Sketch noting the Constitution

The 8th grade students have decided that this year we are re-writing our Constitution to intertwine it with game design. The students expressed that they wanted to learn design thinking and create games that show their mastery of the U.S. Constitution. Excitedly, I jumped into planning. Content goals first, skill goals second.

Every year students must sketch note the entire Constitution. Every Article, Section and Clause.

This elicits groans from the depth of their souls and fear is evident in their eyes. While many students love the idea of doodling during class the idea of sketch noting an entire document written in an outdated form of language is not a fan favorite. 

Why Sketch Note?

Sketch noting is an integral part of this unit that I never substitute. Even when students struggle with content, or it slows down my pacing sketch noting is a processing skill that must be learned by students, especially before they take the leap into high school. 

The introduction of sketchnoting is always met with some whines and groans. Students complain that they are not artists, that drawing is slow, that their notes are not pretty. I always start with giving students the basics. This video about the 7 elements of sketchnoting does an amazing job giving kids just enough tools to launch, but not so much detail that they drown. 

After practicing along with the video we sketch note a song as a class. The song must be clean and tell a story. This year we chose 7 years, Heart of Gold, Don’t Stop Believing and Hotel California. The students must first listen to the song to generate ideas of how to use the 7 elements they just learned. Next, we listen to the song, two or three times until they feel like they have captured the main points of the narrative. 

Afterwards kids are beaming with pride about their work. Even the shyest of students share a small smile and feeling of accomplishment.

The process is still a long one. Sketchnoting a contemporary song and a document written in 1787 is not the easiest leap. Some students every year question why I’m so stuck on a skill that takes so long to learn. 

Instead of telling I pose questions and let them meander to the answers themselves. I prompt them with questions about the purpose of sketchnoting.

What do they gain from learning this skill? Then I ask what would happen if I let them take regular notes? Would they be able to explain the sections and clauses to me? Would they truly understand the systems? 

One by one with a sad look of defeat all students find the same conclusions. They begrudgingly admit if they took traditional notes they would not read as closely, and their learning would suffer.

Sketch noting forces them to slow down and understand the material before they can think of the images to draw. 

Understanding vs. Learning

Sketchnoting is an incredible way for students to take notes especially on content that is abstract like the systems of government. Sketchnoting taps into the brain in significant ways. The visual thinking aspect of sketchnoting through your notes aids students with big picture concepts. Students are forced to make connections, and display learning processes. Students explore their metacognitive skills because they have to think about what they are writing down and how they want to display in. In short, the act of sketchnoting forces higher level thinking and deeper connections to background knowledge. 

This is an incredibly important point when we have content that we want students to understand and not just learn. We need students to take in the information, link it to information they already have and create larger more complex networks of information and recall. I do not want students to tell me about the three branches of government, the impeachment process or the nomination process for Supreme Court Justices. I want them to understand how systems work together to distribute power, how checks and balances function, and why the founding fathers wanted to restrain power. While the act of teaching sketchnoting explicitly and then turning the framework of the U.S. Constitution takes a significant amount of time; it is time well spent in the development of emerging brains. 

Sketchnoting is an invaluable skill in this unit and my class. When students finally embrace the process it becomes one of their favorite activities as well. Even the most reluctant do some form of sketch noting in later units. Their notes slowly turn from all words to small doodles, arrows and banners. The skill becomes ingrained and they don’t even notice it’s usefulness while employing it throughout their classes. 

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