Podcast for Teachers: Prompting Students to Sketch to Learn - Steve Barkley

Podcast for Teachers: Prompting Students to Sketch to Learn

Prompting Students to Sketch to Learn

Biology and Earth Science teacher and author, Wendi Pillars, provides a look at the power of sketching in teaching and learning. Sketching provides an opportunity for students to engage with content in a non-threating and low stakes world. Time for sketching can guide a synthesis of learning. Studies show that information is recalled exponentially more when paired with visuals than without them.

“Using sketching can add laughter and boost confidence to take risk both intellectually and creatively which is ideal for building community and ensuring understanding.”

Find Wendi’s books here.
Find her on X (Twitter) – @wendi322

Podcast Transcript:

[00:00:00.330] – Steve [Intro]

Hello and welcome to the teacher edition of Steve Barkley ponders out loud. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding, and my curiosity is piqued whenever I explore with teachers the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate and support their learners. Thanks for listening. I’m delighted that you’re here.

[00:00:32.240] – Steve

Prompting students to sketch to learn. I was introduced to today’s guest when I read an Education Week article titled, “Sticky Notes and Student Choice Can Go a Long Way Toward Boosting Engagement.” Teacher and author, Wendi Pillars, was the contributor of the sticky notes suggestion. As I researched further, I found that she’s published the books, “Visual Notetaking For Educators” as well as, “Visual Impact: Transform Communications in Your Boardroom, Classroom, or Living room.” I’m pleased that Wendi’s decided to join us here. So welcome, Wendi.

[00:01:17.010] – Wendi

Good morning Steve. Thanks for having me.

[00:01:19.350] – Steve

Terrific. As I read a little bit of your background, it appears that you’ve got a pretty varied teaching background. You want to explore that a little bit with us?

[00:01:30.420] – Wendi

Yeah. I will preface that and promise that I’m not in the witness protection program. [laughter] Initially, I was in the military, and my very first teaching assignment was when my drill sergeant handed me a book and said, teach this to those people over there. And I was scared to death. But I learned to like it. And when I got out of the military, I taught overseas for several years. I taught English as a foreign language and multiple subject areas. And when I return back to the states, I’ve taught in grades K through – we say K through gray, so I’ve done kindergarten through adult teaching and different contexts. We did online teaching before it was a thing. So yeah, I’ve got quite a range of experience and this is my 29th year.

[00:02:21.170] – Steve

Wow, that’s great. What are the experiences that led you to focus on the visual element of teaching and learning?

[00:02:31.880] – Wendi

Working with language learners, it was a, I want to say, necessary default. When students don’t understand the language, you’re almost wasting words by trying to explain what something is when a quick sketch could do the work just as quickly and you could move on and focus on the learning. If kids are focused too much on what in the world are you trying to tell me and I can just put up a sketch, then it’s more fun too.

[00:03:01.440] – Steve

And then what led to the transfer of that thinking across a broader spectrum of teaching and learning rather than just teaching a language?

[00:03:13.860] – Wendi

Well, what struck me most was that I noticed that kids were super engaged when I would draw something on the board or on the document camera. They were kind of sitting on the edge of their seats, like, what is she going to draw next? And I’m not an artist in a fancy sense, so stick figures are my go to and very simple drawings, but with labels and words. So kids would mentally have this picture and they would be able to go back in their minds. This is what second and third graders used to tell me – I can go back in my mind and see where you wrote XYZ. But then what I realized was that my mind, I started to sketch at conferences. People said, can you sketch this speaker’s talk and work with us for a little bit? And then I realized, like, my gosh, when I do that for an hour, my brain is exhausted. And I realized the power that visualizing and synthesizing someone else’s words or something that you’re hearing or reading had. And I said, I can’t be the one that is doing all of this thinking. I have to be able to teach my students how to do this so that they can feel that and experience that power, too.

[00:04:39.090] – Wendi

So that helped me transfer it more towards students instead of me always being the one that sketched. So that was a big switch. And then because I work with language learners, I have worked in so many different content areas. So history and english language learning, not just the language, but the literature, biology, earth science, all of those were subject areas. And when you are struggling to learn the language, but you can express yourself visually in a simple way, it really empowers the learners. So they were very excited to show me something. One of my students, he was a struggling learner. He couldn’t put a sentence together. He struggled with just speaking. And that was in English or his native language. And he was always taking intervention courses and classes. And we were doing an activity where we were practicing with vocabulary for a higher level article about migration. And he took a vocabulary word and sketched it out, and it was the word, “deport.” And he drew a picture of a truck with a man, a stick figure man. And he had tears. He was crying. And then there was a stick figure woman. She had a ponytail, and she was standing behind the truck, and she had a smile on her face.

[00:06:15.500] – Wendi

And I don’t judge. I learned not to judge. Tell me more about your drawing, like, how does this represent the word deport? And he said, “well, this is my dad. He is sad because he’s leaving, because he’s getting deported. This is my mom. She’s happy because she doesn’t have to worry about him getting hurt and that she doesn’t have to worry about coming home each day wondering if he’s still there.” So this blew my mind. I’d never heard him speak that much. If I had said, hey, go in the dictionary and write definition and we’re moving on, I would have never had that insight. So this is what has prompted me to continue to find ways to get kids to be comfortable sketching, even if it’s really simple, because the stories behind their sketches have really made me stop and think and just have humbled me.

[00:07:17.070] – Steve

Yeah. When you first started describing it, the word that really struck me that you used back to when you were doing the sketching at the conferences, is synthesizing. In effect, that student put a whole lot of synthesis into the definition of what the word meant to him. And then being able to tell the story back to you, you realize the depth of his understanding of the term.

[00:07:49.490] – Wendi

Yeah. And he didn’t use a single word in his sketch. It was stick figures and a very rudimentary truck, but I could still tell it was a truck. And gosh, yeah, events like that, they’ve stuck with me because they’ve gotten to my heart.

[00:08:06.960] – Steve

So when I read the Edweek article and you talked about the sticky notes, I used the word power and simplicity. You laid it out as a simple thing for teachers to do, and then you labeled a lot of powerful things that could come from it. So I’m wondering if you would just share with people some of the things that you shared in that article.

[00:08:33.400] – Wendi

So one thing I’ve noticed increasingly is the reluctance to participate in class, especially at the high school level. You always have one or two students who are super eager and they want to control, not control the class, but the other kids will wait for them to answer. So by giving time for students to process what I’ve asked them or what we’ve just learned and say, hey, look, I’m going to give you two minutes. Represent this with a sketch, label with this word, et cetera, it gives everybody in the class an equal amount of time to process. A lot can happen in two minutes, even 1 minute. I can walk around the room and I can also lay eyes on what they’re doing. So if they are way off the mark, I know I can just go back up, circle right back to the front of the classroom and reteach it. Or if everybody is on it, I know I’m good to go. And if there are a couple of people that are willing to share out, then that’s an opportunity for me to tap them on the shoulder and say, hey, I love what you wrote down or sketched or represented here. Would you mind sharing with the class?

[00:09:42.110] – Wendi

So it’s a way to empower students. It’s a way for them to communicate with me without putting themselves out there. So that’s, I think, a simple way to do it. They can collect those sticky notes, or you can make space inside the guided notes if you use those, just use little boxes or squares, and kids can use those, too. One of the things I’ve seen recently a lot is the lack of ability to focus for an extended period of time. And so giving students this time limit, first of all, to push them to focus and do something tangible, but with their pencil or with a pen or with a marker, and it draws them away. I know there’s a lot of digital drawing tools. We don’t have access to that in my classroom, so we are bare bones. We use the simple stuff. But I think it’s really important for kids to have that analog piece in their world where they can create something, even if it’s what we consider very simple.

[00:10:54.920] – Steve

I think there may be a benefit there to the simple way of making it, rather than bringing it up on my AI screen.

[00:11:08.140] – Wendi

Yeah, at first, it was interesting. I haven’t seen it as much lately, now that I think about it. But when I first asked high school age students to sketch something, they have Chromebooks, so they would take their papers and lay it on the screen of a picture that they would google. So I really encourage them – I say, you can look at something, like, if you want to look up an idea, that’s fine, but you cannot trace it. You’ve got to try it on your own. And that way you get your own style. That has changed. I haven’t seen that as much recently, which is interesting, but, yeah, it’s definitely a push. I had students were doing a genetics activity last semester, and they flip a coin, and it gives this trait or this trait, and by the end of the activity, they have twelve or 13 traits, and then they create an alien based on those crazy traits, right? Like, eight fingers, four eyes, blue fur. And I literally was standing behind a girl, and she was googling how to draw an alien with eight fingers eyes. And I was shocked. I was like, what are you doing?

[00:12:32.170] – Wendi

Nobody’s ever seen an alien. Use your imagination. And what I really love, though, is my newcomers, the kids that are still struggling with the language, but they’re pushing through, and this is a biology class, their drawings were the most creative. They were the ones that are like, no problem, I got this. It’s something tangible. Okay. Four eyes. And they had beautiful representations. My native english speakers were the ones that were struggling the most. So I just find it fascinating, like, to put pictures, to add any type of simple drawing activities into a classroom really gives these incredible insights into how students think and where their imaginations are and their level of comfort with just pushing a boundary mentally is fascinating to me. So, yeah, people say, are you going to draw pictures today? Yeah, absolutely. Let me find a way.

[00:13:42.970] – Steve

Kids are walking in with an expectation that moment will be there.

[00:13:48.130] – Wendi

Other colleagues used to ask that, “what do you do, draw pictures today?”

[00:13:55.060] – Wendi

Especially at high school level, because it’s just not a thing. So hopefully that mindset has shifted a little bit.

[00:14:02.930] – Steve

Well, we’ll work at it. We’ll work at it. Fill focus in a little bit on the kinds of things they could find in your books and what’s same and different in the two books.

[00:14:14.920] – Wendi

The first book is, “Visual Notetaking For Educators.” I wanted to write that because I was trying to research more information about the brain and how it processes, because I felt like I was seriously missing something with my students. There’s got to be more. I’ve got to be able to hit these students needs in a different way that haven’t been met. And so the first book has a lot more theory in it, but also applications of the theory. So it’s theory to practice. And I am not a neuroscientist, but I think it’s fascinating that we don’t, as teachers, learn a lot about it. So by applying the visual piece to learning strategies, I think it’s important. As I was writing it, though, I kept thinking there’s too much text and I should be sketching this out as I read it, in essence, walking my talk. So the second book started as a dream while I was writing my first book, and the second book now is like 270 pages, and every other page is a full page visual note, and it complements the left side, which is text. So one of the questions that I always hear is, how do I start?

[00:15:36.770] – Wendi

I don’t know how to start. And so by giving those examples, people can look at them and say, oh, okay, well, this is just words in chunks, or these are just stick figures, or this is just a color coding or simple icons, and it gives them a start point, and I think it encourages people to give it a try and use their own style. So the second book is far more visual. It is in color, it is larger, it has student examples in it. And then there’s a range of topics, literally A to Z, and they’re based largely upon questions I’ve received at different trainings and workshops I’ve given over the years.

[00:16:17.920] – Steve

Wendi, I’ve really appreciated the time you spent with us here. For starters, give people the names of your two books.

[00:16:26.390] – Wendi

Again, the first one is, Visual Notetaking For Educators,” and the second one is, “Visual Impact: Quick, Easy Tools For Thinking in Pictures.”

[00:16:37.860] – Steve

And easiest way for people to connect with you with the questions they might have.

[00:16:44.360] – Wendi

The easiest way is on Twitter @wendi322 or Instagramm I’m under SKETCHMORE_THINKMORE but you’ll probably find it under my name, too.

[00:16:55.350] – Steve

Okay, thanks a lot.

[00:16:57.450] – Wendi

Thank you.

[00:16:57.900] – Steve

Have a good day.

[00:16:58.970] – Wendi

You too.

[00:17:01.640] – Steve [Outro]

Thanks for listening, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com


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