Making Sketchbooks Meaningful (Ep. 085)

Tim absolutely loves sketchbooks, but unfortunately, Andrew doesn’t share his passion. Instead, Tim brings on Andrea Slusarski to explore how to make sketchbooks a consistent part of your students’ artmaking process. Listen as they discuss the types of sketchbooks that are best for your classroom (6:30), why we make modeling artistic habits a priority (13:45), and Andrea’s best advice to prioritize sketchbooks in your classroom (17:15). Full episode transcript below.


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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

I love sketchbooks. I love keeping a sketchbook, I love teaching about sketchbooks and I love seeing my kids develop their ideas in their sketchbooks. In fact, the last two Art Ed Now online conferences, a couple of my favorite presentations have been about visual journals. Last winter, the Journal Fodder Junkies presented on how to incorporate text in your visual journal. It was an awesome presentation, filled with hundreds of colorful, engaging, interesting shots of text in sketchbooks and text in visual journals. That really captured everyone’s attention and gave us a lot of ideas on what you can do with your journals.

Then, during this summer’s conference Michael Bell, who was on the podcast just a couple months ago, talked about the power of the prompt. He talked a lot about visual journals, the importance they have in his classroom and how they can help students that not only develop their ideas but develop as artists. He talks about great ways to get kids working in their journals, great ideas for prompts and assignments and he showed a ton of powerful work. I think it was one of the most powerful presentations of the entire conference.

I want to continue to explore this idea of sketchbooks and visual journals even further, because I think that there are so many layers to what can be done and what can be accomplished. I think there are a lot of different ways to incorporate them into your classroom and a lot of different ways to teach this journaling process, or to make your sketchbook part of your art making process.

Unfortunately, Andrew does not share my interest and doesn’t want to explore that with me, so I had to find somebody else that I can run these ideas by. My mind went to the one and only Andrea Slusarski. You probably remember Andrea, she’s been on the show a couple of times before, talking about color theory and talking about creating your own work as an artist.

She’s got a lot of great ideas about how you can make sketchbooks work for your classroom. Because I think that is one of the biggest problems when we’re talking about sketchbooks, people love the idea, they love the concept, and they may even have some great prompts, but they don’t know how to follow through. Or they start out strong at the beginning of the year with sketchbooks and then they aren’t consistent with assignments. Or they don’t know exactly how to use them, or they don’t do it when it comes time for grading.

I understand that it’s tough to come up with new stuff every week. It’s tough to grade them on a consistent basis. It’s tough to be on top of things all the time. If you don’t make sketchbooks a priority, to be honest it’s just not going to happen for you. So I want to bring on Andrea now. We’re going to talk about the importance of sketchbooks, how and why to prioritize them in your classroom, what your kids should be doing in them and how you can follow through consistently to make this journaling practice a vital part of your teaching. So let’s hear what she has to say.

Alright, Andrea Slusarski is joining me tonight. Andrea, how are you?

Andrea: Great Tim. How are you?

Tim: I am doing really well. It has been a long time since you’ve been on the podcast, so I’m excited to have you on again.

Andrea: I know. I love being on the podcast, so whenever you have an idea I’m always excited.

Tim: Good, good. We need to talk sketchbooks.

Andrea: Yes.

Tim: I hear from so many teachers about, “I don’t know how to keep teaching these,” “I never follow through,” “I don’t know how to get started with these.” I’m going to start you off with big general questions

Andrea: Okay.

Tim: Sketchbooks, how can we make them work in our classrooms and, what can we do to make them effective in our classrooms?

Andrea: That’s a good one. I ask myself this question almost every school year. Admittedly, in my first few years of teaching I would start of really gung-ho on sketchbooks. Which I feel is like everyone’s initial thought about sketchbook, is like, “Yeah, they’re great. We’re going to do it.”

Tim: Yes.

Andrea: Yeah, because they are great, but then the craziness of everything that goes into teaching, they’re the thing that unfortunately get fizzled out. If you want sketchbooks to work in your classroom, my biggest advice is systems and systems and systems. When do you check them? What do they look like? What’s the purpose of the sketchbook? I think answering those will help you make a game plan to figuring out what sketchbooks mean in your class.

But I guess I’m still in the process of figuring this out, and it’s the beginning of the school year so I need to hold myself accountable as well. I only gave sketchbooks as a requirement in two of my courses that I teach, so I’m starting small and working my way out from there. You want to make them valuable, so pick one class or two classes that you think they’re going to really be great, and don’t try to do all of them because sometimes it just doesn’t work.

Tim: Yeah, for sure. I really like that idea of before you even get started, reflecting on what you want to do with these? What is the purpose of sketchbooks? For me in my classroom, it’s always about testing things out. So we do our brain storming, we do our idea generation, we do notes, composition, color schemes, all that kind of stuff put together.

I make it part of the everyday routine. For me that purpose is for planning all steps of the art making process, but for other teachers it could be daily work when kids come into class. It could be reflecting on different things. Maybe you just have weekly assignments in there, but like you said, you need to find that purpose. I think that’s really good advice.

Andrea: Yeah.

Tim: Let me go ahead and ask you, when you are bringing those sketchbooks into your classroom, do you have a particular brand, or a type of sketchbook that personally really like or that you like your kids to work in? I guess also, do you ever make sketchbooks? Because I know a lot of teachers love to make them as well.

Andrea: Cool. I personally almost only work in Moleskine notebooks. I’m one of those people. I’m very particular. Currently in my sketchbook rotation, I have the five inch by eight point two five inch plain hardcover Moleskine. It’s something that I’ve kept for about five years now, is that size. I have a box of dated Moleskines that are for my grandchildren someday, I guess.

Just recently I’ve been really enjoying the large watercolor sketchbook Moleskine. Working on a larger sketchbook was one of my goals this past summer, so that’s why it’s a recent sketchbook. But getting out of your comfort zone is hard, working that big.

Tim: Yeah.

Andrea: Yeah, but it’s been really cool. It’s really fun. I shared a couple pictures of what those look like. Hopefully you can take a look at those. In Aurora, here, where I teach, I met a really cool art supply distributor that hooks it up. In past years, I would always buy whatever sketchbook he had in bulk. Just to keep the cost down, because sketchbooks can get pretty expensive, especially if you’re buying them for every student.

Tim: Yes.

Andrea: Yeah. However, this year I didn’t purch any sketchbooks for students. For a number of reasons, mostly cost but the biggest one was investment. Because I love my sketchbook, it’s mine. I pick out the color of Moleskine I want, I keep it next to me and it stays on me. It kind of becomes a part of my daily routine. I wanted my students to experience that connection as well.

You just don’t build that when your art teacher passes you a plain black spiral-bound sketchbook that everyone has beginning of the school year. What’s the purpose? Why is this meaningful to me? I only required sketchbooks this year for my two advanced courses. The first week of school I talk to them about sketchbooks. I brought my sketchbooks in, I told them what I liked about them, why they were so meaningful to me. Then I gave them the requirements of what I’d like them to get, size, type of paper. They had a week to do this.

Of course, there’s a lot of students that maybe can’t afford it, or they had different issues like that. So I’d had them come talk to me separately, and a few did, but I saved sketchbooks that people give me as gifts, because they don’t realize I only use Moleskines. I gave those to my students, which makes it pretty special as well. My biggest goal this year was having them get invested by buying their own sketchbooks.

Then for my intro level courses, like a drawing one or two, we make little sketchbooks as part of our projects. We didn’t just engage with them in the past years, with the sketchbooks I would get. I kind of ixnayed buying them their own sketchbooks. We make little ones throughout the school year. I have a couple of examples of those as well. My drawing book camp is a big one, for a mini sketchbook.

Tim: Cool. Yeah, those are a lot of really cool ideas there. One thing that you said that really stuck with me is that idea about investment. I want to dive in there a little bit. Beyond just buying the sketchbook, let’s talk, what do you assign when it comes to sketchbook? I guess more importantly, and the one that you were talking about the question that everybody has is, how do you get kids to care about working in their sketchbooks?

Andrea: I know. I know, they’re teenagers still, so getting them to care about anything is quite the challenge.

Tim: Very true.

Andrea: Yep. This year, I’m approaching sketchbooks two different ways in my classes. It’s all around the course. The first one is my advanced studio, which is basically my juniors and seniors who I’ve taught in entry level courses. These are students who are hoping to pursue the arts, kind of auditioned to get into this class. I am very fortunate that I get to have my own group of X-Men, because it’s an awesome class.

Tim: Nice.

Andrea: Yeah, I’m like Charles Xavier, like, “You and you and you … ” but, I check their sketchbooks every Thursday for a simple studio habits grade. This class, I need them to start thinking like artists, so they are just supposed to work in this. I’m going to give them a check grade once a week, for whatever they do.

I don’t make assignments. Like I said, I just want them to see that they’re engaging with their sketchbooks. I tell them to collage, draw, paint, write, and to take their sketchbooks with them at all times. It’s really fun to see what they can do in their free time, plus they fill it with class assignments, like they’re researching thumbnails. Kind of like how you said.

Tim: Mm-hmm.

Andrea: Yeah. You can have the structured parts but for my studio kids, it’s really about their experience as an artist that I’m looking for in their sketchbook. For my second class that utilizes sketchbooks, it looks much different. It’s my diploma program junior art class. We are an IB, which is an International Baccalaureate school. Sketchbooks are much more of an assignments because they’re part of the IB art requirements.

Which is one of my favorite jokes in the classroom, if you’re ready, because I’m seriously taking this name directly from the IB instructional guide. They refer to their sketchbooks as Visual Arts Journals, or as I like to shorten in class, they’re VAJs.

Tim: My God.

Andrea: If you want to talk about kids, getting their attention, you just say VAJ. I tell them to take their VAJ out every day. The main goal … I tell you, it’s hilarious. The kids all stare at me the first day. They’re like, “Can we laugh?” I’m like, “Yeah.” I’m like, “It’s a joke, you guys.”

The main goal of the Visual Arts Journal is to show their exploration and process. So I structure assignments fit those requirements. As opposed to my studio art class, that’s supposed to be a little bit more about personal exploration.

Tim: Okay. That’s really cool. All sophomoric jokes aside.

Andrea: Yes.

Tim: I love the fact that we’re twice as old as students and still laughing at that stuff.

Andrea: It’s my favorite joke.

Tim: I do want to talk a little bit more about what you said with artistic habits. I think the question is, how much should we doing as teachers to model that? How often do you show kids your work in your own sketchbook? I guess the second question is, why is that important? Why do you make that part of your teaching?

Andrea: My gosh, it’s one of the most valuable parts of my teaching. I’m very much a proponent of leading by example. Students need to see your growth and process as an artist too. Being an artist is a big task that cannot be completed in a semester. I’m very open about those kinds of conversations with my students. I have sketchbooks in my classroom that I’ve had in high school and college and my present ones. Don’t know why my mom kept my high school sketchbook but I’m happy about it.

Tim: It’s helpful now, so, yeah, that’s good.

Andrea: It’s so great, because they’re like, “Andrea Slusarski from 2004.” They’re like, “Oh my God, 2004 Mrs Slu?” I’m like, “Yep.” For them to see what high school sketchbook looks like, compared now with all the trials and failures I went through in the process, to get to where I am now, is extremely helpful and encouraging students to pursue their own sketchbook. And just to show them that this isn’t something that you just learn and it stops.

My current sketchbook is based around all the places I’ve adventured to, and is evolving as I try to capture the feelings of the place in different plein air painting situations. In my sketchbooks I also have photos and writings and poems. Bet you didn’t know I do that, Tim.

Tim: No. This conversation is going everywhere. I love it. I love it.

Andrea: It’s so good. I’m not only sharing with them though my passions and adventures through my sketchbook, but I’m also showing them how much I care about my own sketchbook. That this assignment isn’t just me playing teacher, this assignment is a goal for them as artists. It’s something that goes beyond my class.

Tim: Yeah, I like that a lot. I like what you said about process. That was actually my next question. If we can jump in there, two part question again. What are the biggest benefits, I guess, to having kids work regularly in their sketchbooks? And then more importantly, how does that affect their overall art making process in your class?

Andrea: I think it’s super exciting when a student can look back in their sketchbook and immediately see their own growth as an artist. A question I often ask my students is, do you feel like an artist? Because I want my students to feel like artists. I want them to have that confidence. I want them to see their own artistic qualities in themselves.

When you see have that look in their eyes, like, “Oh, I know now,” or, “Look at this sketch I did four months ago. It’s so bad. Look at what I’m doing now.” That’s where you get them hooked. Granted, not everyone is going to become obsessed with their sketchbooks, but if you give them the option and you let them explore it for themselves, you might be surprised.

Tim: Yeah, that’s cool.

Andrea: Yeah.

Tim: Alright. One last question before I get you out of here then.

Andrea: Okay.

Tim: What words of advice would you have for teachers who are trying to get started on sketchbooks, trying to get their kids to develop this process more, or are just trying to do sketchbooks a little bit better?

Andrea: First, if you’re not currently keeping a sketchbook, I really urge you to do it, just for yourself. I started keeping my Moleskine about five years ago, and this was after my second year of teaching, when I noticed that I wasn’t doing much art making myself. Which, for me at that time, was kind of one of those struggles of being an art teacher, was I was busy doing all this teach of art but I wasn’t creating myself. I was kind of losing that part.

So after some reflection, I decided, if I keep a sketchbook and I work on it, that’s a little art work that I could do everyday that’s for me. It’s since evolved. It’s helped me move on to bigger paintings or to larger projects of my own. My biggest advice for teachers is if you’re not keeping a sketchbook, please try. Set yourself some goals like that. You are artists, you need to draw, you need to paint, you need to create.

Then, for your classroom, I thought about a couple words of what you could follow. I thought about consistency, process and freedom. Consistency, if your sketchbook is going to be a regular checkpoint or assignment, it’s up to you as the teacher to hold your students accountable. Make the expectation that you will check their sketchbooks on a regular basis. Make it one of your systems. Make it one of your things that is easy in your class, that you have students come up and show you, or you walk around and give them a checkpoint. It doesn’t have to be this huge thing.

Then secondly, your process is what do you want your sketchbooks to look like. What’s the process they should do to begin for your students? For my example, my diploma program students in their Visual Arts Journals, they’re required to title, date and I say fill the page for each assignment, because we’re talking about composition here with their sketchbooks as well. If you get them at least started on the process of creating a sketchbook, you get rid of that timidness that some students approach sketchbooks with.

Then my third rule is freedom. Was, sketchbooks don’t just mean drawing. Let students open up here to explore how they like to create. Sometimes in our projects we’re a little bit more rigid on what they need to use or how they need to create. But approach the sketchbook as this free zone, where they’re just making. Because they might find something that really speaks to them personally, and then start believing in themselves as artists as a result.

Tim: Really, really good advice.

Andrea: Thank you.

Tim: Yeah, I think that’s a good place to end. Andrea, thank you so much for joining me. A lot of great stories, a lot of great advice tonight. It’s been fun talking to you.

Andrea: It’s always fun talking to you Tim. Thank you so much for thinking of me.

Tim: Alright, sounds good. Thank you. We will talk to you again soon.

Andrea: Sounds great. Bye.

Tim: Wow, that was a lot of fun. I hope you picked up on some of Andrea’s awesome ideas. Now, as she mentioned, she shared some of her ideas and some photos from her own sketchbook and her own students sketchbooks. We’re going to put that all together into an article that combines a lot of those resources, with all kinds of other resources I’ve written before, and some new ideas we have to really give you a great guide to sketchbooks.

Not only ideas and prompts and things you can do with your students, but again, how to grade them, how to follow through with those ideas and how to make that a regular part of your classroom routine. If you’re interested in hearing more, or seeing more from Andrea, we’ve got a few things that you can check out.

In the show notes I’ll link to the two episodes that she’s been on before. One on color theory, one on working as artist while balancing that practice with your teaching. Andrea’s also part of our Studio Painting course that you can take for three graduate credit hours. Not only does she share a bunch of ideas in their abour color theory and working with the color wheel in some of those videos, but you’ll also learn from people like Abby Schukei and Johanna Russell, who you probably know from the Art of Ed, from conferences, from being on this podcast before.

There are some great instructors, that, I’ll play a part in that. It’s a great course to develop your painting practice, doing more of your own art making and bringing some of those skills and ideas into your own classroom. It’s a three credit hour course that runs over eight weeks. There are new sections starting in November and December. You can check it out at theartofed.com/courses.

Thank you again to Andrea for coming on the show. It was great to talk to her. It was great to hear all of her ideas. Hopefully you can take some advice away that will get you consistently following through with your sketchbooks. As she said, prioritize them. Figure out exactly why you’re teaching sketchbooks. Figure out exactly what you want your students to learn, and then empower them to do that. Give them the freedom to be creative, give them the freedom to develop their art making, their skills. If you could do all that, you’re going to have a successful visual journaling practice happening in your classroom. Both you and your students are going to be much better off.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education, with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Remember that you can sign up for our email list at artedradio.com. We always love to hear from you so send us your questions, comments and anything else you want to share at radioguys@theartofed.com.

Don’t forget to check out AOE’s newest podcast Everyday Art Room, which is hosted by Cassie Stephens. It is entertaining, it is hilarious and you’re going to love it. New episodes are released every Thursday, so make sure you check that out as well. We’ll talk to you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.