This is not a ground-breaking discovery, nor is it some new maverick idea that will disrupt the status quo. However, it is a simple hack that has made the way I take notes much easier, organized, and coherent, and the way I present information more logical and visually appealing. I humbly share my secret with you: SmartArt graphics from Microsoft’s PowerPoint tools.

Let me backtrack: reading and retaining nonfiction is a labor intensive process for me. As a reformed perfectionist, something about nonfiction primes my brain for active reading so that I can retain everything as accurately as possible. My nonfiction reading persona is the power suit clad, reading glasses on the brink of the nose, no nonsense bun, and highlighter uncapped and ready version of me. It takes me double, sometimes triple the amount of time to finish the same amount of pages as someone else, and I have to be intentional to set aside time to do this kind of work.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this paper by Professor Lewis and Dylan M. Lynn. Dylan describes the compensatory strategies she used as she studied statistics at UC Berkeley. The twist: Dylan has dyscalculia, a learning difference characterized by difficulty in learning and comprehending arithmetic. Please note here that I’m purposely using the term learning difference: what is seen as a disability is frequently a contextualized cognitive difference based on biased policies and environments.

In this paper, Dylan describes her note-taking process as time consuming. She would write out each step of complicated problems, sometimes transcribing numbers into words or using the metaphor of language, and she kept a dictionary of symbols she created to help her differentiate between mathematical symbols that were similar looking.

Dylan’s tools have some parallels to mine, though I am in awe of the sophistication of the compensatory strategies Dylan employed throughout her studies. Inspired by Dylan’s ingenuity, I’ve been trying something new by allowing some creativity to enter into the process. Through adding in sketches and highlighting flows in my notes, I am making the thread of the content visible for myself in a way that was otherwise hidden in blocks of words. Because truly, the end goal for all teachers and learners is make the learning visible and to gain insight into the learning process by doing so.

I had the opportunity to learn about PowerPoint when I was a middle school technology specialist. My 6th graders were learning the basics of creating a presentation in Office 365, and one of the tools we discovered in our exploration of the buttons was the SmartArt graphics. The unassuming tool mimics the graphic organizers I’d seen in my time as an elementary school teacher, and it’s organized by themes. I filed the knowledge away for later, and I forgot about it until I started my summer work. I mean, look at this beauty:

A screenshot of the SmartArt graphics menu from Office 365’s PowerPoint.

I like this so much, I took a screenshot and printed it so I could keep it in my notebook. It delivers visual significance paired with simplicity, and it’s super easy to replicate by hand. I’m so excited by this discovery, I’ve decided to incorporate it not just into my own note-taking process, but also share it with the student I tutor.

I adhere to a pretty straight-forward note-taking protocol. The structure of it is easy to follow, and it allows me to feel empowered, not overwhelmed, by nonfiction. First, I check the total number of page numbers in the chapter and look at the overall structure of each page. Then, I read each section and pause to summarize and write a quick summary in the margin. I work in chunks of the chapter at a time, which I categorize based on the structure of the chapter.

Once I finish a chunk, I go back and review my notes and summarize my work. At this point, I’m looking for themes: does this chunk describe a list, a process, a cycle, or a hierarchy? Once I’ve identified the theme, I can choose an organizer. After that I transcribe my notes in my journal. Using the organizer gives the block of texts a sense of story that I often feel is missing when I read nonfiction.

When I’m done, the finished product might look like this:

An image of the mindful reflection protocol outlined in a circle with arrows cycling to the next step.
An image of the mindful reflection protocol outlined in a circle with arrows cycling to the next step.

90% of the notes I take don’t get the Procreate treatment, but this should give you an idea of what my pages look like. This is based on the cycle theme, and I applied the section image from the left to my notes. I appreciate being able to tell a story with the structure of my notes, as well as the drawing throughout the notes. And, I retain a lot more information when I draft my notes this way.

Going forward, I will continue to incorporate this into my personal note-taking style. This experience has also illustrated to me the power of flexibility and creativity in learning. Why should we ask our students to retell or share information in an essay form? Why is the default note-taking format walls of text with no visually apparent link? What if, instead of asking our students to demonstrate their understanding by writing essays, we instead allowed them to use SmartArt graphics or simply graphic organizers? In a time where the norm is constantly being re-imagined, these seem like timely questions to ask.

Educator, long-distance runner, and lifelong learner

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