Making Sketchbooks

Fostering thinking requires making thinking visible.

Thinking happens mostly in our heads, invisible to others and even to ourselves. Effective thinkers make their thinking visible, meaning they externalize their thoughts through speaking, writing, drawing, or some other method. They can then direct and improve those thoughts. Visible Thinking also emphasizes documenting thinking for later reflection. – Ron Ritchhart and David Perkins Educational Leadership Feb2008

For the past three years we’ve been making sketchbooks in my 5/6 art classes, not just because we are makers, but because making them ourselves helps to create greater investment in their use. In prior years, students had been asked to purchase sketchbooks as part of their school supplies. They would purchase 9 x 12 sketchbooks and bring them to class. Of course I purchased some for those who couldn’t/didn’t buy them. This worked well when students remembered to bring them to class, which they didn’t always, and sometimes they lost them for good. That was pretty frustrating. One year I repurposed paper boxes and kept them as storage bins for sketchbooks for each of my nine classes. That kept them in the classroom – no longer lost or forgotten. However, those nine boxes took up a lot of space, and my students weren’t hugely invested in filling them.

In 2015, I attended a Project Zero Classroom workshop for a week in the summer. You can read my reflection on that experience here. I found myself inspired and consumed by thoughts on learning both in content and instruction, especially in comparison to what I was seeing in my school and reading about from educators across the country. I realized I was teaching in a way that guided kids through projects, which although deep in layers of content, were more project/product based than process-based. At the end of the week at Project Zero, my cohort group were assigned the summative task to come up with a headline that captured each of our take aways, or going forward goals. Throughout the week, my international group had gently teased me about my Boston speech mannerisms (I can’t help it!) which were captured in my headline:

As I prepared for back-to-school throughout the rest of the summer, I focused on Slowing Down The Learning by developing deep and rich projects that allowed for a focus on process, whether creative, collaborative, or communicative. This is when sketchbooks became very important in my classroom.

Here is Bridget M to give a tour of her sketchbook:

Prior to teaching, I had a twenty year career in the printing industry. I well knew the process of making books, I just had to simplify it enough to ensure success for all of my students. I settled on a 16 page saddle-stitch book which would end up at 7.5″ x 11″, and fit well in the locker bins which were being discarded at school.

Here is how to make the books:

And this is the paper I order for the text:

In my school most electives teachers get all new classes in January for the start of term three, consequently all of my new classes just finished making sketchbooks. Each time we make sketchbooks, I try out a new process for the cover artwork, including Collage, ZoneDoodles (my version of zentangle), Compass Shape Watercolor, Paper Circuits, Blown, Splatter, and Drip Painting, and Mandalas.

Compass Shape Watercolor
Paper Circuits
Blown (straw), Splatter, Drip Painting

To see more student Mandalas that were created on their sketchbooks and to see how we made them, visit this post:







  1. Great tutorial video and gorgeous sketchbook pages. Some of my older students are working on loose sheets of paper with the aim of compiling them into a book at the end.

    • Thank you! My 5th and 6th grade students feel very capable when making their sketchbooks and incredibly invested in the ownership of them once they start working in them. Loose sheets can be compiled into a sketchbook or affixed larger pages in a sketchbook. I wish you well with your project.

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