Tag Archives: teaching

What is your purpose here?

I hope when you read, “What is your purpose here?” You can fully envision the scene from Pirates of the Caribbean, Dead Man’s Chest. If not I think the image, below, is linked to a gif. (Hit me with a comment if you know the response to the question from the movie.)

I suppose it’s fair if you are wondering what this has to do with art education…

I met with art collaborative team leads recently and posed a question about the purpose of art CTs. Some quick answers included “to collaborate,” “to share ideas,” and “to share best practices.”  Yes, these are reasons we get together, but why do we do these things? Why do we collaborate? Why do we share ideas?


I am surrounded by this language all the time in the instructional services department. If a similar question were asked of a group of my central office colleagues we would probably all respond in unison. 

This interaction with my art instructional leaders helped me realize that this is a message that I should work harder to promote. It’s a mindset that can impact how we interact with our work. Everything we do should be with the goal of improving student learning. 

Ten Things Better Than a Color Wheel

Let me get right to the punch line. Don’t waste perfectly good instruction time having your students make a color wheel!


There’s a reason there’s an uninspiring, frumpy old lady shown in this photo. Color wheels are boring! If you need to hang one in your class for reference, FINE! But there is far too much to learn to ask your students to make one. 

I may be a bit biased from one of my own teaching experiences. I once had a colleague who’s Art 1 students spent nearly the full first quarter painting a perfect color wheel. The result? By Halloween they hated art and wished they never signed up!

Here are 10 ideas better than a color wheel:

  1. Practice gesture drawing with primary paint colors.
  2. Collaboratively sort, arrange, and rearrange hundreds of different color objects or 1 inch squares from color print (magazine) pages by color groupings or relationships. 
  3. Set up a competitive painting challenge in which students complete as many tasks as possible in a given class session. Each task combines color theory and painting skills. For example: create a gradient wash with a vibrant hue. Create a natural texture using dry brush technique and a neutral color. Create a gradient blend of complimentary colors. Etc. 
  4. Play with layering color gels and filters. 
  5. Make artwork by layering colored tissue paper with a wash of glue (creating a transparent effect).
  6. Challenge your students to fill a hundred or more squares on a painting surface, each with a variation of the same hue. (Use this as the ground on which a meaningful artwork is created.)
  7. Collaboratively reproduce a “pixelated” image of a famous artwork or school mascot using food coloring and water in plastic cups arranged in a grid. (Photograph from above.)
  8. Provide precut papers with all of the necessary colors and have table groups race to arrange them into a color wheel as a warm up. 
  9. Have students use color relationships to arrange themselves in different ways according to the clothes they are wearing. 
  10. Have students photograph objects with their phones and arrange the images by color. 

And if none of these suit you fancy, just have them paint! They will learn more about mixing and using color in an authentic context than they will by making a color wheel. 

Got other ideas? I’d love to hear them!

Student-Centered Art Instruction

Jacqueline S. McElhany has a nice article in the January 2017 edition of Art Education. In Awakening Student Ownership: Transitioning to a Student-Centered Environment, she describes taking some very important steps toward improving the art experience for her students.


This transition included the very important step of switching from teacher solved art making assignments, to designing instruction around big ideas — turning over the problem solving to the students.


For this lesson, she told the students they would be “creating their own unique mask sculptures that represented their identity.” The article goes on to describe the delivery of this student-centered lesson in a fair amount of detail. Students were encouraged to explore and experiment, and the teacher served as a “guide on the side.” Again, all good, but I fear there is something missing: INSTRUCTION!

One of the challenges of facilitating student-centered instruction is not going too far. Art instruction can be too restrictive, and it can be too loose (In fact, how tight and how loose can be adjusted in response to the abilities of the students). In every case though, we must balance the open-ended aspects of our lesson with some structure that will result in expected learning outcomes. Turning over every aspect of choice to the students discards the opportunity to teach the students specific content.

As one example, a specific media technique could have be taught (and assessed) through this lesson and it would have been significantly stronger. This would take away the full range of choice of materials from the students, but they could still have a lot of flexibility in the choices they make in addition to using the specific material and technique that is taught and assessed.

Embrace the Shake

So you decide to make an artwork. What materials will you use? How big will it be? What is your chosen subject? What style will you employ?

You haven’t even started, but already you have put a number of restrictions on yourself. Why is this such a natural part of artmaking?

In one of my Big Idea posts, Why Teach with Big Ideas, I mentioned Embrace the Shake, a TED talk by Phil Hansen that addresses the idea of working within limitations. Not all artists have something happen to them  (like severe nerve damage) that forces a particular limitation on their artmaking, but whether they know it or not, artists apply limitations to their ways of working all the time.

As educators we should embrace the shake for one very big reason: Working within limitations is the nature of problem solving. I mean, come on… describe a math problem you have ever seen that doesn’t provide parameters?

Consider how you could develop a learning sequence to help students understand that/how artists create restrictions for their artmaking and eventually prepare students for designing their own restrictions.

What does your art room say?

I am lucky to be able to visit many art classrooms. As I travel around to our different schools, few things are more obvious than the  way the art rooms are set up and the message they send to our students.


Without a conversation, I can walk into a classroom and begin to know what is important to that teacher. (On occasion I walk into a classroom and begin to understand what was important to the teacher who retired ten years ago.) The physical space we create (or fail to create) communicates a huge amount of information, intentional or not, to our students and can have a significant impact on the way the students feel about being there. If you are thinking, “that could impact enrollment,” you are absolutely right!


If you haven’t thought too much about the FEEL of your classroom, you should! I could share many great examples, but today I will share images from just one teachers space.

A welcoming doorway, rugs and playful ligthing do so much to make this an inviting space where kids love to be. It doesn’t hurt any that there is enough extra space in the adjacent storage room that it could be converted into a student lounge where students are welcome to gather for lunch, or sit in a comfy old couch before or after school.



Think about your space and how you can make it more inviting! In a future post we will get a little deeper into what your classroom says about what students learn. Stay tuned, and I look forward to sharing more of our awesome art rooms.

Cultural Proficiency

I received a fantastic little note from a teacher recently that reads:

Lithium Rose by Denise Corcoran, art teacher
Lithium Rose by Denise Corcoran, art teacher

Just a quick note to let you know I attended a Cultural Proficiency workshop today at my school and the underlying theme was A Sense of Place! The workshop highlighted the necessity for students and staff to understand Culture and Identity. I shared with our Administration that our elementary Art Curriculum is already based on A Sense of Place and three of our Big Ideas are aligned with Culture and Identity. I have offered to act as a resource to the staff for ideas and info on developing these Big Ideas in their classrooms.

Hats off to the Fine Arts Department!
Denise, Art Teacher

Well, hats off to you, Denise, for advocating for the value your art program and offering to help further the work. I am going to have to disagree with you on one point, though. First, let me explain to our readers…

As Denise suggests in her letter, the elementary art program in our school division is designed around an enduring idea of A Sense of Place. Each year, kindergarten through sixth grade, there is a different Big Idea that acts as a conceptual basis for art making. Each big idea is developmentally appropriate, aligned with the grade level classroom curriculum, and designed to help students gradually develop a sense of their place in the world. They are:

Kindergarten: Self
Grade 1: Family
Grade 2: Community
Grade 3: Culture
Grade 4: Time
Grade 5: Globalization
Grade 6: Identity

I assume when Denise said three of these concepts “align with culture and identity” she was probably referring to self, culture, and identity. These do align, but where I disagree is limiting that to just three. I believe that ALL of them align. This conceptual framework is designed to help students understand what makes us who we are through a progressively larger lens each year until coming full circle to an understanding of identity, in the sixth grade, that (we hope) is much deeper than that understanding of “me” (self) in kindergarten.

Cultural Proficiency is important work in our schools. I’m excited to hear about how it is being addressed in schools, and super proud that our art curriculum is aligned!

Denise, thanks for the note! Readers, if you’d like to read more about how we use big ideas in our curriculum, you can start HERE.


A great classroom management strategy shared by way of guest author, Jean-Marie. Thanks for passing this on! When visiting Miss Kromel, one of our outstanding new art teachers, Jean-Marie observed:

One table group was chosen to monitor the “Loud-O-Meter.” (Students at that table can move the Loud-O-Meter magnet up the scale as they see fit.)

loudometerWhen other kids see the noise level go up, they quiet down.  It is tied to earning the privilege of listening to music during art. It’s low tech and teaches the kids to manage their own behavior. Believe it or not it works!

Thanks Jean-Marie, and thanks Miss Kromel for sharing your great ideas with us!