Doodles Away: Starting the School Year with Sketchnoting

rikki tikki sketch1

One of my goals for my sixth grade students this year is to learn how to do visual notetaking, or sketchnoting. When I asked each class of students how many doodled in the margins of notes, many hands went up. When I asked how many doodled to help remember what the teacher was saying or doodled as they were listening to a video or as they were reading a text to capture main ideas, very few hands stayed up.

We’re gonna bring those doodles into the main frame this year (and hopefully, not suck all of the fun out of drawing for them.)

rikki tikki sketch 2

I’ve started rather slow and simple. I traditionally begin the year reading Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki Tikki Tavi as my touchstone text for the year. It’s a story I will return to again and again as a common experience, and we work the story through discussions of protagonist, antagonist, conflict/resolution, foreshadowing and setting early and often.

This year, I had them sketchnote as they listened to me read aloud the story. (I did a small bit of this last year, around the presidential inauguration address.) I shared a video that gives a good overview of what sketchnoting is, and told them not to be intimidated by the young person’s amazing art, and then set them free to doodle as they did active listening.

Each day, after reading, I have shared my own sketchnotes with them (see the embedded images, which captured my drawings on the interactive board) and then talked my way through how the sketches help me remember characters and story. I also want them to show them that you don’t need to be a great artist to do this kind of work. You just need to have a library of shortcuts and a logical systems approach (my system moves from left to right, and then right to left, with arrows to help move me along in the reading).

Sketchnoting Rikki Tikki

That’s what this is all about: active listening. And it is what this particular class of students needs, given what I know about them in the past year and what I am already seeing. I am hoping the art element draws in more of them as learners.

I realize I have some questions yet to tackle when it comes to using this sketchnoting concept with them:

  • How to help students already easily distracted to listen and doodle at the same time?
  • How to help them filter out what is important enough to be doodled and how to figure out what to leave out?
  • How to teach them the use of artistic lettering in order to use words as art in meaningful ways?
  • How do I demonstrate that sketchnoting has actually helped improve their writing and understanding of complex topics?
  • How to help them form a personalized systematic approach for the flow of their own sketchtnoting?

These will all be on my mind as I move forward into the school year. If you have experience or advice, I am all ears. This concept got a real boost this summer with my CLMOOC experience, as we used the theme of art to explore visual notetaking in ways that inspired me to begin early, and often, with my students.

I also have used this book — Visual Note-taking for Educators —  by Wendy Pillars to think about this whole concept, and now that I have started with students, I need to go back and re-read some of her helpful suggestions and ideas.

Peace (drawn in ink),

Book Review: My Life with BOB (Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues)

A book about reading books? I’m in. I know that sounds strange to be reading books about the reading of books, yet I find it strangely fascinating to wonder what other people are thinking as they read and love (or hate) their own books.

Pamela Paul has an envious and powerful job — she is the editor of the New York Times Book Review. Part of what she does is discover new writers and determine which books get reviewed, which get noticed, which get featured. Needless to say, Paul reads a lot of books.

The BOB in the title of this memoir is not a man, but a book of books (or Book of Books: BOB) that she has been keeping as a private curation for years. My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues taps into her love of books, as she connects novels to major events of her life, and dives deep into why we love reading so much and how powerful books can shape a life, anchor our memories and change our perspectives on the world.

It helps that Paul comes across as a regular, if voracious, reader, and her style of writing is very inviting. You can sense the reluctance to share BOB with the world. It really is her private list, and I envy that she has BOB. I have Goodreads, which is not the same, is it? Amazon owns Goodreads, which means someone else owns my list. If only I, too, had kept a BOB of my own for the past thirty years or so. What would I notice?

Overall, I enjoyed Paul’s tour of her literary world, and her world escapes, and the connection between the writing she was reading, the writing she was writing, and the bridges made visible between our reading lives and our lives outside of books.

Peace (I read it),

Slice of Life: Moon Over My Shoulder

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

I spent Labor Day night in Boston, bringing my middle son and his friend to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park (we gave him tickets for a birthday present way back in winter). It was a beautiful night in Boston, and at one point, after many of us in the seats noticed the moon being shown on the small television monitors, we all turned our heads to look behind us.

The moon was dangling in the air, a beautiful orb of light.

Later, I grabbed a selfie with the moon.

Boston Moon

Peace (shine on),

An Infographic Reminds Me of Stability

My teaching stats

Someone in the Slice of Life community had shared out this simple tool to create an infographic of “teacher stats” — you provide it with some data and it spits out a small infographic. Nothing too fancy, but that’s OK.

What I realized as I was doing mine is how stable my teaching career has been over the 15 years I have been in the classroom (after a 10-year career in journalism and a few years as stay-at-home daddy). I know I am lucky in this regard, particularly given the budget situation in my school district (we are among the lowest per-pupil expenditure communities in the entire state of Massachusetts).

And I am grateful for the stability, for it affords me to keep digging deeper into my teaching practice, and so far, I have not hit the boredom button. That’s one of the magical elements of teaching: every day offers something new and every student is a challenge and a celebration.

I am grateful for my first principal — the one who took a chance in late August on me, an inexperienced teacher, and supported me along the first year to become a confident (as much as possible) sixth grade educator, which is where I still am, every single day.

Peace (looks like),

Graphic Novel Review: Flying Machines (How the Wright Brothers Soared)

FirstSecond Publishing has been putting out a series of graphic novels under a “Science Comics” banner that are quite interesting for merging informational text with story in graphic novel form. The latest — Flying Machines: How the Wright Brothers Soared by Alison Wilgus and Molly Brooks — is a fine example of how this format works.

Narrated with sass and wisdom from Katharine Wright, a somewhat-forgotten sister of Wilbur and Orville, the story is a deep look at the engineering marvels of flight, and while the focus is on the Wright brothers, the book does not skimp on many others (mostly in Europe) who contributed to the art of flight over a short period of time in the early part of the 1900s.

While the Wright’s story is familiar, the graphic story takes on a very scientific approach to the ins and outs, and ups and downs (sorry) of success and failure, of the move to get into the air with wings. Wilbur and Orville’s passion, and intentional engineering design approach, come through clearly. They were both driven to fly, and faced danger along the way. Many pioneers of flight died in crashes.

The book does not skimp on the science, either, giving over full pages to explain the technology and engineering ideas behind flight. This may leave some readers wanting more story, and less science, but Wilgus and Brooks do a nice balancing act, with Katharine as our host.

The last sections of the graphic novel include short biographies of other pioneers of flight, as well as bio of Katharine, and a glossary of scientific terms and more resources to wander into. Overall, Flying Machines: How the Wright Brothers Soared is a solid read, and may appeal to a middle and high school audience.

Peace (fly free),

Order Your Own: CLMOOC Collaborative Coloring Book

CLMOOC Coloring Book Storefront

Way back in early summer, the first Make Cycle of the Connected Learning MOOC (CLMOOC) was centered on coloring and art. Since CLMOOC is all about collaboration and creativity, the folks facilitating the Make Cycle (led by Algot R.) decided on creating a collaborative coloring book.

We used Google Slides to gather coloring pages from all over the world. But Algot also wanted to turn the collaboration into a publishing opportunity — to create a physical book that teachers could use in the classroom as either art prompts or as an example of how collaborative ideas could turn into publishable works of art.

And so … here is our CLMOOC Collaborative Coloring Book, available now for order from Lulu Publishing. Lulu is a self-publishing site, and the process is relatively simple: you create a PDF of your work, choose the style of book you want, design the cover, and Lulu does the rest of the work in setting up the storefront.

CLMOOC Coloring Book Cover

Our coloring book costs less than $3 for about 50 coloring pages. Shipping is another $3 or so in the US (not sure about in other places around the world). No one is making any profit off this venture, although I wish there was an easy way to add to the cost of the book to act as a fundraiser for Hurricane Harvey recovery.

If you would rather just have a free PDF of the book and the cover, you are welcome to do that by downloading (just click on links).

Thanks to all who donated drawings and artwork, and thank you to the entire CLMOOC community for always inspiring others in the community to do art, be creative, find connections and nurture an online community spread out across all sorts of networks.

Peace (color it rainbow),

Network Fade: The End of the iAnthology


After eight years, we finally pulled the plug on something known as the iAnthology Network. Hosted on Ning, it was created for National Writing Project teachers to connect, to write, to share in a closed space. We had weekly writing prompts, photo prompts, book groups and more. We were not part of the official NWP umbrella. More of an unofficial space.

In recent years, participation in the site dropped and became a trickle and my Western Massachusetts Writing Project and our sister site, Hudson Valley Writing Project, decided not to fund the Ning anymore. The National Writing Project funded the launch and supported the iAnthology for the first few years with small grants. The whole structure and original design of the iAnthology was based on something that was known as the eAnthology, which was a summer writing space for teachers going through their Summer Institutes.

My friend, Bonnie Kaplan, and I worked closely together to launch the iAnthology  — I remember us both thinking, will anyone sign up? — and we guided it through the years, working to give more ownership to members (we had a large list of folks who volunteered to host writing prompts every week).

When it was active, it was wonderful.

But it was time.

Most social networks eventually fade as part of the natural arc of participation over time. With us, Facebook and Twitter and other social spaces began to fill in where there was once a gap.

Still, we celebrate that 800-plus teachers with National Writing Project affiliation were able to find a writing home for a bit that kept them connected. If you were part of the iAnthology, thank you. I hope we stay connected and that you keep writing your heart out.

This infographic captures some of the iAnthology:

Remembering iAnthology-network

Peace (lingers),

Book Review: Child Labor Reform Movement (An Interactive History Adventure)

To call this an “adventure,” as the subtitle does, seems awfully odd to me, but Child Labor Reform Movement (An Interactive History Adventure) by Steven Otfinoski does effectively use the elements of interactive fiction by giving the reader choices. Unfortunately, as you might guess from the title, nearly all of the choices end badly, as the book explores the horrible working conditions of children in the workforce during the 1800s.

I appreciated the historical, archival photographs sprinkled throughout this book (with three main story paths and 23 different possible endings). The photos, coupled with the stories and narrative choices (we call them branches when my students make their own Interactive Fiction stories) really draws the reader into the experience of a young child living, working and then mostly dying in an unfair system in which children were regularly abused in many ways.

That said, the book is very effective in its rhetorical design, and is written for an upper elementary/middle school audience.

The reader can “become” a pauper’s apprentice in England, signing away their childhood for awful living conditions; a factory girl in Massachusetts; or a newsie in New York City. The narrative keeps circling back and you realize that no choice is a good choice, because children working in these conditions had no agency or choice, only the need to survive (which many did not).

Historical anecdotes and research dot this book, and it makes clear the movement that came along to try to change the way children were used in the work force. Much has changed for the better, at least in First World countries, but a final word from the author notes that, according to a report by the International Labor Organization, there are still about 246 million children working in places around the world. That should open the eyes of young readers.

Peace (let children be children),