Boss Tweed, a huge man in stature as well as impact, was the mayor of NYC and the engine that drove the Tammany Hall political machine. He and his cohorts practiced graft on a giant scale, just like everything else he did. Tweed didn’t worry much about his constituents squawking because most of them couldn’t read the newspapers. He was brought low by one Thomas Nast, a cartoonist whose drawings appeared in Harper’s Magazine. Nast exposed Tweed, and Tweed ended up in jail. He escaped once to Spain, but was captured and returned to prison where he died in 1878. He famously said, “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles. My constituents don’t know how to read. But they can’t help seeing them damn pictures.”
Moral of the story: A picture is worth 1000 words.
So I am re-discovering.
One morning, not so many weeks ago, I was invited to attend an AP US History class where the topic was Boss Tweed. I listened to the lecture and to the discussion that ensued and took notes the old-fashioned way: I wrote down words and numbers and dates and tried to capture the essence of the lecture in longhand.
That afternoon, not entirely by chance, I listened to a TedX Talk by Rachel Smith called “Drawing in Class.” This blog is a shout-out to Rachel Smith. She’s changed everything for me and, I hope, for a lot of people besides me.
I stumbled across her talk because I was looking for easy and/or effective note-taking strategies for a professional development presentation I was putting together for middle school teachers. So far in my research, I’d come across links to strategies I’d known about for years—like Cornell notes—and some clever ideas such as using highlighters to mark up texts in answer to a specific research question. I’d learned that there’s no one right way to take notes (a big relief) and that some techniques—like trying to write down everything a speaker says—are largely ineffective. Nothing new there. And then I stumbled upon Rachel Smith’s TedX Talk.
When Rachel Smith was in school, she got in trouble for drawing in class. She describes, in her talk, a scenario I remember from my own school days of teachers berating kids for doodling—when, in fact, they were creating graphic representations of what they were learning. (A colleague—now an art teacher—told me she’d even been kicked out of Sunday school for drawing in class!) Smith makes the point that drawing while she listened helped her focus—not to mention that her drawings captured the content in memorable images.
Now she makes a living drawing pictures of group discussions and collaborative proceedings. I watched as she demonstrated how she draws words and images as people talk. I wondered if 7th graders would be able to do this—listen and draw simultaneously—particularly if they aren’t “artistic” to begin with.
But maybe, I thought, even if they couldn’t draw fast enough to record a presentation as it was unfolding, maybe could they draw pictures after a presentation—as a way of summarizing the content. I decided to try it myself. I pulled out my lecture notes about Boss Tweed, and that’s what I drew.
The picture I created brings the story back for me in an instant—much faster than reading my original notes. Could we teach kids to draw pictures as a summary exercise? I’ve since made several presentations to my colleagues about Visual Notetaking, which (I’ve learned), is more common than I realized.
Since then, I’ve been drawing pictures in other classes I’ve attended. Here’s a chemistry lesson on the heating curve, a biology lesson on karyotypes, and a visual summary of WWI and the Treaty of Versailles.
In the case of the two science classes, I recorded my visual notes as the class unfolded. The WWI summary is an after-the-fact graphic. Either way, I had to listen as the lesson unfolded, process the information on the spot, and then create an image that matched the content. Talk about focus! No mental drifting possible. And that is just the point. Kids who doodle are likely processing—and learning in a mode that is natural for them.
You might notice that my people all look the same—except that Boss Tweed has a belly, the biology teacher has hair, and the people shaking hands at the Treaty of Versailles are standing sideways. Rachel Smith makes the excellent point that novice artists like me need to develop a “library of images” that they can draw in an instant—and she ends her TedX Talk by teaching her audience how to draw a stylized “star person.” Lesson learned.
All you need is a pencil and a blank sheet of paper. Over time, you’ll develop that library of images. Give this notetaking or summarizing strategy a try and teach it to your students. I’d like to hear if you, too, rediscover that old truth: A picture is worth 1000 words.
If you’re new to visual notetaking, as I was, here is the link to Rachel Smith’s TedX Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3tJPeumHNLY
Here is a link to the Pinterest page I put together on various notetaking strategies. https://www.pinterest.com/powleys/note-taking-strategies/
Here is a link to a Scholastic article by Meghan Everette on visual notetaking with directions for teaching kids how to do it: http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/top-teaching/2016/03/visual-note-taking-keep-focus-and-improve-retention