Sketching for Understanding: The Sketch Journal

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Sketching to show understanding – an important skill in science.

 
[My apologies to readers who looked for this post last weekend — I had some surgery, and am finally up and around, and able to think!]
 

So Far, in September…

We have been working on the science process skill of observation this month, and are learning different ways to encourage our students to look closely at the world around them.

Last week, we took a sock walk to find hidden treasures on our nature walks, and used an observation sheet  to record the things we noticed and the things we wondered about our outdoor observations.

This week, we will explore another way to help students of all ages to make detailed observations about the natural world: the sketch journal.

Why Sketching?

A literacy coach friend of mine reminds teachers that speaking is a rehearsal for writing. As an early childhood educator, I also know that, when little ones draw, the story is in the drawing process, and that you really only know the whole story when you sit side by side the child as he draws and narrates. So speaking, drawing and writing are interwoven as alternative ways of expressive language.

This connection is clear when we look at this writing skill trace in the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.K.3 Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to narrate a single event or several loosely linked events, tell about the events in the order in which they occurred, and provide a reaction to what happened.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.1.3 Write narratives in which they recount two or more appropriately sequenced events, include some details regarding what happened, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide some sense of closure.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.2.3 Write narratives in which they recount a well-elaborated event or short sequence of events, include details to describe actions, thoughts, and feelings, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide a sense of closure.

As you can see, there is a shift from the details being provided in the narration and illustrations, to an increasing level of detail being provided in the written text.

For more information on the connections between drawing, writing and understanding in infants and toddlers, see Marks and Mind, by Dr. Susan Rich Sheridan. If you are torn between a science journal and a science notebook, read “Nature Journal or Nature Notebook?” (Barbara McCoy, Handbook of Nature Study) for some insight. To see how researchers believe that doodling may help unlock scientific thinking in high school and college students, read “Doodling May Draw Students into Science,” at LiveScience.

Success for All…

Another reason to include drawings as an method for collecting detailed observations is that drawing offers a built-in scaffold for students who need more support in writing:

  • English Language Learners
  • Students with disabilities
  • Younger students and other “pre-readers”
  • Students who need another “pre-writing” step

Even for students from whom you would expect a well-written narrative, starting with even a quick sketch helps them focus on the most important details, and can provide a helpful way to focus on a new concept (such as mood), without being encumbered by working with printed words.

The Role of Sketching in Science

This month, we have been focusing on the science standards around Obtaining, Evaluating and Communicating Information, in which conveying observations through detailed illustrations would be an important subskill. In our current month’s studies (wildflowers and their seeds, mushrooms and lichens, ant colonies, and feeder birds), sketching can play an important role in developing models of living things: cross-sections of dicot and monocot seeds, diagrams showing the fruiting bodies of different types of fungi, illustrations of typical termite colonies, labeled photographs of the types of feathers on a bird. As previously stated, a well-developed sketch conveys detailed information about the item being observed.

Nature and science sketch books can include open-ended assignments, or have a specific focus (see “The Nature Corner: An Invitation to Observe” for some ideas on ways to create specific assignments for sketch books).

Creating Sketch Books

Sketch books are totally customizable. Here are some (very general) guidelines for creating sketch books for science:

Covers

  • If you use prebound notebooks (such as spiral or composition notebooks), allow students one class session to customize the cover, using magazine illustrations, scrapbooking supplies, and personal effects to personalize the notebooks. My experience with educators through high school level is that students are less likely to lose a notebook that they have “created” for themselves.
  • If you make a notebook using a 3-ring binder, get 1-inch binders that have the clear pocket for a cover insert. There are many templates available for creating front, back and spine covers for 3-ring notebooks of many sizes. Microsoft.com has generic (but editable) ones. The Notebooking Treasury includes notebook cover art and spine covers for many of its notebooking sets.

Pages

When I create notebooks with kids, I tend to print out many different types of pages, because I find that different pages “ask” to be used for different purposes.

  • Framed Pages… Full page frames lead students to create full illustrations of the item they are studying. When a page contains smaller frames, or smaller frames and lined sections, students include captions or labels for the illustrations. Numbering the frames draws students to sequence illustrations.
  • Blank Pages… These are useful when students are using art materials such as watercolors or pastels, to respond. Some students need help when faced with a totally blank page, so be prepared to model how you would “attack” a blank piece of paper.
  • Graph Paper… Two of my own children, and many of my elementary students, struggled when faced with paper without lines. Graph paper helps students with perspective, and proportion, two concepts that are challenging for budding “sketchers.” Depending on the size of the grid, graph paper can also help students focus on details more.
  • Lined Paper… Of course you will want a ready supply of lined paper to add pages for writing in between sketches.
  • Novelty Pages… Including scrapbooking or themed notebooking pages (e.g., these interesting elements pages for high school chemistry notebookers) helps to spark ideas for science sketch books, and can help students organize their work. Many commercial notebooking page sites offer notebook section pages such as this.
  • Novelty Paper… One of my kindergarten teachers finds that just introducing a new writing page into her writing center creates increased interest in writing and journaling.

Art materials

I had one of those three-basket, colorful, wire carts on wheels, that you can get for a few dollars at most department stores. I stored all of my everyday art materials here, and parked the cart in the middle of the room for ready use.  What did I include on the cart?

  1. a class set of watercolors (8 colors), numbered with student numbers
  2. skinny brushes (more than enough for the class)
  3. medium brushes (ditto)
  4. table sets of skinny markers, in pencil boxes (24 colors or so)
  5. a class set of crayons (16 colors), numbered with student numbers
  6. a class set of scissors (I liked Fiskars), numbered with student numbers
  7. table sets of #2 pencils, in pencil boxes
  8. a stash of pencil grips
  9. a stash of cap erasers
  10. more than enough glue sticks for the class

Other materials would be placed in centers or at tables, as needed: magazines, construction paper, scrapbooking or wrapping paper, poster paints, etc.

Teaching strategies

My eldest son loved to create journals, and used skinny markers and invented spelling from an early age, to chronicle all types of outdoor explorations, and could spend hours coloring. My middle son preferred graph paper and elaborate diagrams, usually of inventions, labeled and created in #2 pencil. Coloring and writing bored him, but drawing did not. My youngest son preferred NOT to sketch, at all, but was quite adept at creating diagrams, preferring graph paper to other types, and wrote detailed narratives to accompany them.

So, if I use my three guys as a representative sample of kids, I know that, as in other areas of teaching, strategies for sketching need to be included as part of the process of creating a sketch book. In the next section are some that I’ve learned over the years.

Sketching Strategies

  • The 10-minute Quick Sketch. This is a useful strategy for helping students organize their thoughts before asking them to write about an observation. It’s a good strategy to teach important vs. interesting details, and for focusing on a particular idea (e.g., a quick sketch to show the feeding behavior of a robin). YOU WILL HAVE TO PRACTICE THIS ONE WITH KIDS! They want to spend a hundred years.

A Quick-Sketch of the parts of a feather, as part of a “Fill in the Page” Study — two strategies in one! Notice how the student used sketching, scrapbooking and feather specimens as part of the study.

  • Fill the Page. This strategy (and the next two) come from my friend, Barbara McCoy, blogger, nature study-er and homeschooler, who has a flair for art and how to incorporate it into nature study – see her blogs at Handbook of Nature Study and Harmony Art Mom. The “Fill the Page” strategy is useful for encouraging stamina in sketching/writing. The goal is to fill the page, with artifacts (e.g., found feathers), notes and drawings. The ONLY rule is the page is filled. This really helped my reluctant nature student!

The “Fill the Page” Strategy used in a study of shark teeth. The student included actual objects, drawings, diagrams and written narration on the same page.

  • Fill in the Circle.  A variation of “Fill the Page,” which uses a smaller area for the illustration. Barbara McCoy shows how she uses the “Fill in the Circle” strategy with her homeschoolers at Handbook of Nature Study.

The “Fill in the Circle” Strategy (and a mini-book) used in a Spanish language study of dandelions. We began by coloring a line drawing within the circle, then progressed to providing the complete illustration.

  • Fill in With Words. This is a variation on “Fill the Page,” with the goal to use words, only, to fill in the page. This is a good next step for students who are having trouble moving from sketching to using words, because the goal, as in the previous, is to just fill the page.

We varied the amount of area to fill in, when using the “Fill in With Words” Strategy, as my son’s stamina for journaling increased.

  • Draw What You See. Kids want to draw what they think they see, instead of what they really see. Good practice for this, before using real objects, is to include black and white drawings, and grid paper, and have students copy the drawing exactly. Donna Young has some simple art exercises that focus on copying increasingly complex designs — a helpful step when working with students on accurate rendering of their observations.

We used the “Draw What You See” Strategy for this sketch of Queen Anne’s Lace — notice that my son even included his pencil in the sketch!

  • Focus on… Labels, Titles, Captions, Scale (etc). Connect the science sketch book to other content areas by focusing the written part on a particular concept, such as labels (part-to-whole relationships), titles (main idea or theme), captions (summarizing), or scale (proportions), just to name a few. Practice for this strategy could include pre-made drawings for which students provide the focus. This is a great connection to the use of non-fiction text features in language arts.

An independent work showing a labeled design for a bigger, better bird feeding station, showing a focus on labels.

Houghton-Mifflin has some interesting tasks that can be used to help students reflect on and refine their skills at science drawing.

See the “Apple a Day” set of September notebooking pages for a study of the apple fruit and flower, and the September promotion of my new e-Book, The Gentle Art of Observation, for more ideas on observation for homeschool and classroom.

Find Almost Free Art Supplies, with the help of this handy little book. $3.99 at Barnes and Noble (click the image for ordering information).

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One response to “Sketching for Understanding: The Sketch Journal

  1. Pingback: Focus on… Observation | Simple Science Strategies

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