Front and Center

group 2Every 4th grade child wants to draw whatever it is we are drawing (excuse the Texan phrase here) smack dab in the middle of the paper. So, in this simple 4th grade exercise, the goal was to place half our main subject, in this case a snowman, off the plane of the picture. Asymmetry vs. Symmetry.

We watched a clip of Olaf, from Frozen, (Please don’t stop reading, I know, I know…that song!) and talked about how he MOVED around in the frame. We talked about the phrase “dead center” and how that placement for your main subject can be kind of…well…can be…..frozen. Sorry.

duoWe talked about the mystery of what is off the edge of the page, but is implied to be there. The undiscovered country. An invisible world that is just around the corner, out of sight. That implied part of the image can be so intriguing and make your composition much more interesting to look at.

big group

Another highlight for my 4th graders was to use oil pastel on this artwork on a blue background. Lovely, messy pastels used on their side for the black border and large areas. Pastel on point for the outline and fine details of the snowman. Swirling snowflakes and a snowbank finished our composition. More fun than a snowball fight on the playground…well ok maybe not. But fun was had by all.


DSC08952You are never too old for Halloween fun. Something about this holiday inspires you to be silly and creative. That is if you were raised with a Halloween like I was; where it was all about spooky stories, slightly scary but harmless costumes, hay rides, bonfires and trick or treat candy you did not have to check. Period. No other meanings implied or intended. Having said that, I broke out the pipe cleaner spider project just as a way of reminding myself that the Halloween of the past can still be recreated in my room. Yes, you can make a science curriculum connection in the study of arachnids…blah, blah, blah….I want to make slightly trembly spiders on hot glue spider webs, because they make people squeal and they are cute.

Can we just be kids in the art room for a second? Okay.

Here’s what you need for each spider.

  • 4 pipe cleaners
  • 16 beads

Here’s what you need for the spider web.

  • adult supervision to use the hot glue gun
  • a background of some kind – I like black foam board
  • hot glue gun and hot glue sticks

To make the spider:


  1. Get 4 pipe cleaners and bend in half.
  2. Cross over half the legs. make sure that the body loop is no bigger than a quarter. Short-legged spiders are not as cute.
  3. DSC08946Twist the legs under the loop at least 3 times so the legs won’t come undone. Place the body of the spider on the table and bend the legs up so that you can separate 4 on each side.
  4. DSC08947Add 8 of the beads close to the body.
  5. DSC08949With the spider still on its back bend the knees in the same place on each leg and position the second bead on each leg above the knee.
  6. DSC08950Turn the spider over and spread the legs for balance. 4 to the front, 4 to the back. By the way this fashion maven spider sports the Mineral Wells Ram colors.

Spider webs are just hot glue applied to a black foam board. Make glue lines out from a corner and then half circles that cut across.  If you want your spider to stay put on the web, apply him while the glue is still sticky.DSC08951

Writing in the Art Room

Every year our priorities shift a little as the spotlight searches our student’s abilities and stops on a data-backed shortcoming. An important goal on my elementary campus this year is to improve our student’s writing skills. That means across the curriculum, every subject teacher has that as one of their priorities. Our directive is to include writing as often as we can in our lessons and encourage our students to express their thoughts in full sentences and use punctuation. I can hear the sense in this goal. Who doesn’t want their child to be able to write down what they think, to keep a journal, to learn the beauty and richness of our written language?

As an art teacher, I want student writing to connect in a meaningful way to the art curriculum. Of course the current Texas art TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills – 4th grade in this example) include developing appropriate art academic language skills in our students:

  • use appropriate vocabulary when discussing the elements of art, including line, shape, color, texture, form, space, and value, and the principles of design, including emphasis, repetition/pattern, movement/rhythm, contrast/variety, balance, proportion, and unity;…

The TEKS also include students developing the skill to analyze their own artworks and artworks of other times and cultures and be able to communicate those ideas:

  • compare content in artworks for various purposes such as the role art plays in reflecting
    life, expressing emotions, telling stories, or documenting history and traditions;
  • compare purpose and content in artworks created by historical and contemporary men and women, making connections to various cultures
  • investigate connections of visual art concepts to other disciplines

But somehow those sterile TEKS descriptions don’t do justice to what I want to do. As a twin sister to the visual language I teach, the written word has a separate beauty. How can I get these little minds to grasp the context of the word that describes art? That the word is not just a label for the parts of the artwork, but clues to meaning. What does it represent? Why did that artist choose that image to convey that idea?

So now, what to do? I teach 4th, 5th and 6th grade art, so there is a wide ability spread in my student’s writing skills. Even though I see my students every day, I only have 30 minute classes (not much time!), so I decided I would dedicate one class a week, Fridays, to short writing assignments that would connect to art history.

I used a mimio whiteboard presentation and include video and audio clips to supplement the visuals. My attempt at a three-slide streamlined format (read as: make it fast and easy to understand) are included below.

The first slide sets up the learning process. I ask the students to look at the artwork:

Lascaux Lesson_2

  • study the artwork and take an inventory of what the see
  • analyze what the artist’s message could be
  • evaluate if the artwork is successful in their opinion and how they feel about it

The second slide gives a short art biography (if the artist is known). It also gives the nationality of the artist or location of the artwork by country and a link connected to that countries’ flag that takes them to further enrichment resources. In the case of our study of Lascaux cave art, this link takes you to a short video virtual tour of the Lascaux site.

I also included a YouTube clip of the movie Ice Age. It was a lucky leap, but the scene where animated characters see cave paintings come to life somehow brought home to my students that the people who drew the art in the Lascaux caves where real. They lived and ate meat and left us a cryptic message about their life on the walls of the cave. What could they mean?

Lascaux Lesson_3

The third slide brings the lesson to a writing conclusion. For 4th grade, we are just starting with one sentence that describes an artwork. We will build up quantity as they learn the routine. Write about the artwork, using the word bank and the writing guide notes.

Lascaux Lesson

The students write their sentence in their sketchbook, which reinforces the sketchbook as a place for thoughts and notes as well as their drawings.

The jury is still out on how much this format will improve my students writing skills, but one of the first things this process has accomplished is giving me a renewed interest in teaching art history to my elementary students. They are little “travelers of the mind”, and love exploring different times and cultures inspired by the artwork. As to finding the right words to describe an artwork, as Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”1280px-Lightning_NOAA

What Time is it?


It is an awe-inspiring thing, watching a new school year begin; happy, exhausting, hopeful, all at the same time. That is, if you can figure out what time it is…more about that at the end.

So now I sit on the first Saturday of the school year, in the quiet. I have made it through the first week of my 16th year of teaching art to 4th, 5th and 6th graders at Travis Elementary. Here are a few things I noticed about this year’s first week of school.

  • There is a pleasure in watching students come into the new year, sporting new clothes, packing new school supplies,  reacquainting with friends from last year, finding their new classroom, filled with nervous excitement. It is like opening a brand new box of crayons.
  • I especially enjoy watching the parents that come into the school with their students during the first week. It brings home what a privilege it is that they hand over their most precious possession, their children, into our care. I saw more than one moist eye during the hand-over of students this year. And more than one sigh of relief from some summer-activity -weary parents too.
  • It is amazing the effort teachers put into making their classrooms an inviting place for students. I watched tables and bookshelves moving into new spots, curtains being hung and bright-colored rugs being tried out. One of our new teachers made little crate seats with hand-covered cushions (hand-covered!), a Pinterest exclusive she tells me. All out of their own pockets of course. Flower arrangements arrive to mark the advent of the year. Aspirin bottles open on a more frequent basis.
  • Our office staff and Principals and PEIMS coordinator go through an extraordinary birthing of records and files and information exchange with teachers, students and parents. Just like most industries, if you have not done the job, you can not be aware of the avalanche of paperwork involved in a new school year.
  • Our school nurse is presented with a bewildering array of medical needs for our children and somehow manages to make time to speak softly and carry a big ice pack.
  • Our counselors take on the superhuman job of getting every child’s class schedule organized and in the system while at the same time offering encouragement to overwhelmed or troubled students.
  • God Bless the lunch ladies and maintenance staff. They are, in my opinion, the most under-rated group of people in the public education system. There, I’ve said it. Our maintenance staff works incredibly hard to prepare the building for school and once the students arrive to keep it clean and in repair. The lunch ladies bring a smile to their work and feed our students nutritious meals while dealing with government guidelines that simply boggle the mind.

And finally, the students. Here is what I remember all over again each year:

  • Kids thrive on routine. They come in with a little marquee running across their foreheads that says “What do you want me to do?” Tell them. Do it the same way every day and they might remember.
  • Kids love to laugh. They love to talk. A lot. Be patient. Keep them safe. Nuff said.
  • Kids are small people you need to get to know. I learned that one of my students loves Ramen noodles and another loves dragons. I learned that even though I see a brother’s face in a sister, she has a completely different personality. Don’t assume they are the same.
  • Kids can be amazingly creative and curious if you push the right button. Try every way you can to get to that button.
  • Recess, lunch, and the 3:20 release are still kids favorite times of day.

And oh…about the clocks. I don’t care what you do to them, school clocks never show the same time. Ever. Buy a watch.


I recently ran across this wonderful optical illusion lesson on Pinterest posted on Flying Shoes Art Studio, by Oklahoma artist Kristy Patterson. It is simple and has a great success rate with 4th, 5th and 6th graders. Great use of the art element line and a fun way to reinforce how line can create depth in your 2-D drawings.

Here’s a few results. What’s not to like about drawing Wormies!

Friendship Bracelets

We’ve officially hit the red zone of the school year. Most of the standardized testing is over. Summer is in sight. Five full weeks plus two and a half days. Not that I’m counting.

It is time to pull out those lesson plans to keep little fingers and minds BUSY!

Here is one of my favorites for 4th grade: twistable yarn bracelets. They don’t require braiding, which to some minds (like mine) is as complex as nuclear physics. This project does require a partner and an idea of a friend you might want to give one to. A nice idea to promote, friendship, at a time of the school year when everyone’s nerves are frayed and small spats can turn into big fights in a hurry.

Start with three equal lengths of yarn. I have six foot tables in my room, so for a convenient measuring tool I have them measure their yarn the length of the table. This produces a bracelet that will go around most fourth grade wrists three times.

I usually have them cut the string one day and make the bracelets the next. Cutting string to the right length

Plastic bags with their name on it are great to store the string.

One person gathers the ends of the yarn so that they are even and ties a knot in that end. How to tie the knot? Wrap the tied yarn around two fingers. Pull it off your fingers, it makes a hole. Put the ends through the hole and pull.

Team work 2 Tying the knot

Hand the other end of the yarn to your partner. They twist one way, while you twist the opposite way. Twist until you feel the tension of the yarn get tight. It won’t twist anymore.

Girl teamwork Hand twist 1

Stop twisting. The person with the knotted end reaches out to the middle of the length of yarn and holds it, while handing their knotted end to their partner. The partner holds both the knotted end and the unknotted end together in one hand. Hold tight.


The other partner releases their end. The strings will twist themselves in a beautiful braid. Magic!

Smooth out any knots by pulling down the length of the braid. I call this “milking the cow”. They never forget this.

Tie the loose ends and the knotted ends together.

Tying them on

Wrap around your friend’s wrist. Open up the twisted end and slip the knotted end through. The left-over braid can hang down or can be tucked under.

Girl wrist

These also make great soft bookmarks, or key chains and I have some students that tie them to their belt loops or in their hair.

Safety Tip: I do not let my students wear these as necklaces. These bracelets are VERY strong and if a child was grabbed by the necklace at a full run,  it would hurt. So I tell my classes if I see these on your neck, I will take it away.

Scarecrows are My Clowns

You remember when drawing clowns was a good thing? I grew up in a time when Emmett Kelly and Red Skelton were still known and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey clowns were not scary. They were funny and sad at the same time. But not scary. I drew lots of clowns as a child.

Now, you say clown in a classroom and the entire room shudders and bursts into horrific descriptions of the clowns they know. So I substitute these scarecrows. For most fourth graders, scarecrows are still an innocent reminder of the farm, fall and the pumpkin patch. I have a wooden stand in my room where we build a life-size scarecrow some years, but most of the time I use a tabletop scarecrow I bought years ago as a model.

We draw BIG, we start in pencil, outline in sharpie, then crayon for the body and watercolor for the background. The watercolor is a relief at the end because it takes a LONG time to color large sheets of manila paper. Good conversations about color, geometric shaped patches and French fry fingers and feet are had. I hope the movie industry and the news media will leave scarecrows alone.

My back porch scarecrow.

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