Cranky Student Makeover: Graphic Organizer + Sketchnotes=This Doesn’t Suck

Ever had one of those days where multiple students, if not most of the class, struggled with the content? Maybe you were showing a movie that had important information, but the students weren’t getting it because they were not engaged?  If the truth be told, we’ve all probably had a class, a day, or a period where the students struggled with being engaged in the lesson or content while we struggled with the students. If this is sounding a bit familiar, then boy have I found a little nugget of “This doesn’t suck” for you!

We Don’t Need No Education

One of the classes I teach is mythology, and since that is an upper level English elective (juniors and seniors only), you are likely thinking that I don’t have any trouble with student engagement. After all, they chose to take the class. While that is true for several students, it is not entirely true for all students. There are always those that have to take it because it is the one English class that fits their schedule, and they must have it to graduate. There are also those who take it because nothing else sounded good or they wanted to take another class with me as the teacher. Those students figure I can make anything interesting, and I usually do succeed with that, but not always. Mythology is a class that many enter with preconceived ideas, and what I do will either open their minds to new possibilities or cement them for all time. It isn’t just a class, but a game changer for fixed mindsets, or at least that’s how I see it. So how can I to get students interested in my current content, (shown through a movie), and out of the “lights off head down & sleep” mode?

We Don’t Need No Thought Control

The current sketchnotes movement (on Twitter) caught my eye early on as I thought about how it incorporates Allan Paivio’s theory of dual coding, which occurs when humans process information in both visual and verbal form. In class, when we have students combine a picture, visual, or doodle AND text or words that tie our content to that visual, then their brains have two ways now to learn the content.  I get that, and after a brief explanation to my daughter last year during her first year of college, she was able to use the sketchnotes to improve her political science grade. I also know that there is science behind the use of colors.  Knowing all of this, I still hadn’t truly been successful trying it in my classes as an organized and graded activity. For individuals, yes. Whole group? Not so much. That all changed recently. While getting ready for school one morning, I listened to the Cult of Pedagogy podcast, Episode 81, about graphic organizers. While listening to that episode, which I have linked here and at the end of this post, all of the pieces in my brain suddenly fit together.  Click. Jennifer Gonzales extols the benefits that students can still gain from graphic organizers, and especially when we give them one that is ready for them to just put in the information. I pondered that all day, because I thought it was reaching DOK (Depth of Knowledge) level 4 if students created the organizer themselves, but not according to the research linked here. That evening at home, I used Google Drawings to create a PDF file of a pre-formatted sketchnotes handout.  The frustrated life for myself and students, at least on that day, changed.

No Dark Sarcasm In the Classroom

I gave students a copy of my graphic organizer sketchnotes handout as they entered class or I directed them to the handouts while I greeted students in the hallway and those coming into my class. My juniors and seniors looked at it and then at me with the expression all experienced high school teachers know well. I interpreted it as “Mrs. Steinbrink is cray-cray.”  Once class started, my instructions were minimal. Here’s what I told them:

“During today’s section of the movie, I want you to fill this in however it makes sense to you, use whatever colors or writing utensils you have at your disposal, include at least one quote, and try to jot down things that I (Mrs. Steinbrink) think is important.  You can draw a picture or doodle and write a bit of text near it to help you remember, or you can just write it without drawing or doodling. You can color and decorate it when you finish or as you see fit.” 

I have, at this point in the school year, already taught my students about dual coding and sketchnotes as a tool. One student, who typically complains about the content and tries to sleep through class, looked over my handout and then asked if maybe next time could I put titles over the sections so she would know what to write or draw there? I told her maybe, but I wanted her to try it this way first. See the picture below for the original handout in picture form. I used Google Drawings , inserted shapes, callouts, and one large set of quotes (so two text boxes), downloaded it as a PDF and printed it for them. That’s all I did. My students took it from there.

image_6483441 (2)

Teachers Leave Them Kids Alone

For the first time since I started the current subject (Tolkien Mythology), nobody tried to sleep. Students were asking me for character names, could they borrow some Sharpies (they know I have a Sharpie obsession in pen and marker form), and many finished halfway through the class period and began decorating it while watching the movie. I walked around but found students engaged in the sketchnotes, the movie, and no one complaining. Hmmm. They asked me how to spell the character or geographical names. They asked where Gandalf was and would he be in the scenes we would cover. Could they document Kili and Tauriel’s romance? Yes and yes (and yes, I know that isn’t in the novel by Tolkien, but his whole body of work cannot be covered in one quarter, so I have to use the movies). After class, as they students turned in their sketchnotes to me, several said things like, “Hey, that wasn’t like a vacuum.” (I don’t allow them to say sucks, but they can use that simile or others, such as ‘like a whale’ if it blows.) One student said, “I didn’t sleep at all today! Look what I did!” And another student, quietly, told me that the story line was actually kind of maybe not so boring. She maybe might like it now. The student who wanted me to label the sections next time, handed her’s to me proudly and recanted. “Mrs. Steinbrink, isn’t mine awesome?” I was very impressed, so my affirmation was very genuine. I asked if she still wanted section headings and she replied, “No, because my brain wanted me to do the relations between characters on this side, and the dragon quotes here, and then the main action on this side. If you label them, then that may not work for my brain.” Exactly. Inner self high five.


Hey! Teacher, Leave Us Kids Alone!

Will I switch up this template occasionally? Yes.. Will I use this strategy every time we watch a movie or cover difficult content? No. It’s not a one size fits all.

Ultimately, I will know how they fare on retaining the information when I test them, and I do plan to test them in a couple of different ways, though I will cover the same information that I covered in my pretest. But if they are actively engaged in the content all hour, monitoring the movie while sketching, doodling, writing, coloring, then I am fairly confident that they will know more than they did before they took my class. My students will know some of the Norse Mythology elements that Tolkien uses in his mythology. They will see value in stories and movies in this genre. Mindsets are now breaking loose from the cement of dislike, growing into a more fluid and analytical state. If they can break free in one area, then I have given them tools to do so in other areas of life and school. That’s a good feeling.

Headings adapted from Another Brick in the Wall (Part II) by Pink Floyd


Sketchnotes Template Folder

The Learning Scientists (brain based learning strategies & information)

Dual Coding Poster (from The Learning Scientists)

Cult of Pedagogy Episode 81 (The Great and Powerful Graphic Organizer)

Effect of Different Colors on Human Mind and Body

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