The “P” Word in Art Instruction

Tips for getting your students to practice in art class.

During church a few weeks back, we observed Communion. During the brief message that accompanies our monthly observance of the Lord’s Supper, the pastor referred to the term “again.” It got me to thinking about how that term also plays an important role in the art room.

How many times has a teacher told you to repeat an assignment or to fix something? Often, no doubt. Why is that? Teachers provide students the opportunity to practice a skill or knowledge they just have learned because EVERYONE learns by doing. Doesn’t matter whether you see the information or hear it or read it. When it comes time to prove you know it, you have to do it! 

Practice = Learning

Practice is key to learning. No one does everything well or to mastery the first time. No less so in the art studio. We recognize that students require practice to master skills and move knowledge from short-term memory to long-term memory. Of course, kids will want to take short cuts so I always remind them, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

So, how do you do it? Well, you create opportunities for practice to occur. Some ideas include:

  1. Have students create thumbnail sketches

    I started this last year because I know this is a great practice to help you work out your ideas. So, yes, my First through Third Graders do thumbnail sketches for almost every project. Additionally, you can give them a theme or topic and tell them to just develop 3-4 ideas. I use playing cards I put in my pencil boxes to make it easy for students to draw a rectangle for their thumbnail sketch.

  2. Use sketchbooks at the beginning of class OR as an end-of-class-I’m-done-with-my-work assignment

    I am going to start with this in the beginning of Q3 next week. I just couldn’t get my act together for Q1 and Q2. You know how that goes, right? I just finished mini sketchbooks for my First Grade through Third Grade students. 360 sketchbooks, phew! Thank goodness for help from my trusty volunteer, Barb!

  3. Do quick one- or two-class, skills-based assignments to help with skills

    The key here is to realize that these are not polished projects. This is an area where I am still growing. I STILL make the error of blending skills-learning with creative output. So, my projects are often long-term (i.e., 8-10 classes long). Third and forth quarters will be opportunities for me to refine the changes I’m going to make for next year.

  4. Create worksheets designed specifically to target simple skills with which many need help

    Worksheets are not the spawn of Satan when used properly. Make them Standards-specific and focused to allow for it to be done over subsequent classes to reinforce a project-specific idea or concept. Putting a sample or how-to part for the worksheet is necessary so you are not being called on to teach the worksheet. Using written directions in this way also supports ELA standards.

  5. Be willing to tell kids to “do it again, but this time try it like this …”

    Kids complain. They want learning to occur instantaneously (don’t we all?!). That rarely occurs in any subject, especially not in art where many modalities merge to create proficiency. Many art educators are wanting so much to reinforce kids’ creativity that they neglect the push towards mastery and that manifests itself as an unwillingness to criticize or show the child a different way. I know it’s very fashionable presently to say that we, as educators, are to facilitate our student’s self-discovery, but I simply disagree. The role of the teacher is to both train in a hands-on way and facilitate self-discovery. 

Sanity Check

Okay, Jeff, these sound good, but you don’t know what my schedule looks like!

Yes, I do.

My school rarely can get substitutes so periodically I am in a non-specialist classroom teaching. Additionally, my classes do not continue if I’m out sick. Oh, and lastly, when a teacher is out, sometimes the students are divided up into other classes and attend that class’ special.

Believe me. I know our path can be challenging!

All of those scenarios above erode continuity in my art class. I have one class this past quarter where I saw the kids two classes out of my eight scheduled! The only fortunate thing happened last week when I subbed for that teacher again on a half day. Thankfully, my principal allowed me to spend the whole day in the art room! This allowed the kids to catch up on their missed work. Whoo hoo!

The Root Problem

What can make art education so frustrating boils down to one thing in my mind: our schedules. We recognize that kids require practice to learn; however, we see our kids so infrequently that the diets they are fed are never really as nourishing as they should be. At least it is with my K-3, 6-day schedule 8-10 day schedule.

What to do?

  1. I start by accepting the fact that I do not see my students often enough (roughly 8 days a quarter). I also pray and lobby for change when I can.
  2. Then, I accept that I need to focus on core things and repeat skills.
  3. Lastly (and related to #2), I accept what I can’t accomplish (still learning this one!) and focus on what I can. I’m not worried about covering all of my Standards. It’s just not possible.

I hope you see the theme in each of those points: acceptance. Letting go of what you can’t control will benefit you and your little artists. It’s taken me far too long to realize this.

See, I guess I still need some practice in this area! Anybody got a worksheet I that would help?

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One response to “The “P” Word in Art Instruction

  1. Loved it. Very insightful and practical. I am in the midst of a similar idea in science where we focus on ensuring students revise their thinking about science concepts to solidify their learning. Practice makes permanent.

    Liked by 1 person

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