Tag Archives: creativity

For those of you wondering about sketchnotes at IATEFL 2014…

During the 2014 IATEFL conference last week, a few people noticed me doodling away in a notebook (with real pen and paper!) during talks. Several people were even so kind as to ask to take photos of my notes, compliment them, and share them with our friends on Facebook. I’ll be sharing my notes on this blog as I finish coloring them (yes, like a 5-year old!), but since so many people seemed interested in the process of visual note-taking, here are a few resources and tips if you too want to start doodling rather than typing or writing your notes. It’s done as a sort of FAQs, based on questions I got during the conference.

What are sketchnotes?

Basically a visual form of note-taking that combines drawings, lettering styles, colors, icons, dividers, arrows, and whatever else you want to put into them to make your notes pretty and relevant to the content you want to capture.

Do you have to be a good artist to sketchnote?

Nope. I’m certainly not, unless you count stick figures, cubes, and the cat I learned to draw when I was 8 (and have been drawing that way ever since). That’s not modesty, it’s honesty. When I did do lots of artsy stuff in high school, I did collages. Why? Because you don’t have to draw, you just have to cut and paste. You don’t have to be an artist to create sketchnotes. In fact, the fact that the drawings are just sketches adds a certain graphic appeal. The whole minimalist design thing seems pretty trendy at the moment, so maybe that’s why. But you certainly don’t need to be an artist or even a good drawer to do sketchnotes! Just start doodling and keep at it!

How long does it take to learn how to sketchnote?

That’s like asking “How long does it take to learn English?” The answer depends on what proficiency level you’re aiming for. Before the IATEFL conference, I had done sketchnotes for 2 talks and 3 webinars. Not exactly years of experience then. Which means that it doesn’t take tons of training. You just have to start and keep at it. Of course, the notes you create will probably become more fluid, better organized, and more concentrated in key info as you get more experience, but there’s not better way to get experience than to just practice, practice, practice! (Hint: try sketchnoting the videos of all those IATEFL talks you missed but that are now available online. And there’s no stress of someone watching you create your notes!)

How do you draw and write and listen at the same time?

This does take a bit of practice, and I’m certainly still working on it! In my notebook there are several spots that are just blank and that will be filled after I get the speaker’s slides, read other people’s blog posts about the talk, etc. Presentations often contain some spots of intense info and some spots of down time (or “talk to your neighbor” time). You can use these to complete your notes, add little embellishes, or sketch a quick figure that can be fleshed out in more detail later. This has the added advantage of encouraging you to go back to your notes after the talk because you really want to fill them in, so you make that extra bit of effort. Again, storing things in your short-term memory while writing, drawing, and listening is a skill that improves with practice, but we’re all teachers, so don’t we enjoy a bit of mental work?

Why bother?

Sketchnotes are just prettier than scrawls of text that never get looked at again! But on a deeper level, there seem to be some cognitive benefits:

  • Trying to find images to illustrate the message helps you connect with and process the words.
  • Non-linear note-taking means you can arrange concepts on the page in a way that makes sense to you. You can also easily draw connectors to show relationships between similar or contrasting ideas.
  • You may be more artsy-fartsy than you think. Most people stop drawing because they think they’re not “good at it”. You don’t have to be good at drawing to sketchnote, but it does help to master a few basic shapes and ways of combining them to make simple images.
  • People (especially yourself) will want to read and re-read your notes. This means you review them more often and the stuff sticks better than if it just rotted away in a notebook (or computer file) somewhere.
  • The mind-body connection, or embodied cognition comes into play, since you are physically creating representations of the ideas you are processing. Scott Thornbury wrote a great article on this, published in the TESOL France Teaching Times in 2013.

How can I learn more about sketchnotes and how to do them?

There are lots of resources out there!

The first resource I’d recommend is the book The Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde. There’s a Kindle version, but I personally prefer the paper version. It’s just nice flipping through the pages!

Sketchnoting has also carved out some cyberspace for itself. Here are a few resources you’ll likely find useful:

Not sure what’s with all violent metaphors, but it makes me think of this endless Soviet-style army marching forth wielding a pen in one hand and a notebook in the other!

Hope that answers some of the questions that you may have had about sketchnoting as a way to record your conference experience! If not, feel free to add other questions in the comments below! And keep your eyes out for the posts of the sketchnotes that I made–they’ll be posted here as I finish them!



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IATEFL Liverpool: Adrian Underhill and Alan Maley’s “From Preparation to Preparedness”

“The dark matter of teaching.” That’s how Adrian Underhill and Alan Maley describe the spontaneous interaction, the improvisation, the here-and-now of lessons. It’s not about the planned, the prepared, the unquestioned road map. True to their word, they let us know that they had not planned this talk down to the minute. Practicing what they’re preaching, I suppose.

We watched a video clip of two jazz pianists playing, or rather improvising a duet. The concert wasn’t scripted and they weren’t following sheet music. Then came a video of two people in clown school, team drawing something then acting out a scenario. Neither knew what the other was doing. They had to find out as they went along. It absolutely captivated the audience, so much so that I stopped typing this post to avoid breaking the silence.

In both videos, the duos are simply there, in the moment. The clowns don’t know where exactly their improvised wordless story begins, but something gradually emerges and they run with what the other is doing, reacting and building on it—the excitement of the unknown.

With the musicians, they know some things—it’s a 12-bar blues, played as a duo, but that’s it. They react to each other’s music, flowing together. It’s risky. They could make mistakes but at the same time, mistakes are part of the process. Mistakes can be picked up on and worked with.

The clowns are practicing improvisation and spontaneity in clown school. The musicians are thrilling the audience because they’ve developed this skill through practice. See the metaphor for teacher training into spontaneity?

Rather than risk and fear, we should rejoice in the unknown. We should get excited about it. Alan and Adrian offered a few ideas about what spontaneity is:

  • interplay with what is happening now
  • risking the unknown rather than making it like last time
  • drawing ourselves into a different world of existence because we co-author the existence
  • playfulness
  • free flow rather than a hard effort.

So how can we develop our teaching dark matter?

Adrian suggested breaking rules–reflecting on your teaching and the rules that you follow, the things you always or never do. These are your rules. Take one and break it. Try something that goes against your grain and go with it. In doing so, you’ll have to improvise in some way and confront the dark matter. This doesn’t necessarily mean the new thing will be better, but it will help you avoid routine and think about what could be better.

And this can be a very small thing—teach at the back rather than the front. Move your students around in a different set up. Teach with a board instead of powerpoint or vice versa. Think about something small you could change in your teaching this week. Try it out and enjoy the excitement of change. If you make mistakes, learn from them. Trust me, learners make for better teachers.

How can we regain the joy of the unplanned, especially in teaching?

Experiment! Try new things, think creatively how you might teach a unit of a coursebook for example. We are constantly making decisions in class—do I correct that mistake? How long do I let the activity run? Who do I call on? Think about what determines how you make the decision and make it differently.

In teacher training, we need to prepare trainees to  manage  the unprepared, not simply teach them how to write lesson scripts. Adrian and Alan  gave  7 suggestions for developing “being prepared-ness” in teacher trainees:

  1. Theatre games
  2. Presentation skills
  3. Reflecting on methodologies that eschew pre-planning, such as Dogme and Community Language Learning
  4. Have them provoke unpredictability by doing the opposite of what they would normally do
  5. Include spontaneity and improvisation in post-lesson discussions of lesson observations
  6. Encourage them to see teaching as an act of inquiry rather than in the hope of being right
  7. Discuss ways to spend less time trying to control people and more time trying to connect them with each other and with what they’re doing

For us as teachers, we can also prepare ourselves for spontaneity:

  1. Bother less about trying to control. Encourage connectivity instead
  2. Work with what is happening, rather than with what you wish was happening
  3. Start conversations about whatever matters to whoever is there
  4. Give up trying to be interesting and reach out and connect
  5. Make plans but don’t expect them to happen
  6. Increase intuition—follow hunches, be vulnerable, risk fear, leave gaps, be messy, hang loose and welcome student spontaneity
  7. See your school as an adventure park for YOUR learning not just a place to work

To finish, they particularly recommended several books to help teachers experiment with creativity, spontaneity, and the joy of the dark matter:

-Casenave, Christine P. and Miguel Sosa. (2007). Respite for Teachers. University of Michigan Press.

-Fanselow, John. (1987). Breaking Rules. London/New York: Longman.

-Lutzker, Peter. (2007). The Art of Foreign Language Teaching. Tubingen und Basel: Francke Verlag.

-Maley, Alan. (2000). The Language Teacher’s Voice. Oxford: Heinemann/Macmillan.

-Pugliese, Chaz. (2010). Being Creative. London: Delta Publications.

-Thornbury, Scott, and Luke Meddings. (2009). Teaching Unplugged. London: Delta Publications.

They ended by pointing out that we are perhaps seeing a trend in ELT where this spontaneity and reactivity have a place in teacher training alongside lesson planning skills. Of course it may be a long time before spontaneity as approach becomes mainstream, but it is no longer a dark art, despite dealing with the dark matter of teaching.


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A few thoughts, post-lesson 9

After the lesson with Hyperion by John Keats, I got to wondering about a few questions and issues, none of which had anything to do with nymphs or fallen deities. Here’s what Hyperion made me think about:

  • L1 IS ok for some activities

I can thank Ken Wilson’s BESIG webinar the previous day of my lesson for this. For very complex activities or for trying to grasp rather abstract grammar concepts, maybe we should be tolerant of L1 use.

In the Hyperion lesson for example, trying to interpret a Keats’ poem is already a challenging task (especially for this A2-B1 group). Imagine if you’ve also got the teacher hovering over you going “In English!” Some students may go into cognitive overload or shutdown mode. Of course, if they want to try the discussion in English, I wouldn’t stop them!

  • Students need to be reminded of how technology can help them uncover new language and ideas.

Sure they use Google and co.  to know bus times, phone numbers, or the square root of 987,362, but that doesn’t mean they automatically think to use their tech toys to help them learn English. Sometimes we need to remind them and even show them, when the possibility exists. I know this isn’t the case in all parts of the world or for all students, but for those who can take advantage of technology, teachers should be up-to-date enough to show them how.

  • CCQ’d instructions can be a teacher’s best friend

When instructions might include unfamiliar words or a novel activity for the group, it can help to ask CCQs (concept checking questions). Some of the students in lesson 9 thought I was asking them to script the poem itself for homework. Since the verse we read seems to be about a man who’s alone in a forest… Well, let’s just say that unless Hyperion is schizophrenic, even the most motivated students would have hard time thinking of a scene with multiple characters.

Once I CCQ’d to help them understand that the script was to be loosely based on the poem and connected to their own interpretation of the poem plus the Wordle color scheme, the creative juices flowed better.

  • Not all students are spontaneously creative and need a little extra help opening their imaginations

One group was having a really hard time getting into the poem. So I tried to help them little by little with questions. What does Hyperion look like? Where do you think he is? How did he get there? What is he doing there?  Is anyone else with him? How is this person connected to the main character? etc. Then they came up with the beginning of a story…

  • Not teacher-fronting doesn’t mean not teaching

During the lesson, I spent my time rotating between the groups, helping where needed, and practically no time in front of the class. At the end of the lesson, my immediate thought was “Maybe I didn’t explain enough.”

Then, looking back, I realized I had worked a lot with each group, explaining and asking questions to guide the group along. In the end it was like 3 mini-classes of 4-5 students rather than one class of 15 students. They did the same activity, but focused on different aspects of it as was relevant to their group. I didn’t need to stand in front and lead them but that doesn’t mean we didn’t explore the path together.

I know I got a lot out of this one lesson–I hope the students got as much out of it as well!


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