I think there is a mysterious part of art lesson development that is hard- but not impossible- to teach. How is a great art lesson born? There is a phrase attributed to Pablo Picasso that fits, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” I think it’s true for art teaching. Cast your nets wide and be ready to sift for things that spark the imagination and lead to a lesson. Some lessons come to me out of the blue, but other times I have to sift through materials and let it ferment in my brain a bit. But I spend a lot of time thinking about art lessons, so I launched My Art Lesson! 

So, I asked art teachers where their lessons came from, and I am developing a series of blog posts to discuss where we get lesson ideas and how to nurture lesson plan ideas in ourselves. 

Your Colleagues
Let’s start close to home. Tap your colleagues for those of you who teach in larger art programs. Even if you are a solo art teacher, look to the other art teachers in your school system and neighboring schools and forge a relationship. If you’re a high school teacher, visit your middle school
colleagues, and vice versa. You do not need to reinvent the wheel! Borrow! Ask! But I want you to know how to ask for a lesson and do it properly. Many of us I am sure have has a colleague borrow a lesson and have watched them do the lesson poorly. Or maybe you’ve borrowed a lesson and had the results underwhelm you; I’ve done it. But don’t throw the baby out with the bath water just because the first attempt was a disappointment,

How To Borrow A Lesson the Right Way
So, you see a lesson you want to use. First, I think it’s good form to ask if you can use it. But don’t stop there- ask about the lesson process. What warm-ups do they use, what parts do they demonstrate, and what artists’ works do you show for inspiration? What language and vocabulary do you use to get your points across to the students? Or, in a situation where you can’t ask the original teacher, spend some time thinking the steps through and doing a sample. Think about those kids who rush through a project and do a poor to mediocre job. How can you slow them down and have them practice and plan so the results aren’t slapdash?

Probably the biggest error I see with art lessons is a teacher failing to develop all the needed foundational skills and knowledge that help students build up to the project. I guess it’s the equivalent of throwing someone into the water to learn to swim. Sure, we can point to a few successes, but the vast majority are not only NOT going to learn how to swim but also not going to like going near the water. We see children who are uncomfortable with art making; that fear can be learned. A lesson I feature on My Art Lesson that prepares the student well for the project is Good Enough to Eat: Photo Realistic Color Pencil, contributed by Sandra Queen. She’s developed a lot of steps to prepare her students. The students do a color-matching exercise and a worksheet exploring color pencil techniques. They then embark on some small studies to warm up. Even when they are ready to start digging into the final project, they take their reference pictures, review lighting, and zoom in so they have the best possible original image to work from. 

Improved And Make It Your Own
Don’t be afraid to add your own touches to a borrowed lesson. I had a colleague who taught a lesson on negative space that came straight from Betty Edward’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. My colleague set up a still life in her art room, and her Art I students drew the negative space on white paper, eventually cutting it out and mounting it on black paper. It’s a solid lesson with lots of good introductory learning. When I tried it, my students tended to lapse back into drawing positive space, and I thought… how could I help them here? Could I simplify the still life? An idea was born at that moment. I had to experiment, but in the end, my still life took a different path. I created shelves, picked objects with interesting silhouettes, and divided the still life so each negative space was small. Last, I draped a white sheet in front and used an overhead projector behind the still life so they could see only the shapes of the shadows created. See the lesson HERE. Over the years, I have developed many variations of this lesson (see one HERE). I feel the sheet and light make all the difference in helping the students find and draw the negative shapes.  

In addition, I developed a lot of material to introduce negative space, including showing students many applications of negative space. Those examples included how graphic designers use negative space in things like logos (Check out the FedEx Logo and others HERE, as well as great pieces of art that use negative space throughout art history, HERE). We practiced the concepts with exercises similar to the one found HERE

The situation can work in reverse. I emailed a colleague with some technical questions about a plaster lesson I was teaching. I showed her what we were doing, and she asked if it was alright if she tried it with her three-dimensional students. She emailed the results, and her plaster projects used a product, Amaco Rub and Buff, to add color, which was far superior to the acrylic colors I used. You can bet the next time I did the lesson I used the product she discovered to improve the lesson.

Your Virtual Colleagues
When I started teaching, there was no internet. Mind-blowing, right? The internet opened the world up. Amazing art teachers are out there, many sharing their lessons for free. It’s one reason why I started My Art Lesson! There are so many ways to connect with other art teachers online. Look at art teachers’ blogs and websites, join online groups, and follow teachers on Instagram! If I have a question about a lesson, more often than not, when I email, I receive a response. Here are some of my favorite FREE teacher-generated resources for great lessons.

Ms. Amsler’s Artroom
Julianna Kunstler
Elizabeth Saitta (Select Teaching in the navigation)
Brad Hosbach
Julie Denison
H. Patten
Carol Haggerty
Molly O’Connor
More at The Student Art Guide, HERE 

To Be Continued…
Of course, colleagues aren’t the only places we find lessons,
and I will explore other sources in this continuing series. Meanwhile, share your favorite FREE art teacher blogs and art teacher-run websites in the comments.