Switch up sketchnotes to engage distracted students

Hybrid sketchnotes differentiate for all listeners

I love sketchnotes. They’re engaging, colorful, and creative, and allow me to make illustrative connections while I listen to a book. But here’s the thing: I’m not a very good listener.

Woman daydreaming while looking out a window.
Daydreaming while attempting to listen to an audiobook is a problem for some… including me.

I need to carefully concentrate on the words I’m hearing or my mind wanders to whatever’s going on in the hall, outside the window, or just inside my head.

So even though I’m a huge fan of sketchnotes, sometimes I need a more passive kind of sketchnotes… sketchnotes that keep me engaged, but still able to focus on the text so I can create meaningful notes and doodles that will ultimately aid understanding and retention of the content.

And here’s the thing: some of my students have this same issue.

In playing around with this problem, I thought of a blogger-friend of mine named Janis Cox. Cox journals while she studies the Bible. And her journaling looks very similar to my definition of differentiated or hybrid sketchnoting. Here are two photos of her Bible journaling from her Instagram account (@janis_cox):

To create her Bible journaling, Jan interacts directly with the text, illustrating and embellishing specific scripture verses right on those pages in her Bible.

As I looked at Jan’s work, I asked myself, “Why couldn’t this be done in the classroom?”

So, during the last couple of weeks of school, I decided to try out Jan’s style of journaling– I now call it differentiated or hybrid sketchnoting –with my juniors’ final end of the year unit on The Great Gatsby.

To create a style similar to Jan’s, I photocopied the first two pages of each chapter of the novel and had students take their sketchnotes directly on the photocopied text.

Blank photocopies of the first two pages of chapters from The Great Gatsby
I provided each student with a copy of the first two pages of The Great Gatsby for their differentiated sketchnotes.

This accomplished three things:

  1. It caused students to more directly and intentionally interact with the text.
  2. It prompted their thinking and sketchnoting. When the words of the text are your canvas, it takes some of the load off of the “What do I sketch?” problem, and allows you to listen better.

When the text is your canvas, you listen more directly and interact more intentionally with the text. #sketchnotes

When I have the text as my canvas, I find myself better processing the author’s actual words and plot action. I can illustrate and doodle if I like or zoom into words, phrases, and dialogue.

So with these thoughts in mind, I’ve outlined below four ways I differentiated sketchnoting for my students. In addition to the traditional sketchnoting sheets you can download free at Spark Creativity (Thank you, Betsy Potash!), I suggest you meet all your student listeners and offer them a photocopied sheet of the text as well.

Four Ways to Differentiate Sketchnotes

1. Spot drawing sketch notes

Spot drawing sketchnotes allow students to draw at certain spots across the text to illustrate the words on the page. Spot drawing sketchnotes appear most like traditional sketchnotes, but these still encourage interaction with specific passages and words within the text.

Use spot drawing sketchnotes with students who may need limited guidance on what exactly to draw, but are still able to sketch and listen simultaneously.

2. Word focus sketchnotes

Word focus sketchnotes

I call these word focus sketchnotes. These allow one to listen to the text because all they need to do is draw dots around certain words and phrases in order to make connections with the text. Word focus sketchnotes take most of the load off of the “What do I draw?” problem that I see some students struggling with during traditional sketchnoting.

Here are two ideas to consider with word focus sketchnotes:

  • Make sure to give students a couple of minutes (while you take roll, for example), to skim the pages to locate unique words and important phrases before the reading starts. If students don’t have some time upfront to skim the pages, they’ll do that instead during the reading and miss out on the text.
  • Have students consider the use of color as they listen. Then supply a stash of markers, colored pencils, and crayons so they can load their sketchnotes with color. Some chapters may be loaded with color symbolism. For example, Chapter 3 in Gatsby uses yellow words and tones extensively and symbolically.

However, if a student still would rather only listen and leave all the drawing for later, the next style, symbol sketchnotes, might work better for them.

3. Symbol sketchnotes

Symbol sketchnotes

Symbol sketchnotes let the listener focus solely on listening so they can leave the drawing for later. After the reading, the listener summarizes the chapter with a symbol that best represents that chapter. For chapter 1 of Gatsby, the green light is the object I chose to symbolize that chapter.

True, choosing a symbol takes some analytical thought and that will happen when the student has some time to think after the reading. Allow students time to do that during class or at home.

4. Blackout poetry sketchnotes

Blackout poetry sketchnotes

Another way to differentiate sketchnotes is to borrow a technique from blackout poetry. Again, this style of sketchnotes requires some time beforehand so students can read ahead to locate the words they want in their blackout poem. However, during the read-aloud, students are free to listen well since the black lines, for the most part, require minimal concentration.

An idea to make this work better: beforehand, have students draw rectangles around the words they wish to appear in their poems so when the read-aloud begins they can listen closely.

To sum it all up

I hope these “hybrid sketchnotes” ideas will help you switch up your sketchnoting for next year. After all, sketchnoting isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. Some kids grasp the concept and love it and others can’t stand having to do all that drawing while they listen. These alternatives should appeal to the former while serving the latter.

Thanks for reading again this week! I’m interested in your thoughts about sketchnoting and these alternatives. Feel free to leave a comment below or on my Contact page.


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Thanks for reading again this week! Feel free to drop me a line by leaving a comment below or on my Contact page.

Published by Marilyn Yung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

One thought on “Switch up sketchnotes to engage distracted students

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