Undo vs. Do-Over: Why I Sketch on Paper

CITEC 901D Module 1 Sketchnotes
(part of CUE Innovative Educator Certificate Program)
I discovered Brush Pens today as I worked on my CUE Innovative Educator Certificate Coursework. Brush Pens are amazing and I realize why I love sketching on paper over digital tools. For me it boils down to the difference between Undo vs. Do-Over.

When I first learned about visual notes, I was exposed to different digital tools. I am not an iPad owner but rather have Samsung Note 2014 which limits me to Android apps. Paper by Fifty-Three was immediately eliminated which seems like the go-to sketchnoting app. I've tried Autodesk Sketchnote and Skitch early on and found myself always returning to pen and paper. My choice isn't a reflection of the tools available on Android but rather a personal choice. There is something about the feeling of connecting a writing utensil to paper that can't be replicated on a tablet. I am someone who wrote most of the first draft of her master's thesis on bond-weight letterhead paper rescued from the recycle bin using my trusty LAMY fountain pen. There's a flow that happens with pen paper that I can't duplicate using digital tools. 

Undo vs. Do-Over
With pen and paper there is no undo or eraser available. You see edits, mistakes, and really ones thinking. Working in an environment populated with undo and eraser buttons was stifling for me because I wanted to perfect everything and as a result it distracted me from the process of constructing meaning. But when I scratch things out, label them, or write over them that is represents my thinking and learning on full display. Life doesn't come with an eraser or undo option. As much as I wish I could undo lessons I've taught in the classroom, it's the do-overs where the powerful lessons reside for me and my students. The process of reflecting what you wish you could undo, planning for the do-over and then implementing it provides the cycle of learning. Even the undo icon represents only half of the process. The ease of the pressing the undo button just paralyzed the entire process for me. It became more about perfecting a sketch which completely defeats the purpose of sketchnoting. This isn't art and I don't consider myself an artist. Rather, I am a constant creator. My visual notes are about the process of creating meaning for myself which is only enhanced with do-overs on full-display. 

Using a Brush Pen for shading.
There is also a sense of permanency one gains with using pen and paper. Permanency is only further enhanced by my use of Moleskine journals and archival ink and then using Evernote to create a digital archive. This leads me to the amazing discovery of Brush Pens. About four months ago, I invested in a 5-pack of Staedtler pens of different sizes. I love the control different sizes provides. One of my pens is dying from use (0.3, my favorite) and armed with a 50% after Christmas coupon from Michaels I went shopping for some replacement pens. I settled on an 8-pack of Pigma Micron pens by Sakura that included a Brush Pen. See the shading around CITEC 901D? Brush Pen. Super-easy and super smooth. Imagine the possibilities with colors! Expect to see lots of do-overs in the future as I incorporate brush pens into my practice.

Math in Living Color


UCDMP Building Number Sense Day 1
In late July, I attended a five day Institute on Building Number Sense sponsored by the UC Davis Math Project. I have been attending their professional development offerings for the past several years. Some were sponsored by our district, while others were part of their Saturday Series offered each year. It never disappoints and exists without comparison as the best professional development I have ever experienced for math. Due to a conflict with my admin program coursework this year I am unable to attend any sessions and I miss them terribly. Participation in these trainings over the past several years completely transformed the way that I taught math in my classroom and changed the way I support teachers in teaching math.

I always loved math. I loved it so much, I even took Algebra twice! And it wasn't because I failed it the first time but rather sought special permission to re-take it because I wanted to learn it better. The first time I took Algebra was during summer session prior to entering high school and at the end of six weeks I had a good grade but didn't feel like I learned or understood much. I remember it being a bit of a battle to get permission to take it again. All because I wanted to learn it better. Sadly, my naive 13-year old self thought spending a year in Algebra, as opposed to six weeks, would lend itself to deeper learning. I had a great teacher and probably became more fluent in many of my procedures but my counselor was most likely correct that taking Algebra again when I had a good grade the first time was a waste of time. This happened in 1987 and today grades still rarely communicate learning and the experience epitomizes what math education was for me and how I taught my students up until three years ago.

My math experience as a student was very black and white. You followed a procedure and you got an answer. The answer was correct or wrong. That's it. Then you went on to the next problem. It's amazing with this experience that I enjoyed math so much and completed calculus in college. Yet I am not surprised that I did not choose to become an engineer or a programmer. Because I never truly understood math at any kind of deep level that would have allowed for conceptual application in mathematical fields until a few years ago.

UCDMP Building Number Sense Days 3 & 4 (partial)
Math is no longer black and white for me and these sketchnotes represent that belief. It was the first time I incorporated color into my notes. (It certainly helped that there were colored pencils in our toolboxes!) When I consider math instruction today, it is full of color and variations that are built upon sense-making as I wish had been my experience in school. This is why I love the Common Core Math Standards. They make sense. The goal is deep understanding of the mathematical concepts. Teachers have time to build important, foundational conceptual understandings with students over multiple grade levels. Students have time to explore and internalize these concepts. They have opportunities to apply these concepts to real-world problems that aren't the neat problems found in textbooks where everything works out evenly, all assumptions are made for you, and you draw a small box around your answer at the end. Math is messy, colorful, and stunningly beautiful, just like life.

All of these beliefs were part of
my math education.
In my work with pre-service elementary teachers, I am honest that I just understood math in the last few years which has equipped me to teach math more effectively. Let's be honest, I have always been able to "do" the math required of an elementary teacher as can my pre-service teachers. However, was I able to explain the how or why behind an algorithm like long division?  No.  I could do the procedure but didn't truly understand the meaning. I find my pre-service teachers are very similar. Some that I have worked with have the extra challenge of possessing the "not being a math person" mindset.  However, I find that by rebuilding the content knowledge of teachers whose math education was largely limited to procedural knowledge we can create different outcomes for our students.  Thinking visually and seeing the patterns and relationships everywhere in math are a first step. Add a splash of color to some visual notes in our math classrooms and I think we may be on our way to preparing more students to become engineers or programmers if they so desire.

Critical Hope

In mid-July 2014, I had a chance to hear Jeff Duncan-Andrade speak to a group of new teachers about Critical Hope. This talk was my first time live sketchnoting. I learned the value of a hard surface when sketching due to the absence of one.  More importantly though, the talk reinforced how critical relationships are in education.

If you are not familiar with the concept of Critical Hope, it is highly recommended reading for all educators, especially those working in urban schools.  I sometimes wonder if I had heard this message prior to my first year teaching in Baltimore if I could have avoided the multitude of mistakes I made.

There were so many messages in his hour-long talk. For me what resonated then and continues to resonate in my work is the priority of relationships.  Without relationships, nothing else we do really matters. We must authentically start with the heart.  That is where hope resides.  "Kids don't care what you know until they know you care."  You can substitute kids with adults and this statement still rings true. Fifteen years of experience speaks this truth even if I had to learn it the hard way at times.  Building authentic relationships built on trust is hard and takes continuous and ongoing work.

Working in education provides a reflection on one's own self.  Each year, I learn more and more about myself due to my work in schools. Too often we focus on those things we can not control but do affect the lives of our students. These factors are not to be ignored but by hyper-focusing on them we can often fall into the "half-empty" mindset of thinking that will influence how we approach our work.  If we approach our work with a half-full mindset, it implore us to see the amazing, limitless potential in every child and act accordingly. If a child is not engaged in our class, rather than placing blame on the child or on factors we can not control, we ask " What are we doing as adults to ensure that the child is engaged?"  Then, we change our behaviors.

Duncan-Andrade said, "No Master Gardener blames the flowers for not growing."  As educators we must become master gardeners. We must look at our practices and our systems for how better to support all students so they can reach their fullest potential.  Just as a master gardener tills and fertilizes the soil to ensure an optimum growing environment we must build those relationships on which learning can flourish.   Just as a master gardener knows when some flowers need additional water or less shade, we must use the information gained from our relationships to change the conditions for individuals to ensure maximum growth. I am still working towards becoming a master gardener after fifteen years. Chances are good I wouldn't have avoided all the mistakes I made as a first-year teacher in West Baltimore. Probability says that I would have just made different mistakes. Regardless, the mistakes I made and lessons I learned from them have brought me to where I am.

Getting Started with Sketchnotes

My very first page of Sketchnotes.
I spent the summer of 2014 working in Los Angeles. I celebrated my first day off by making the drive to Orange County to attend my first EdCamp. Overall, it was a great experience but the last session of the day on Visual Notes was the most powerful. Little did I know how that one hour session would transform how I process information.

I have always been a learner who needed to take extensive notes and write to help me remember information. It never felt like an efficient process but it worked for me. The only visuals one would find among a sea of words were typically flowers in the margins that only appear in cases of extreme boredom. During high school, I typically prevented the appearance of daisy chains in the margins by taking my notes in cursive backwards to keep my mind occupied. It took more cognitive effort to write in cursive backwards than the much of the material being presented so it kept me focused during class. Sadly, that seemed more socially acceptable than a garden sprouting up in the margins. I wish I had been exposed to visual notetaking 25 years ago. Visual notes force the reader and/or listener to approach text from a different angle. Similar to how writing in cursive forced me to focus. Now, I am making up for lost time but not out of boredom but rather to increase understanding.

This closely resembles most notes.
These are some of my first attempts at visual notes from June 2014. The book is 21st Century Skills by Bernie Trilling. It was one of two books selected for our Innovative Educator pilot program as our district begins its journey towards 1:1. This is exactly the kind of book that previously I would read rather quickly but then draw a blank several weeks later if someone asked me a question or for a summary. There would be little chance of me successfully carrying on an intelligent conversation on the topic.

Sketchnotes changed all of this for me. When I force my mind to process information and simultaneously create a visual schema that can be represented on paper, my reading slows and I am constantly looking for connections. I found myself rereading like never before. For example, when the author states that Education is built upon four pillars, you find yourself being able to represent that with images as shown above.  That would be how I would describe my first attempt at visual notes. They were very concrete, with lots of literal representations recreated from the text. In the end there were 32 pages of this. Most pages were extremely text-heavy with me replacing a word with an image such as "5 Key Characteristics" shown above. Even with this level of transcription, I still remember more about from this book than I would have having just read it prior to visual notes.

Sometimes you just need to label
a sketch. A cow? Really?!?
My sketchnotes today are much more visual and less dependent on text (most of the time). Just like everything in life, with more dedicated practice to learning visually I am becoming increasingly more proficient with constructing and communicating meaning. However, labels were useful during my first attempt as evidenced from my representation of a  "cow" and labels still come in super handy today!