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The Year’s Best (and Worst) Lessons

There is something therapeutic about rehashing your curriculum efforts. I love creating lessons and after 8 years of teaching art, I know where my strengths lie.  I know what art technique will work for certain grade levels and by now, I can figure out which lesson will work best for a specific class. Not all grade levels are alike and by the end of the year, I can push some classes more than others.

Still, I have my favorite lessons and some not-so-favorite lessons!

My favorite art lessons:

Hundertwasser Color Collage

This art lesson was based on the book Harvesting Dreams:Hundertwasser for Kids, which is a delightful exploration of what art is according to Hundertwasser himself. The process was easy; just painted paper, warm and cool color theory and lots of cutting and gluing. A great combination for fifth graders! The results added a huge splash of color to our Fall classroom but it was the individual expressions in each painting that I loved the most.

Birch Trees with Multi-colored background

Hands-down the most striking project in early elementary. My third graders (and one second grade class) created these beautiful birch tree art. Every art teacher loves the striking color qualities of birch trees but what made this project special was the colorful–and very individualized –backgrounds.

Fish and Flower Ceramic Bowls

These were made by Kinders. I know! Kinders! By combining a simple slab with a simple template, we created a dazzling bowl. I selected fish and flowers as the shapes were quite familiar with my students. What a nice gift for mom!

Painting Value the Pantone Way

Who knew that this beautiful board book helped me create one of my best lessons on color value? I am eternally thankful!

With every successful lesson, I sure do have a few that I would like to fine-tune. The following lessons are necessarily “failures” but something about the process, technique or experience needs work.

My Least Favorite Art Lessons this year:

Totem Poles in oil pastel

I put alot of pressure on totem poles. I love them, but I can’t quite seem to duplicate their glory in the art room. My sixth grade students created these last fall but the process was too long to hold the children’s intetest. Many didn’t finish and many had cut-out totems in their portfolio with no background. If I were to do this lesson again, I would stick to just drawing the totem pole on white paper and using markers to color in. The lines would be sharper and the colors more dramatic.

Jousting Knights

Here is another art lesson that hasn’t made an appearance on my site. I was inspired by the jousting knights in the paperback book, Knights and Castles: Things to make and do by Usborne Activities. While the drawing was fun, there were a few too many details that made this drawing more difficult than most of my directed drawings. The additions of the feather and shields was a crafty touch…perhaps too crafty for the art room?

Underwater Hippos

Nothing wrong with this lesson except that the hippos were drawn so big there was no room for the water. Perhaps placing the paper horizontally and then adding blue-tinted Mod Podge water would create a more dramatic contrast. What do you think?

Did you have any art room disasters this year? Any shout-out successes? Time to tell all!


  1. Dear Patty,

    I recently taught totem poles to my 4th grade students. I used brown paper. They folded the paper in 1/2 and drew half of their totem in chalk and then transfered the chalk to the other side by rubbing. I found this technique to be very successful in achieving symmetry. I gave them pictures of actual totem symbols to draw. They then colored them in with construction paper crayons and outlined them with sharpie markers. They were displayed on buckets that had been stacked. Hope this helps you out!

    Lisa C

    Lisa Careau

    June 7, 2012

    • I did Totem poles years ago and collected cans from the cafeteria. With squares of cardboard between cans, they could be stacked as high as you like. Added wings and 3-d beaks made for a dramatic display.


      August 24, 2012

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your lessons with us! I’m just a Mom and art lover, not a teacer or trained artist, but I did want to mention that although the addition of featers and shields on your Jousting Knigths may be a little crafty, sometimes those are the items that draw someone in who doesn’t think of themselves as artistic. I was much more crafty as a kid, but I think lessons that combined the two lead to my love of art as an older teen and now as an adult. Just my observations, thanks again for all the inspiration!


    June 7, 2012

  3. I actually like the hippo! I struggle getting students to draw big enough.

    Katie Morris

    June 7, 2012

  4. Your torn paper zebra project is perfect for 1st grade, and your ceramic penguin project is perfect for 4th.
    The Elmer’s Day Parade from your 3 Ingredient Art eBook is perfect for late kindergarten/1st grade.

    Thanks for the great posts!

    Rina at http://www.k6art.com


    June 9, 2012

  5. My disaster was getting too ambitious with a group of 3rd graders. I am sure I am not the only teacher who has thought of a deliciously complex project only to be half-way through dreading the day you began it. Mine started with ceramic fish creation (which went really well) and then I tried to morph it into a digital art project. We took photos of our fish and then brought them into Photoshop Elements (I am lucky enough to have a full Mac laptop lab in my room) where we digitally cut them out and added background elements using simple drawing tools. The digital part is where it went nuts. Things wouldn’t work sometimes, some students just couldn’t grasp the cut-out part, students started getting frustrated when i couldn’t immediately help them and began giving up, while I am running (literally) around my art room like a crazy person trying to help everyone. I learned a lot from this project and realized that I needed much more knowledge of the program before I started teaching it and also needed to simplify the steps and/or give more detailed steps in different forms. We all made it through though 🙂 Sometimes you just need a project like that to force you to analyze and improve your teaching methods!


    June 11, 2012

  6. Hey! I am doing the hippo lesson with a 2/3 class and it is going so well!! I will post when I am done.

    aly marcotte

    June 12, 2012

  7. Hippos turned out great for my second graders. Only trouble was an overzealous aide who 3-hole punched them and wrote, “No Name” in red INK across the top of some. So FRUSTRATING!!


    June 15, 2012

  8. Hi Patty – I love all your lessons. I’m a 47 year old engineer whose parents didn’t see the value of art education. I enjoy reading your blog especially when you talk about what worked well and why or not. I don’t have a lot of time to experiment with art, and your lessons help me so very much.

    Thank you!


    June 22, 2012

  9. Thank you so much for posting about both ends of the spectrum. It is a relief to see that even a veteranned teacher, such as yourself, doesn’t hit a homerun everytime. This is my first year teaching elementary art and your blog has been both an inspiration and life raft for project ideas and management techniques. Thanks so much for sharing!

    Amanda B

    December 12, 2012

  10. I love the connection with Art and Literature. I recently tried ‘ Snowballs’ with first graders– huge success! After 32 years of teaching, I still stick with some lessons invented during student teaching days, but appreciate the fresh ideas on your site. Many thanks!!!

    Lynne B.

    January 22, 2013

  11. Hi Patty. Thank you for opening up on your best and worst art lessons. I too have what I like to call a frustrating art lesson. It revolves around the Renaissance artist Arcimboldo who composed painted portraits of human heads from fruits and vegetables. I resurrected it this year after having minimal success with it several years ago. The project is called “Faces in the Foliage” and I’m sure it was an Arts and Activities lesson from way back. I found it a nice and whimsical way to introduce symmetry to the children in my second and third grade classes. Because I believe it to be worthwhile I will plug away at how to make it successful in the future.
    My favorite lesson was recently posted on my blog http://www.dreamdrawcreate.com, it is a painting lesson on Matisse. It is full of valuable concepts and mediums to explore.


    May 24, 2013

  12. I’m about to do a totem pole lesson, using large plastic containers, from laundry soap, milk jugs, etc, then we’re going to paint, and add 3-d effects and stack onto poles mounted on flat wooden structures. I’m going to have the kids work in groups, 1 head for each group (8 per class) and that way I’ve not got too many totems! Wish me luck!

    Julie Whelihan

    July 6, 2014

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