Designing Visual Notes

Visual Note taking
Completed Visual Notes

You know that story about the teacher with the big jar, and he’s got a bunch of rocks, a bunch of pebbles, a bag of sand and a pitcher of water?  He asks his class if he can fit All this stuff! into the jar, and his class is unsure?  Then he puts the big rocks into the jar, and they think the jar is full.  Then he puts the pebbles in, to fill in the space around the big rocks. Then he puts in the sand, and it fills the spaces between the big and small rocks.  Then he pours the water in, and the whole thing becomes absolutely DENSE, completely full?  He asks his class, “What would have happened if I started with the water?”  And the answer is supposed to be, “Well, you wouldn’t have had room for the rocks!”  And it’s supposed to be a lesson about calendar and thinking ahead and planning the big stuff, et cetera. And to be sure, it can be that.

But it’s also a reminder that we as teachers have to give our students, particularly our younger students, a plan for their notes.  We can’t just give notes ad infinitum all through class. Their hands and arms grow tired, their pencil points grow dull, and their brains get full.  There’s not a lot of information they can process, particularly in sixth or seventh grade.

So we have to plan out the notes ahead of time. What can they usefully absorb in one school day?  Here’s one such plan for my day.  You’ll see that I’ve given them quite a lot of information, both visually and in written format.  It fills one page of typical looseleaf paper… and it’s almost too many notes for a typical seventh grader to absorb, especially so close to the beginning of the school year.

On the other hand, it’s showing the way.  It’s demonstrating that visual notetaking is powerful and real, and a quick visual image can teach you a lot.  There’s a huge quantity of information squeezed into this page, and it’s a way of showing that information doesn’t have to be written.  It’s not just about teaching verbal skills; it’s also about showing students to be visual, too.  It’s not all weird pictures of Mercury and Mars that go into making the Art of Memory work; it’s also about visual mnemonics that empower their creator to learn anything, so long as they can make a picture of it.

So try this… make a copy of these notes, and then go try to write down four paragraphs about the four great pre-Columbian empires of the Americas.  WIth just this visual, you’ll find that you can write an incredibly detailed description of these peoples.  And it will be impressive.  It really will.

Be thinking about how many notes you give your students, and what you expect those notes to look like on the page.  Show your students what your work looks like, and what your plan is for them.  You gain a standard copy of your notes that you can use for years and years. Your kids gain visual thinking and memory skills they never would have had before.  And ultimately, kids will be able to invent their visual notes on the fly, based on the information they’re hearing in a lecture.  That will come in time.  For now, guide them through the process, and be confident in your own drawing skills.

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