When Art Is About More Than Just Skill

I’m not artist. I never have been. My students all know that they have far more artistic skill than me, and often they model how to do an activity instead of me doing the modelling. While I may not be artistic though, I’d like to think of myself as creative, and I try to encourage this same creativity in my students.

This morning I read a blog post by Aaron Puley, a Parent and Student Engagement Consultant with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. This post discussed Aaron’s own experiences with his seven-year-old daughter. He explained how Medea often comes home from school with blackline master activities, like the ubiquitous Easter bunny hat. Aaron shared that one day after making an Easter bunny hat, Medea came home, went right into the office, and creative an Easter bunny story instead. Aaron actually shared this amazing story with my class, and my students loved it! After discussing these experience in his blog post, Aaron cited the expectations met through the Media Literacy and Arts curriculum documents. It was this part of his post that really got me thinking.

Today my students had to create an animal puppet for the Ancaster Fair. Before I read Aaron’s post, I was going to have the students research an animal, and then make a paper bag puppet. I think that this could have still worked, but Aaron made me wonder if art needs to be about more problem solving than this. I did something then that I’ve never done before: I opened up the Arts Curriculum Document on the SMART Board for the students, and together we read about the elements of design. Then we used the screen capture tool to put the elements right into the Notebook software.

We went element by element, and students shared ideas about what specific ideas may be included under each element. Then I challenged the students to create an animal puppet that used at least three elements of design.

Something happened in my art class that has never happened before. Students were actually discussing elements of design. As they were researching their animals and sketching their plans, they were also talking about what elements of design would work best for these animals. Students were creating, problem solving, and learning together. It was incredible to see!

When they were finished, we discussed as a class what elements of design the different students used. I chose to record the discussion using Audioboo, and the class got so involved in sharing, that I didn’t even notice that the five-minute time limit had been reached. It does cut off slightly at the end, but I think this discussion is still worth sharing.

Then, to end the activity, students used the ideas generated orally to write about their elements of design. Below are some photographs of what the students wrote. I particularly love all of the different ways that they shared their thoughts. Again, it was about creativity!

Example #1 - Sentences

Example #2 - A List

Example #3 - A Largely Pictorial List

Example #4 - A Chart Using Pictures And Words

Thank you, Aaron, for helping me make today’s art lesson about more than just skill. All students were successful today thanks to this different approach, and I can’t thank you enough for this. It’s amazing how a blog post can change things for the better.

How do you approach art in classroom? What are the results? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!


Aaron Puley (@bloggucation) reminded me in his comment that I forgot to include photographs of the puppets. Below are some photographs of what the students produced. Thanks for the reminder, Aaron!

Photographs of Animal Puppets #1

Photographs of Animal Puppets #2


Photographs of Animal Puppets #3



10 thoughts on “When Art Is About More Than Just Skill

  1. This is a great post Aviva and resonates deep inside of me. Teaching “ART” is something I struggle with. A few years back I explored several art programs and made a real effort to incorporate teaching of “art” into my program. While the effort is there I still feel there is so much more I could do for/with my students. I love how powerful yet simple it was to review the elements of art and then let your students taken ownership of their learning. Thank you for yet another dose of inspiration.

    • Thanks Karen! I wish that I had given this a try before the end of June. If I hadn’t seen Aaron’s post, I’m not sure that I would have ever tried this out. I was amazed by what the students did, but even more so, by their discussion about art and their willingness to be creative. This activity helped me see art in a whole new way! 🙂


      • For me it confirms yet again that I need to let my students lead their learning even more than they already do. You laid solid ground work and then they ran freely with it. It goes way past teaching art though.

        • Thanks for the comment, Karen! A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. Letting go and having students take the lead are changes that I found really hard to make. When I did though, I was thrilled with the results. Seeing what the students did on Friday makes me wonder in what other ways I can share expectations with them, keep projects open-ended, and let the students create and problem solve together. As you said, it does go way beyond art.


          • Aviva,
            You rock my world!

            It is truly awe inspiring when students see the curriculum and pick the pieces that they feel will help their learning. I did this with a gr 10 academic science class with the ENTIRE Physics unit!… they looked at the overall expectations began brainstorming ideas and created activities which they tied back to the specific expectations!! Each group designed their period to be a range of activities that they ran as centres and then just had fun learning with their classmates.

            It’s too cool to see kids discussing the curriculum and trying to figure out how to meet expectations. They got a good sense of what a teacher really does… and ‘Why do we have to learn this?!?!’ became obsolete as they saw the how and why.

            Having your students reflect on their process is so a key point – I find they learn it on a deeper level when they digest it fully.

            Here is an outline of what I did with my students…

            I so wish Medea was in your class – I’d even move her to your grade 6 class next year – just to be with you!!!!!
            ** and I am not joking about that at all!! ;o)

          • Thanks for the comment, @learninghood! I actually remember what you did with your class, and was actually thinking about this when I pulled up the curriculum document too. It’s amazing what students can do. As you said, this really helps them understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

            On a separate note, I can’t imagine a bigger compliment than you wanting Medea in my class. Wow! Thank you! I’d love the opportunity to teach her. With two such amazing parents, I know that she’s amazing as well! I have to thank her for inspiring this post also. It was her bunny book that made me look at things differently.


  2. I am so excited about this post for a variety of reasons, Aviva! Let’s start with my “parent / parent engagement hat” and role play for a second. Rather than my child coming home with just the paper bag puppet – one of many – (and again, don’t get me wrong, I LOVE all work that my children do – it decorates our house from top to bottom) but they would come home with an artifact of their thinking and problem solving specifically related to the elements of design. This to me is now no longer “busy time” but a purposeful connection to learning with strong problem solving, critical thinking, and expressive creativity. Her learning for the day would have been made transparent to me and I could then extend the idea at home. I also can’t wait to see the puppets your students made as you gave them the freedom to create their own puppets using the elements of design rather than supplying pre-fab cut-outs. The students are clearly engaged in the activity and can easily express their learning (as is evident in your Audioboo recording). With my “student engagement” hat on I am particularly thrilled to hear them express their learning and thinking orally – they are actively involved in their learning process and “not sitting in the classroom completely disengaged” as Jo-Ann mentioned in response to my post. Far too often, my daughter included, students jump the hoops we put in place for them to make us happy and to get through the day. “On task” does not equal engagement, for children of any age, as much as it equals compliance. With my “teacher hat” on I see tremendous opportunity to assess each child individually with the unique ways they expressed their choices of the elements of design. You didn’t say, “Now create a chart with….” or “Make a list of…” OR the worst ever, “Fill in this photocopied sheet or blackline master and then colour in the pictures on it”. You gave them an opportunity to share and express themselves in their way. You honoured their intelligence – and that is very powerful. Jen (@learninghood) also designed a unit starting with the students at the expectations. They went through the overalls, activated their prior knowledge, and collectively decided as a group what they needed to learn and how they were going to learn it. They created the tasks, they delivered them, and they reflected upon them. So powerful – and that was Grade 11! You have shown that this is 100% possible and engaging for children in Grade 1! I thank you for your great post and for sharing this neat experience.

    • Thank you, Aaron, for your comments! You reminded me that the one thing I didn’t include in this post are photographs of the puppets. I’m going to add them now. I actually forgot to take them, and went back into the bin of Ancaster Fair submissions to grab the puppets and photograph them. Thanks for this reminder! 🙂

      I remember Jen’s experience in having her students plan activities around the curriculum, and I remember thinking how powerful this would be. I never thought it would be possible in Grade 1, but Friday showed me differently. We need to set high expectations for our students and support them as they meet these expectations. I will be bringing out the curriculum documents more often with my students, and actually plan to do so on Thursday for a media literacy activity. Thank you for inspiring me to do this in the first place!


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