence on her work…
Below is a full transcript of the conversation.
Tanny: Well, I think I just observed him for hours upon hours. Growing up about three hours from our family's farm, I visited in the summertime. He was always very busy, as you could imagine, with jobs around the farm from 4:30 in the morning until after it was dark, but when he would come into the house, he'd often sit in this recliner in their parlor room in this old ... You can sort of picture it in the Appalachian Hills, of this white house punctuating this green landscape. He would sit there often with some reading just to relax.
I always noticed a blue pen in his hand, and was confused for a while about why he would even bother to take notes because I associated notes with an assignment or studying for a quiz. It wasn't until years later that I started to realize that for him to understand as deeply as he needed to and wanted to, he needed to pause and decelerate himself, and make his thinking visible.
He was a man of action and work all the time, so it was really just some of the few times that I ever saw him slow down, and it just happened to be reading, and writing, and sketching were part of that process for him.
Brett: Why don't you sort of go through the early part of the book. You talk about how as a student yourself, sometimes you were allowed to sketch note, and other times you were forbidden from it. Why was that?
Tanny: Yeah, maybe I didn't really understand the why behind that until I had my own classroom. I know just speaking from experience teaching first graders and third graders for the first 10 or 12 years of my career, I sometimes felt that kids weren't engaged. I felt that they maybe weren't paying attention, that they were daydreaming, and the more I read and learn now about how we code our thinking in a visible way, I wish I could do that all over again. And welcome those behaviors because I know in order to focus, many of the students I've had have the same tendency I have. That's just to be making some kind of representation of our thinking whether it's directly related to content in the classroom or just a way to process, like with repeated shapes or lines or the same word written over and over. I know now that for many of us there's a reason behind that.
Brett: You write and you show that it really is a strong tool for comprehension so how do you make the case to the world that this isn't just drawing, this isn't just doodling?
Tanny: Just yesterday, in a couple of classrooms in Boston I saw it sort of materialize right before my eyes, especially in this case. I was in a classroom without a relationship with the students. Didn't have a lot of time to get to know them, and warm up to each other at all. But within just a few minutes after learning some sketch noting features, kids were able to show in just a few minutes time what was going on inside their heads in a variety of ways where they had a lot of choice along the way.
And it turned out to be, if we had 20 students in the class, there were 20 different representations of the same informational content that we happened to be sketch noting.
So for me I just noticed over and over that some students, and I could say many students, are able to communicate to me and with each other, maybe more importantly, in a way that they might not be able to share in just conversation or writing about their thinking. But their thinking is clear and evident and more meaningful when given a chance to slow down and show it in a way that allows them to express themselves differently.
When I'm working with younger kids we'll even weave our fingers together and talk about words and pictures, and if we can find a way to blend those together, that's a really powerful way to communicate. We'll talk about how it doesn't have to be pretty, and it's not about making cute notes, it's about the meaning and the thinking behind it all.
So if I had to come up with a one sentence definition, it would be very difficult for me, but maybe a series of words might be better. I think it's creative. I think it's meaningful. I think it's inclusive. I think it's welcoming, and I think it's recognizing that we have such different thinking that it would be a shame not to allow sketch noting or visual representation as a viable response option for our kids.
Brett: You mentioned choice. You talked a little bit about their ... Say more about choice, and how this is a tool to give students more choice.
Tanny: Some of these things might seem minor, but just even allowing students to have some ownership over materials and how they want to orient the space where they're working. So often kids are presented with, even if it's a graphic organizer that's sort of predetermined by someone else, and they don't get a lot of chance to make those spatial decisions or decisions about color, I think part of the metacognitive process that really works hand in hand with sketch noting is that kids are making decisions about how they think the text is organized. So that can tell me something about their thinking.
So in essence they're really starting far before where they might be starting if a graphic organizer was handed to them. They're thinking about all kinds of little things along the way, and in every step I can notice and learn about what's going on, that invisible process inside their heads.
Brett: Let's talk about that process. Where are more of those benefits for students to be doing sketch noting?
Tanny: I think the benefits are many, and I feel as if I'm just scratching the surface. We look to research which we do at the beginning of the book, and even in the time since the manuscript was turned over, there have been things I've read that have been like just, "Wow, I wish I could have included that at the time."
But the benefits are many including making the content if it's nonfiction, making it stickier, so we're going to remember more and remember it longer. Understanding in a different way because we're slowing down and able to notice and wonder at the same time that we're taking in new information.
The benefits that I think maybe aren't appreciated enough or that we haven't, as a profession, talked about as much would be the reduction of stress and anxiety, helping kids to take a deep breath, and giving them some space to think about their own learning. So in Comprehension Connections the first chapter was devoted to metacognition, and thinking about ways that we can make that concrete. But at that time I wasn't even thinking about how time is sometimes what we need for a metacognitive thought to kick in.
So I think sketch noting provides a lot of obvious things like deeper comprehension and helps us with memory and focus. I think there are some other benefits that maybe aren't as easy to measure that we can start to appreciate and use for our students' benefit in the classroom.
Brett: We just filmed a video with you which people can see online of you doing some sketch noting of your introduction. One of the things that I found fascinating watching you was how you listen and almost store the sound of what you heard while you're sketch noting. You sort of file it away, but even when the person stops speaking, you still need more time to keep sketch noting. How do you know when you're done? How do you know when the sketch noting is done or is there pressure to just sort of be in that space and just do it as you need to do it?
Tanny: I think it's an and. I have a notebook that I use in professional learning back home in my district, and in meetings just everyday kinds of meetings, and during planning time with teachers, I'll take some sort of visual notes that I know they're not intended to be shared. And so those might have a different look, and I'm not using some of the planning kinds of thinking that I might otherwise, but many times the sketch notes that I'm creating, I know I want to share them with somebody. Maybe it's a teacher and we're working in a coaching relationship, and it's observational kinds of notes, and it's something I know the teacher will want to hold onto for a while.
I want to make decisions there that will make it easy to read, that will show the teacher what I think is interesting and important right away. Then there are other times when it becomes even more important to think about all of the features if I know it's going to be something that maybe I'm going to tweet out about a great article I read, and I want to show a true synthesis of what I was thinking.
Sometimes it's just the sketch noting right there, live in the moment. Whatever happens, happens. It's just the process. And other times, just like with published writing would be, or painting or lots of things, producing music, I want to spend time afterwards in reflection and making some other choices that will help communicate more clearly the information that I think is most important.
Brett: You write in the book that there's power in sharing sketch noting, as a student it's important, especially early on, you say, "It's important to share those sketch notes with others."
Tanny: I've noticed, even if it's something as simple as a gallery walk in a classroom where students after a time can get out of their seats and walk around, they're very interested to see the visual representations that other kids come up with. And in sharing those, often kids will want to get right back to their own work because they're so filled with new ideas after seeing what their friends have come up with. I think we're the same way.
Another use that I found for all of us in professional learning, for example on Twitter, there are so many great conferences and workshops that I wish I could attend and can't attend. And we all feel that same way, but if I see a sketch noted version of even a day long workshop, I feel like I was there. I can see that person's thinking along with the great content of the workshop in a way that I might want to keep and share with others.
Brett: How as an educator do I create a safe space for my students in the classroom to let them know, it's okay to do sketch noting, and to get into sketch noting?
Tanny: Yeah, a couple of ways that I've tried with kids, just sometimes starting with the picture book. Isn't that the best way to start for so many things? But there are a couple of great picture books. They're listed in Ink and Ideas, and there's so many more out there as well, just to give kids that support in knowing that it's not about perfection, it's about process, that this isn't a detailed drawing or piece of artistry that we're going to frame necessarily. It's more about just finding a way to quickly show your thinking, and always asking yourself what's interesting and what's important. And letting those questions drive you.
Brett: What if there's a little resistance there? How do you work with that resistance?
Tanny: Yeah, and yesterday this happened. I was in a fourth grade classroom, and after introducing what we would be exploring during the lesson, one of the students, I think was so articulate in being able to share her thinking right at the onset, saying, "You know, I'm just already wondering how many things can go wrong with this for me?"
I love that she was able to say that, and some of the educators in the room were nodding in agreement, like, "I'm feeling the same way." And I feel that way too. But I want kids to know and sometimes it's through just letting kids see not just their peers, but letting them see me or other teachers struggle through that decision making process and how it's not perfect.
Even the video that we have taken of me trying to sketch note live, I'm having all sorts of misgivings along the way. So of course, more practice makes you confident, but I almost like it that in the process of it all, you still have a bit of insecurity, because I think it forces you to summarize and synthesize. And it's really letting that cognitive thinking rise to the surface.
So in making all of those decisions all the time it's sort of like the first time, every time that you sketch note.
Brett: How do we sort of get our brains ready for sketch noting?
Tanny: I think it's helpful to realize that we're using the same kinds of thinking that we use when we read closely and deeply, that we're using the proficient reader strategies for example.
We are determining importance. We're making inferences. We're making connections and asking questions, and ultimately that synthesis on paper or on the screen is really just like this amalgamation of all of those deep comprehension strategies.
I think it's helpful just to realize that the strategies you're already using as reader, you're going to use those now. It's just with a pen or stylus in your hand, and it's going to feel different. It's going to look a little different than what you're used to writing on sticky notes or in the margins, but ultimately what you're going to come up with, is what I think can be even a richer way of showing what's normally invisible.
Brett: Can you just sort of explain what deceleration is and why that matters?
Tanny: I started thinking about this a couple of years ago about how often I heard the word acceleration used in schools where I work, in titles of articles, in studies, and started thinking about the urgency that we all feel in classrooms to move faster, and push harder, and cover more ground and all of that.
Then thinking about how when I'm creating a visual representation of my thinking it's like the opposite of all that. I'm feeling myself exhaling through the pen in a way, and so I started thinking about how interesting it is that you don't hear the word deceleration in education very often.
I think the benefits from decelerating really have a strong connection to the depth of our thinking.o at one point in the book I have a sketch note from my digital sketch notebook where I just show all of the things that promote deceleration in my own life. They could be things like taking a walk in the woods or reading a great book, and lots of things that we all engage in to try to de-stress and clear our minds a bit. But thinking with pen in hand is right up there with all those things for me, and I've found it to be true with many of the kids I work with.
The smash-hit Comprehension Connections introduced teachers across the country to the imaginative, inspiring, and practical teaching of Tanny McGregor. Now Genre Connections brings to teaching genre the same creativity and can-do spirit that has helped hundreds of thousands of practitioners improve. Tanny has been teaching and learning in Cincinnati for more than two decades. She is a staff developer, a nationally-known keynoter and workshop presenter, and a member of Heinemann Professional Development Services. In addition to Comprehension Connections and Genre Connections, she is a coauthor of the Heinemann title Comprehension Going Forward.
Follow Tanny on Twitter @TannyMcG