Sketchnoting for You and Your Classroom (Ep. 131)

Sketchbooks are incredibly valuable in the art room, but it can be tough to utilize them when you teach hundreds and hundreds of students. In this episode, Nic shares some of her best ideas for using sketchbooks and sketchnotes for yourself and with the students you teach. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Nic: Today, I’m going to talk to you a little bit about sketchbooks in the classroom specifically, but we might talk a little bit about them in your personal life as well. But, I’ve kind of been avoiding this subject, and not because it’s a lack of love. I absolutely love sketchbooks. In fact, I like them so much that I’ve presented many, many times on them. I have presented nationally and at state level at Art Ed conferences. I’ve presented at the Art Ed Now through the Art of Education University, their biannual conference on sketchnoting. I have done PRO Packs for the Art of Ed U, several of them actually. So I feel like, well, maybe I’ve talked enough about sketchbooks and that’s not something that people would be interested in hearing from me, but that is exactly why I should talk about sketchbooks on the podcast as well. So here we go. We’re going to talk about sketchbooks in your classroom. This is Nic Hahn, and this is Everyday Art Room.

So as I kind of hit on, I love sketchbooks. I use them in my classroom and in my personal life since I … Well, I don’t know. I have my first one when I was two years old. It was given to me by my grandma. She gave me a little pad of paper, and I have actual pictures when I was two years old. So yeah, it’s been kind of part of my life for a while now. But recently, I’d say the last seven years, I’ve been using it in my classroom on a regular basis. So that’s really what I want to focus on today is how to use sketchbooks in your classroom and maybe why. How did I go about it?

So to get started, I’m going to talk to you about how to obtain sketchbooks. They are not inexpensive. The ones that I purchase, and we’ll get into that in a little bit, the ones that I purchase are roughly about $5 per student. And for many of us, that’s an outrageous amount of money. You can’t necessarily spend $5 of your budget. In fact, I don’t even have $5 per student at all. But I certainly can’t put it all into sketchbooks for each of my kids, for my students. So what I’ve done is I’ve tried to be a little creative.

The first year that I requested sketchbooks for my classroom, I asked parents to just bring in a sketchbook. Just the same as they would folders, or glue, or pencils where their classroom lists, I asked them to bring in a sketchbook. And this worked. I would say that 90% of my student population was able to come to class with a sketchbook, which is a pretty good number. I know not all of us would have the same response. I felt very lucky with that. However, that still meant that there was 10% that didn’t have a sketchbook.

The other real complication, and this is just logistics in a classroom, was that every single sketchbook was a different size, a different shape, a different color, a different quality. Therefore, they were hard to store and they were hard to give expectations because some of the paper was so lightweight that it really didn’t hold up to the processes that we were trying in the sketchbook.

So the next year, I decided that I would ask my PTO, the parent group that kind of helps out with funding in my school. I’m lucky because they loved the idea that I proposed. What I asked them for is $5 per student for a sketchbook that would last them through third through fifth grade. I would only be asking for third grade every year. So whatever that number is, 120 kids, I had asked for 130, maybe a few more sketchbooks, because I do have a little bit of an influx in student population, the kids that are there and staying there. When I get a notice from the office that a student is leaving, they can actually come and take that sketchbook out. Otherwise, at the end of fifth grade, every student gets to leave with their sketchbook and they actually get to take it home. So it is truly a donation to the students, but it’s a longevity one because it lasts with them for a couple of years, three years in fact.

Other suggestions I have for you is to seek out DonorsChoose. Maybe go to your local Lions chapter, maybe they would have some funds for you, or just simply asking for a personal donation or a parent request. If you can identify what you need and why you need it, which is what the rest of this podcast is about, you have a higher chance of having people support you along the way.

I can certainly talk about the type of sketchbook that I buy for my students, but don’t let yourself get caught up in the words that I’m sharing right now because you have to do what fits you and your needs. I do like an 8.5 by 11 sketchbook. I like a larger, regular paper size, copy paper size. I like my sketchbooks to have about a hundred pages because I’m keeping that sketchbook fifth or third grade through fifth grade. Because of that, I’m anticipating roughly 30-some-odd pages per year, and I have the students in my classroom about 29 to 32 times in the classroom. So this works out really well because we’re not in our sketchbooks every single day or starting a new page every single day. But if for some reason we did use it every single day or I needed to use two pages in one day, we have the capability to do that.

I like a 80-pound or higher page, weight for the paper. Now, I have in … If I were to wish, make a big wishlist, I would ask for multimedia paper. However, that is really expensive and maybe unnecessary. So if I am ever exploring a watercolor process or something that requires a different type of paper, we will actually use a smaller piece of that type of paper and then glue it into our sketchbook. So I don’t need that all the time. It’s just nice to have once in a while. So go ahead and just use another piece of paper and glue it in for documentation.

I like to use pencils or Sharpies for my student use. And if I am talking about Sharpies, I have them use … Or if the student is using a Sharpie, I have them place a scrap piece of paper underneath, and that really helps for any bleeding through. And it’s good practice just for the kids to understand that in their own life.

Then, that’s the type of sketchbook that I like to use. However, that’s not the end-all-be-all. In fact, I’m thinking of Lindsey Moss. She has an article on the Art of Education University website. It’s called How to Use Cardboard and Copy Paper to Make the Easiest Sketchbook System Ever. Okay, nice, short title not so much, but that’s okay. If you check that out, there’s a quick little video with visuals of what her sketchbooks look like as well as an article. So that gives a different way of using a very inexpensive way to create sketchbooks for the classroom.

All right. I’m going to give you a little bit of gold. Get ready for this. This has taken me several years to actually come up with this whole sketchbook setup, and I’m really happy with it right now. So the first thing that we do in third grade is we write our name on the cover of the sketchbook, up on the right-hand side, their first and last name because the next year they’ll go into another classroom and we’ll have to move the sketchbooks around. So even if they’re Abby, the only Abby in class, maybe next year they won’t be. So first and last name on the front cover. I just leave it like that. But my friend, Heather Herbay, she actually uses play colors or temper cake sticks, and she has them decorate the outside of their sketchbook on the first day as well, which is kind of a fun little thing to do. It helps them kind of identify their sketchbook versus everybody else’s.

Then, I have them open up the sketchbook and on the right page, on the right-hand side, they’re going to write their number up in the right-hand corner. I have this saying that I say over and over, if you’re writing on the right, you’re right. If you’re writing on the right, you’re right. The reason that I want them always on the right-hand side is because if any pencil goes through or marker goes through the piece of paper, it doesn’t distort what’s on the opposite side. So we actually don’t use both sides of the paper. Most often, we’re always writing on the right because it’s right.

Then, I have them do a practice page with me. What we do is on the page number one, they’re going to at the top of the page on the left-hand side write the title of the page. For this first one we call it title. Then, underneath the title, we write the date. I always write the word date, especially when I’m modeling it, so that it doesn’t become out of date. But I show them where the calendar is, that there’s a rotating date up there, how to find that information. They know that within the first day. Then, the number is already on the page. We had them write the numbers 1 through 20 on day one. Then once we run into 20, we write 20 more numbers.

Then, at the bottom of the page on the right-hand side we sign our page. This is for two reasons, one, to talk about how artists sign their papers, two, to make sure that if for any reason this page comes out and we have a loose leaf kind of floating around we know who to get it back to.

Then I spend some time kind of highlighting the importance of this book. Now, I tell them that there’s a difference between quick sketches and sloppy ones. We do a lot of quick sketches in our sketchbook, but I know the difference between quick and sloppy. This sketchbook will stay with them for three years guaranteed, and maybe they’ll even use it in middle school, so it is a treasured artifact. We want to make sure that this sketchbook stays with them, stays nice and neat, it’s very treasured, it’s cared for. I really, really focus on that on day one, two, and revisit it throughout the year when I notice that sketchbooks aren’t being cared for in the same way.

Then, I highlight the importance of mistakes. Learning and growth is shown in this sketchbook. So it’s okay if you make a mistake. We can just put a little X on top of it or write a note beside it saying, “No, I don’t like this one.” But don’t rip out any pages ever. And I have them do a little oath with me with the three fingers up in the air and the hand on the heart and all that. We will not rip out the pages. We will not rip out the pages because mistakes are valuable. They show growth, and they show learning.

In the elementary setting, but, again, as I always ask you to do, broaden your mind to whatever level you’re teaching at. But in the elementary setting that I’m teaching at right now, I always make sure that I’m demonstrating how I want their sketchbook to look. Their sketchbook does not have to be exactly like mine. It shouldn’t have the same drawings. We go over that. But I do make sure that I’m demonstrating how I want them to form their page. So for example, if I’m going to be talking about four steps to watercolor, I will say, “Today we’re going to be talking about four steps, so separate your page into four separate areas.”

So I will on my Dot.Cam divide my page into four step, four areas so that they can see the containers or the separation on the page. Then, I take my notes and I’m actually drawing. This gives students the confidence, that need it, to follow along with my drawing. Or my more creative students, we’ll call them, that want to go kind of on their own route, they can tell the same story with their images instead of following along with mine. But I always like to have a demonstration up there no matter what level I’m working with, all the way up through adults.

This is kind of a neat documentation for myself, too. It shows the students a good model of how to create a nice full page. It gives them the expectations of how we’re going to be taking notes for the day. But it’s also really good documentation for myself, and it helps me learn, or remember, what I did each year. And I actually take additional notes in my sketchbook saying, “Oh, don’t ever do this again. Cut this part out. Add this next year.” I’ll have little Post-it notes throughout my sketchbook as well.

Okay. We have our sketchbook. We have it all set up. We’re ready to go. Now what do we draw in this sketchbook? Literally, I’m drawing everything. I have the kids work in the sketchbook almost every class period. And I know that is going to develop and grow as I continue using these over the years, but for right now here’s some of the things that we go over. I’m going to talk about notes in just a little bit, but if I … When I say notes, I’m talking about like the processes that we use, the vocabulary that we’re using, the materials. We will take in some time to draw and write that information in our sketchbook every single time.

I do a lot of pre-planning in my sketchbook. So this is drawing an idea of what you’ll be creating on your final design. This is part of the creative process that cannot be missed, and I love that it’s documented in these sketchbooks. Drawing ahead of time might look like drawing an object 20 times before they actually start drawing it on their final, or exploring and experimenting with different mediums, tools, or processes. It could also look at just celebrating the mistakes. So drawing a cat 20 times, you’re going to have some that you love and some that you don’t care for so much, and just kind of making those notes, like not an option. This one rocks. Try again better or next time. Shorter ears, whatever. Making those notes, being critical of your own work is an okay thing to do in this preplanning page.

I often say there shouldn’t be too many details on pre-planning, quick sketches, but not sloppy sketches, as I mentioned before, and don’t stop until the entire page is filled up. Find those little cracks and crevices. Fill them up with more design, more interest, so especially if they have extra time. This allows for the students who need a little bit additional time, they’re a slower drawer, slower processor, it gives them time to create. And they might not feel that page, but those quicker artists in my classroom, it allows them to find those little spaces and plug them in and continue to be an active pre-planning artist for the designated time.

Another thing that I have the students do is reflect in their sketchbook. So after a project is done, we’re going back through and listing the steps that we took to get there. This often looks a little bit like a comic book strip. It kind of has these different compartments and one, two, three listed out. A lot of times the medium is highlighted, so drawing out the medium. Or sometimes I ask the students to give me an emoji or some kind of expression on a character’s face, kind of explaining how they ended up feeling with the process that they just are … well, that they’re reflecting on.

Another thing that I will do is give them doodle pages. A doodle page is just a place, playful page. They can make something that they want. Should be enjoyable. It should be improvisation. It should be exploring and experimenting maybe with the medium or the drawing of some sort. We don’t do a ton of doodle pages, but, man, when I let them do that, they really enjoy it a lot.

Sketchnoting is something that I do use kindergarten through 12th grade or adult learners, but I definitely bring it up or down to the level that I’m teaching. Sketchnoting is a visual map of what we’re learning. And what I love about this as I always teach them five basic elements that they’re going to use, a circle, square, triangle, line, and dot. And from those simple elements they can create anything, a person, or a book, or a paintbrush just using circle, square, triangle, line, and dot. Once we have those, we kind of take the fear out of what they’re drawing because it’s not about the picture at this point. We definitely talk about that. It’s not about how beautiful this is. This is getting the information onto our sketchbook and into our brains. So a lot of times we’ll come up with classroom icons, maybe how to draw a pencil easily or scissors easily, so that they don’t have to worry about the drawing themselves. They can easily go to the icon lists and just draw that out in a simple way.

We often will use separators or connectors to kind of organize the page so that a lot of arrows kind of pointing to different parts of our information that we’re learning about. And the reason we take sketch notes, and I definitely explain this to my students, is because when we hear, plus when we think about the information, and we see the information by drying it, and we relate to it with our heart what is inside of it, and then we also add a couple of words and pictures, it creates a deeper understanding because we’re using so many parts of learning and thought. So sketch notes is something that I can definitely scale up or bring down to the audience that I’m working with.

I once watched a PRO Pack by Amber Kane. She is a Art of Education employee, and she is a fibers artist, and it’s … Actually, the PRO Pack is called Advanced fiber arts, which you think, “Well what does that have to do with sketchbooks?” But it actually provoked a lot of thought for me because what she did was she did a lot of weaving within her sketchbook, and I thought that was amazing. So I’ve been doing different exploration of processes as well in my sketchbooks with my students. For example, we recently have been working on sewing in my classroom, so I had the students use a hole punch and hole punch along the side and the bottom of a page. Then they did a whip stitch along one side and a basic stitch along the other. They wrote words to kind of identify which was which and what characteristics make them what stitch they are, and I found this to be a really successful page in their sketchbook.

All right. So we went from very, very deep with sketchnoting and exploring to less deep with sub plans. You can use your sketchbook for sub plans. A lot of times, I have them follow along with Kids Art Hub or another follow-along, draw-with-me type of a YouTube video. Then, I ask the substitute to make sure that they know I will be checking these sketchbooks at the end of class or the next day. So that’s a real quick and easy emergency sub plan. You can have them use their sketchbooks to do that.

Another idea is to set them up. So you know that you’re going to be gone next week. Set them up with their sketchbook assignment, setting up the page, giving expectations ahead of time. Maybe they’re doing op art, or color mixing, or some sort of shading. Set them up ahead of time in their sketchbooks so that you can leave easy plans for your substitute teacher.

Maybe I shouldn’t have stayed away from this subject for so long. I’m obviously passionate about sketchbooks, both in the classroom and in my own personal life. I wanted to share everything that I could as quickly as I could. But if that was a little too fast for you, be sure to check out the podcast notes where I have lots of links to the PRO Packs that I did on sketchbooks, that’ll give you more of a visual understanding of how I use sketchbooks, as well as checking out the articles that I mentioned, and Amber Kane’s fiber art PRO Pack, which brings in sketchbooks as well. It’s such a brilliant idea. Thanks for listening today. We will chat with you again 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.