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Sketchnoting and Visual Learning

            We had a professional development session for synagogue school – on Zoom – to teach us a technique called Sketchnoting. The broad purpose of the session, I think, was to open our minds to different methods of teaching, and different ways to encourage our students to express their own thoughts. And for people who process information best through visuals, and especially through pictures, the Sketchnoting method is probably a huge step forward in learning and comprehension.

            But for me, it was torture.

“Me too.”

            It took me years to learn how to read menus and recipes, because of the way the words are presented on the page, and I have never been able to read a comic book or a graphic novel from beginning to end without wanting to throw it out the window. I’m sure this qualifies as a learning disability of some kind, but it was never diagnosed or addressed in school, and I worked around it well enough that no one seemed to notice.

            But sitting there during the professional development session, staring at the computer screen and trying to make sense of a series of little pictures meant to represent words, drove me nuts. I wasn’t the only one who struggled, thank God, or else I would have (naturally) assumed it was all my fault, for being so hard-headed and stiff-necked and whatever else is wrong with me. The teacher of the class even acknowledged that learning how to translate words into pictures is much harder than recognizing the meaning of pictures drawn by someone else (though I found that difficult too).


            After a general introduction to what Sketchnoting looks like on the page (simple drawings, separated by boxes, often modified with one or two descriptive words), we did an exercise where the teacher gave us a word (in this case the word was “idea”) and asked us all to draw a picture of the word on a post-it note. My first thought was a lightbulb, but I can’t draw a lightbulb, and I don’t understand why a lightbulb is supposed to represent an idea, so I rejected that one. Then I tried to draw a cloud, because I was thinking about the Platonic ideals and how there’s supposedly a perfect version of each idea, somewhere, like maybe in heaven, but I couldn’t draw a cloud either; my best attempt looked more like an ameba.

And then I drew a tree – a very simple, curly-headed tree – because trees have been on my mind lately, and because I never have just one idea; I tend to have a core idea that branches out in dozens of directions. So a tree fit the word idea, for me.

            All of this took place in twenty seconds. And when I held up my post-it note to the camera, the teacher picked it out of everything on the screen and said, disbelieving, is that a tree? He didn’t ask why I would draw a tree, or what made a tree my best representation of the word idea. He just told us that whenever he does this exercise the majority of people draw a lightbulb, and a significant minority draw a word bubble over the head of a person, and this is proof that we actually do share a common visual language that most people will understand. Except for Rachel, of course.

“Oh, Mommy.”

            If I’d gone with my first idea and drawn even a terrible lightbulb, I would have fit in fine, but I wouldn’t have been satisfied with my work. I would have been disappointed in myself, because even though I know enough about popular culture to know that, at least in the United States, a lightbulb is often used to represent an idea, that’s not what it represents for me.

            But I felt guilty for rocking the boat. I didn’t realize, until after the exercise was over, that the teacher had been trying to prove a point about the universality of certain images. I thought I was supposed to be creative and imaginative, and I’d clearly misunderstood the purpose of the exercise.

            The teacher went on to tell us that you can use Sketchnoting to capture the deeper meaning of an essay or a lecture or a YouTube video. He said that you’ll be able to remember more of the lecture if you can sum up key ideas in pictures instead of words. But I couldn’t do most of the exercises he gave us, because I couldn’t think of pictures to draw to represent specific concepts, and even when I could think of something, I couldn’t draw it fast enough.

            Before the teacher himself had come onto the Zoom, my boss did a warm up exercise with us, asking us to describe how we each take in information. She called on me first, and I should have been able to guess that she was asking if we are visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners, or some variation on that idea, but instead I was flummoxed, because I didn’t know what she was looking for. I don’t know, I said, I take in information in a million different ways.

“I take in information through my nose and my belly.”

            I wasn’t trying to be difficult. I only understood that she was (probably) asking the visual/auditory/kinesthetic question in the aftermath, though no one else really answered in those terms either. But it felt like a microcosm of how I respond to the world overall: with confusion. I know some part of it is because I want to be different, but a lot of it is that I can’t figure out what kind of answer people are looking for and I don’t make the assumptions they expect me to make. I generally have the “right” answer in my back pocket, but I have ten other answers in there too, and I don’t know which one to choose.

            I remember a psychology class where the teacher had us go through a stack of Rorschach cards and describe what we saw. She had a list of scores for each possible interpretation and most of the students in the class fit nicely into the pre-set answer groups, and then there was me. She called my answers “creative,” because I saw things like a group of monkeys in space suits riding bicycles, instead of a butterfly, or a lion. She couldn’t score my answers and just shrugged when I asked what that might mean.


            But, I’m learning that it’s not that I’m bad at all kinds of visual learning, it’s that my mind sees more possibilities than other people see, and I have to ask a lot of extra questions to narrow down what someone else expects me to see. It makes me difficult. And it makes my life difficult. And people assume I’m doing it on purpose, just to be different. And I don’t know; maybe I am.

            But is that so bad?

            When I look at my students, I don’t see anyone who fits neatly into the predetermined learning categories. I see a lot of unicorns. And maybe I’m seeing things in them that no one else sees; but it’s there. And, yes, they can be trained to see the world in a rigid, conventional way; or most of them can. But I’m unlikely to be the teacher who asks that of them. I’d rather have a room full of unicorns, even if that makes them more challenging to teach, because that’s what makes the work so much fun.

“I’m a unicorn too, right?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?