August is my least favorite month. It never gets any easier when the high temperatures of July roll right into August and the back to school ads start running. Although I dread it all summer, I really do love the first couple weeks of school. I get anxious and overwhelmed with all the details, but once the students start walking through my door I feel my teacher persona leave hibernation and begin to come alive. This post describes some of my back to school resources for art teachers. I will share strategies and resources as well as many files that you can use for reference or straight up download and use for free. I will share some of my favorite lessons and activities that I have used in combination throughout the years. Evey teacher and every school is different and it takes time to figure out what works for you.
What the heck do I do on the first day?!
I am a big believer in the first day of school setting the tone for the rest of the year. First impressions of the teacher and classroom environment are hard to shake. I like to dress nice, smile and greet students at the door. In a dream world, I would do this every single day, but the first couple days are vital. The first day of art class looks different for every teacher based on preference. I like to mix a little business with a little fun.
I hand out surveys for them to start working on as soon as they walk through the door. It gives them something to occupy their time while we are shuffling around looking for seats. Here is an example of something I have used before. Sometimes I shorten the questions to a half sheet of paper so I kill less trees. I take the time to read them throughout the first week or two of class, and try to mention something I read to a handful of students so they know I am listening.
I am also a firm believer in having a seating chart on day one. Many teachers disagree with me, and it is easy to get overwhelmed and let students sit wherever they want on day one. However, I like to have my students seats selected and organized before they ever walk through my door. I read my IEPs and 504s carefully and assign students preferential seating. Is the student who needs to sit on the front row going to chose that seat for themselves? Not in my experience.
I let students know that the seating chart will change and to communicate any needs to me as the school year progresses. It is a lot of work playing tetris with each class, but it saves so much time in the long run. In my experience, although they may complain, students are more comfortable not making this social decision on day one. It helps exponentially with classroom management and students know they can be moved at any time.
The bulk of the first day is a syllabus overview with a visual presentation. I break it down into bite size chunks and focus only on the FAQ on day one. Things like bathroom, homework, tardy and grading policies can be introduced without spending too much time on the details. These policies will all be reinforced during the first week through practice, but I like to give an overview of expectations one day one so they know the tone of my classroom.
This is an example of a Welcome to Art! presentation I have used in the past. It is not perfect and I tweak it every semester, but feel free to give it a look!
The first day back is so exhausting for all involved. Students get bored hearing their teachers blah blah blahing and my voice gets tired of it too! I like to get my students up and moving if possible on day one, especially if it is a block class. Sometimes I run out of time with a 40-45 minute class, but If not we do a drawing game.
This game is so fun because it gets students out of their seats and moving around. I like to give parameters to who they can switch their drawings with like “find someone you have no other classes with” or “find someone who sits on the other side of the room”. We tape their finished products to the board and VIOLA!! we have something to show for Open House later in the week.
First day is over…now what?!
The rest of the week is all about practicing procedures and getting to know each other through our work. We will either make our own sketchbooks on the second day or students will be required to purchase one for the course. At my current school we have an art fee and do not require students to purchase any supplies outside of that. In this case, we make sketchbooks first thing on day two.
Sketchbook Cover Ideas
I like our first artwork to be a sketchbook cover design. My personal favorite are Zentangles. They allow for students to build confidence, or show off, depending on their skill level. You can modify the style, materials and size of the final product. I sometimes get bored of lessons and skip around from year to year, but never with a Zentangle sketchbook cover.
I am about to start year fourteen, and I still haven’t found a better lesson for the first week. We use packing tape to attach the finished product to our sketchbooks and I use it to introduce my rubrics and grading style. It is a great way to set the tone of the class and practice daily procedures while students work towards their first summative assessment.
If Zentangles are not your thing, collage can be a really fun way to start out the school year. It doesn’t provide quite the same zen atmosphere, but it can allow students to explore their creativity without the fear of drawing. This lesson is a great “getting to know you” activity and would also make a great sketchbook cover. Use packing tape or decoupage it directly to the cover.
I introduce our daily warm-up procedures during the first week and we practice each day with an art criticism prompt. I did not invent this, this is based on the Feldman’s Method of Art Criticism. My former colleagues in South Carolina put into a daily formula and I haven’t looked back since trying it fourteen years ago.
It takes a lot of work and planning in the beginning, but once your weekly slides are done they are forever ready to be used. I like to pick a variety of artists that exemplify ideas and techniques we are currently exploring in our own artwork. Sometimes it can be hard to find perfect images and historical information, but most museum websites have everything you need for high quality images, information, and video resources.
I love this method because it also encourages classroom dialogue. Much to the dismay of my students, we have at least three students share their responses each day. I hear the typical grumble of teenagers, but these discussions allow for students to share ideas that connect to their own work. Even if some days it feels like pulling teeth, I love it. And there are so many strategies (random number generator, popsicle sticks, popcorn responses etc) to get a variety of students to share.
Bellwork, Bellringers, Daily Warm-up, Sketchbook Assignments…whatever you want to call them works! I love them because they are jam packed with all of the art standards and they make classroom routines set in stone. Students walk in the room, get their sketchbooks, follow the prompt based on the artwork we are investigating for the week. Each day of the week has the same prompt and it provides an excellent weekly grade you principals will love.
Sometimes we start on a handout if students don’t have their sketchbooks yet:
I like to grade on Fridays and I old school walk around the room with my gradebook and write in their grade. Do NOT have them turn in their sketchbooks…your weekend will no longer exist. You can also have students upload a photo to canvas and grade digitally, but I prefer the one-on-one interaction with each student at the end of the week. I can also spend a little time looking at their current artwork and I find it builds relationships. If a student doesn’t get a 100%, I say “I’ll come back in a few minutes”. They pretend to hate it, but hey, they know I have high standards.
Favorite First Lessons
After the first week or so is finished, my students are introduced to art criticism and history and also have a finished artwork that allowed them freedom and creativity the first few days of school. They also have two summative grades that make parents and principals happy. After the first week, I like to jump into creating art that is a little messier. I don’t structure my units linearly with the elements and principles. I like to start each course with a lesson that is engaging, appropriately challenging, and with materials that students like working with. Each course and grade level is different, but here are a variety of lessons suitable for middle and high school.
We can’t stop August from arriving, but I hope all you art teachers out there have a wonderful back to school experience! Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoy my back to school resources.
We can do this.