Anatomy of a Lesson

Recently, as I stapled artwork into a wall for a bulletin board display, a fellow teacher stopped by to chat. He looked at the art and pointed to one of the pieces.  He then said, “See, now this kid has a natural ability.  This other one doesn’t.  You can tell that this person is going to be more artistic, they have this ability at an early age.” I pondered natural ability verses learning the skills for a moment.  I nodded my head and told my friend it is truly amazing what children can do.  Some have a more artistic eye, some are more creative, some have more developed fine motor skills.

As my friend left, I started thinking about our conversation. I looked at the hands, and tried to remember how many of my students have a “natural” ability when it comes to art.

If math tests were posted up on the bulletin board, could I tell who is mathematically inclined simply by the percent correct on the test?  Could I say which kids are good at math and which ones are not by how they explained their reasoning?  What about athleticism? Could an athlete be judged on their performance in one game?  Does an athlete have to be good at every sport in order to be considered athletic?

I’m bad at throwing.  Anything.  I can chuck a marker across a room to a student (this was done for fun when I was a fourth grade teacher, the kids loved it), but I cannot throw a frisbee, I cannot throw a stick for my dog to catch.  But, people have told me I am athletic.  I can climb rocks, I can run, mountain bike, and I have a wicked golf swing.

I can figure out a tip, but do not want any responsibility for figuring out who owes what at a restaurant.  Percentages and conversions leave me baffled. I am good at measuring and have excellent spatial awareness. I use math constantly in my job as an art teacher.  So am I good or bad at math?

For some reason, art is one of those subjects that constantly gets put into the category of natural ability.  People say, “She is a good artist.” Or “I can’t draw.” No discussion.  That is just the way it is. You are either good or bad at it. As an art teacher, it’s a little unnerving. There are skills involved, people! You can learn a lot of these skills, and these skills will help you create art, and they will help you appreciate art.  And, they will help your brain.

So, with this thought in mind, I thought I’d break down the process we go through in the art room before our masterpieces are created.  There’s a lot more that happens in our studio than what people may realize, and I’m going to start at the beginning to show how our artistic skills are nurtured and developed.

For the first project of the year, I wanted to do a whole school bulletin board showing student hands.  This project would help new students learn about lines, and allow for us to review line designs, patterns, and colors. This is what the final product looked like:


Here is a close-up of one hand made by a student in second grade: img_7815

Before we got to trace and decorate our hands, we had to revisit our old friends, the lines, which are the first element of art I focus on for all grades.  I gave student groups prints of famous artwork and had them write down which lines were used on post-it notes.  The expectations were that the artwork would be covered with post-it notes by the end of the activity.


Students analyzed the artwork of Kandinksy, Klee, Miro, Chagall, and Picasso to see if there were any line preferences.  And, of course, we also had lots of opinions about the artwork to share.

For day two, I opened with this image on my whiteboard, taken from Google Images:line-designAfter much discussion, students pretty much agreed this is impossible and it was made by the greatest artist ever.

I then took out a game I made called, “Draw it.” I know, very original title.  I made a bunch of cards and placed them in two hats. Students had to draw a card out of a hat, and then draw the pattern from the card.  I don’t know why I haven’t done this before, it was by far the best way to get kids to draw these designs. Students could then draw their own additions, and then color the designs in to see what colors worked together.


I then put back the original zentangle drawing I had at the beginning of the activity. Lightbulbs go off.  Students see they created a lot of the designs that are in the drawing. Confidence building happening at lightning speed.  We talked about how art takes time and if we break big ideas into smaller chunks, we can accomplish a lot with perseverance and patience.

For the next few art sessions, we practiced drawing and coloring.  We played with metallic pencils, Sharpees, crayons.  We practiced. We practiced.  When the time came to do the actual project, students had ideas in place, tools picked out they wanted to work with, idea booklets in hand, and confidence.

The only requirement I had for the assignment was that they had to do at least six line designs (grades 2 and 3), and they had to limit pictures.  I gave them idea booklets on graphics (sports, figures, hearts, etc.), and line designs.

Here’s the tricky part for me and probably for any art teacher. What do you do when you have a kid who doesn’t do the expectation? Something that looks like zero effort was put forth.   Students don’t have to blow me away but to not do anything???!!!


Gotta confess.  I felt disappointed when I saw this.  We had spent weeks on how to draw lines effectively, and this is an example of what I got from a few kids.  What do you do when you do everything possible to teach the concepts, you ask them if they put in their best effort and they say, “But I like it!” Really? Keep calm and keep on.  For each one, I took the paper, turned it around, and told said student to try again; this time, keeping in mind all that we practiced. I have found that if I do this for one or two, it effectively keeps the rest of the students focused.

Here are some of the results:


This is one lesson. Out of many.  There is a lot of work that goes into these lessons, and a lot of pride I hope students feel when all is said and done.  They depend on me to teach them well, and I depend on them to listen, experiment, and do their best. Because in the end, all of our hard work pays off.

So, far all the folks out there who think these kiddos just have a natural ability toward art, please rethink.  Students work hard in here.  Granted, it’s fun, but there are frustrations, and setbacks, and comparisons. There is risk-taking, and things not turning out like we had hoped.  And this is why we do art. Because sometimes it’s also magical.  It fills you up.

Try it. You’ll be better for it.

Author: Sonia Chapman

I am an art teacher, living in the Middle East, following my passion for art, teaching little children about the finer things in life, and loving every bit of it.

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