Visually Thinking with Sketchnotes

Leonardo da Vinci is noted for many accomplishments in the fields of art, science, and invention, but he was also a master in the art of sketching. His notebooks filled with drawings and observations about the world around him reveal a mind that was insatiably curious and adept at making connections. This image from one of his notebooks exemplifies how his mind leapt from one observation to another. The flowing drapery of the pictured old man is mirrored in similar energetic linework on the facing page that depicts swirling water.

Leonardo. Whirlpool and Old Man. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016. Accessed 20 Jun 2022.

Though visually thinking with sketches is nothing new, educators and businesses have been exploring the merits of Sketchnotes as a way to communicate ideas in a graphical format. Sketchnotes can take a variety of forms, from simple infographics, to stick figures, to complex representations of processes (such as cell division).  A book by Tanny McGregor, Ink and Ideas: Sketchnotes for Engagement, Comprehension and Thinking (Heinemann, 2019) provides several examples of introducing Sketchnotes in the classroom and using this technique to spark student thinking. I took a dive into Sketchnotes after reading Ink and Ideas, and the following examples and reflections show how Sketchnotes can be used to enhance discussions of books. 

Book: The Magnolia Sword by Sherry Thomas

The first two chapters of The Magnolia Sword by Sherry Thomas are a master class in writing: introducing compelling characters, setting up conflict, and suggesting a trajectory (quest) that will set these characters on a future collision course. 

Specific details from the chapters were first annotated in a journal and certain words circled that would be emphasized in the Sketchnote (such as “Fated to Clash”). As I sketched in pencil the preparatory drawing, I decided to group textual quotes by the two characters, shown separated in the sketch by the Great Wall of China (denoting the location of the story). The textual quotes highlighted in the sketch show the fierce martial arts skill of each adversary while also suggesting their mutual attraction to each other (Mulan faces her opponent with both trepidation and thrill while Yuan Kai muses that if circumstances had been different, they might have met as friends). Transferring my journal annotations into this graphical format helped me to compare these two characters while also hinting at future conflicts (Mulan’s father bent on pursuing this feud and the looming threat of the Rouran Invaders).

Book: Jennifer Chan is Not Alone by Tae Keller

I read Tae Keller’s book as an ebook, so my journaling notes were added in the notes section of the ebook. I discovered that these reflection notes were not as detailed as when I read a print copy and took pen and paper notes.

For my Sketchnotes design, I chose a basic template so that I could plot story events  highlighting major moments in the book. I represented events around a quote by the main character, Jennifer Chan: “We pull each other close, we push each other away.” The pictured events show this tension, some frames denoting hurtful actions and some frames denoting moments of healing.

Though plotting story events is a helpful exercise, this type of Sketchnote would need to be supported by questioning to reveal the richness of the message of this story and the dynamics of the the characters’ grappling with the worries, pain, and hopes. Question prompts might include Which character would you befriend? or, Which characters’ actions were hurtful and how would you respond to that character? 

Creating these Sketchnotes was a fun exercise in making visual the ideas that surfaced as I read these books. The process of reflecting on the sketches helped to clarify connections and prompt questioning for book discussions. Though these Sketchnote examples are not Leonardo masterpieces, this process was a fun and thought-provoking experience. I invite you to take pen and paper and try your hand at Sketchnotes.