Last school year, by invitation of a teacher, my friend Kelly and I facilitated a set of three Sketchnoting Bootcamp for sixth graders at Goochland Middle School. What a great learning experience for us.
We dove into our course design session with enthusiasm knowing that we weren’t teachers but hoping that our approach was close enough to the mark to make an impact.
We decided to teach people, actions, and emotions by telling the story of Cinderella, then sketchnote it with the students sketching along. Our plan had us setting the stage and teaching “people” and “faces” by sketching a cast of characters and different faces. We chose Cinderella because we felt that it was about as universally known as any story for young people.
The first hurdle was to choose the version of Cinderella to tell. We found several versions from classic to Disney. We compromised and selected a version in the middle.
Next we sketchnoted the story for ourselves to prove that it would work. What we neglected to understand is that we are adults and 6th graders are not.
In the first workshop we found that no matter what version of Cinderella you use, 6th graders will debate the facts. If it’s not by the Disney script, it’s not real, so we had to answer questions about the story along the way. Between that and having a group split between fast and slow learners, there was a stop-start flow that disrupted how we had hoped it would work. There were some pretty interesting gifts left by the students, including a full sketchnote copy of our entire presentation.
Slightly discouraged, Kelly and I held a retrospective over lunch. Failure bow! The nice thing about our failure bow is that we didn’t judge ourselves or each other. What works works and what doesn’t doesn’t. True to how we roll, we broke out the post-it notes. We trashed what didn’t work (using storytelling with Cinderella as the prop) and kept the sketchnoting fundamentals that we hoped would be passed along. We decided to pull pieces from our adult-centri workshops and do an exercise to build visual vocabulary with post-its (similar to a “30 second doodle” challenge). I sketchnoted our post-it collection so we would have a lesson plan complete with activity and timing and alternating shades to make it easy to glance at during the Bootcamp.
We head into the second workshop knowing that we’ve made some improvements. The students were more engaged and they came up with some wonderful sketches, but something was still missing. We were having them tell our story how we wanted it told. We instructed and they learned — us and them. Failure bow #2!
Then, the “a-ha!” moment came. In conversation with the teacher earlier in the day about how he teaches he happened to mention that he comes to the students instead of trying to push them to come to him. That resonated with me.
We had twenty minutes between workshops 2 and 3. So we held another retrospective. This time we had a sheet of paper. Kelly picks up a Sharpie and say that maybe we should start with flow and since they are history students what better flow than a timeline. She drew a horizontal line across the paper. My light bulb turned on. Since they had just learned about World War I why not collaborate with the kids and build a sketchnote of WWI! From there we used the “Yes, and…” improv technique with each of us adding bits and pieces. Before we knew it we had included all of the sketchnote fundamentals so that we could prompt the kids for content to build a WWI sketchnote!
After warm-up exercises with the kids and a short discussion of why sketchnoting works better than taking massive amounts of written notes, we dove into the WWI discussion. We started with the timeline but wait… what things were new to war in WWI? The first response was “trench warfare”, so I incorporated trenches into the timeline. The kids were intrigued enough to start answering questions and making suggestions. We asked questions about places, dates, inventions, and people and iteratively built out a sketchnote to which they could relate. They created their own WWI sketchnotes at their desks and took their creations with them at the end.
After this third workshop, one of the teachers who participated went back to her classroom and implemented one piece of sketchnoting with her class. Another teacher took the historical timeline sketchnote structure back to his class and used it in a discussion around the D-Day invasion.
What We Learned
Teaching is a humbling experience. Teaching is a learning experience. We learned that coming to the students is more effective than having students come to the teacher. We affirmed that iterative planning and adapability is as valid for teaching as it is for software development. But most importantly, we learned that sketchnoting and visual facilitation are gamechangers that can help our kids succeed in a world overflowing with information.