Drawing on a personal experience to carve a career

When we were planning our Blended Learning Jungle event we wanted to make sure that the information from our speakers was being distributed in as many formats as possible, including visual, which is how we met Tom Hanicak who is a visual note taker. Not only is Tom awesome at what he does, he has a great story to tell too. Read on to find out more...

An image of Tom's visual note-taking

“Tommy, stop doodling.”

“You need to take notes the way that I taught you.”

“Put your pencil down and pay attention.”

“Stop drawing and start writing.”

I have heard these statements and many more like it on a consistent loop for my entire life. In fact, it was not too long ago, while I was employed in the role of Coordinator of District Assessments and School Improvement, that the newly hired Superintendent saw me drawing during a professional development session, approached me, pointed his finger in the direction of my sketchbook and said, “Put that down and let’s get focused Tom.” That’s correct. The person responsible for leading an entire school district, publicly shamed me for using a sketchbook to take visual notes during a professional development session.

So when I am asked to create visual notes, or to talk about my process; although my initial reaction is excitement, I can’t deny that the excitement is shrouded in unease and also a healthy dose of irony.

My background

When I was growing up I was always told that the way that I learned was flawed. I can’t express this sentiment strongly enough. The actions of educators taught me that there was something wrong with me, and that my process for creating visual notes was a distraction and not welcome in the classroom.

In retrospect, I do not believe that teachers knew that when they prohibited me from drawing in the classroom it made me feel like I was abnormal. I also believe that teachers were entirely well intentioned and saw me as a student who had an unwavering drive to create art that served only as a distraction to my learning. Teachers did not know that my need to create art could have been channeled and used to enhance my learning, and even the learning of others.

The drawing process

Because I was not permitted to draw during class, my process for creating visual notes evolved in secrecy and as a form of adaption. My first step would be to listen as attentively as possible during class and write as many

ideas as I could in my lined paper notebooks. Then, I would go home and draw pictures that represented the concepts.

In retrospect, one of the things that I find fascinating about how my process evolved is that my visual notebooks were never content specific. The visualization of my learning were always about creating connections across content. In other words, my visuals mapped across content, merging from science to social studies and ELA. I believe that this demonstrates my learning was not linear and was always instinctively in search of relevant connections.

Because creating visual notes started intuitively for me, and developed over the years out of necessity. I completed a process I call “doublenotes”. I took two different types of notes by transcribing written notes into visual notes.

I got so habituated to this double note taking process that I did it well into college. I only started to create visual notes as my primary note taking method when I started graduate school in my mid 20’s, and I only started to share my visual notes publicly five years ago, when I was well into my 40’s.

My current job

There is no irony in the fact that I currently find myself working in the field of education and continuing to learn and draw visual notes whenever I get the chance.

Now that I am being asked to share my visual note taking process, I am most excited to learn more and more ways that educators and organizations can use a similar type of processes to improve outcomes. I am also very fortunate that in my current role as an Educational Consultant I can support school districts, emphasizing the diversity of learners, inclusive practices and creative methods to plan instruction with consideration of universal design for all learners.

Find out more about Tom

If you are curious to learn more about Tom’s process or are interested in collaborating with him you can reach him at: tom.hanicak@gmail.com.

You can also view his:

- visual notes on Twitter @thanicak

- visual art on Instagram @thomassey71 

Tom created some awesome sketchnotes for our Blended Learning Jungle virtual conference a few weeks ago. You can check out his sketches and all of our sessions here.