Yes, I Broke the Paper Cutter

Austin & Dillan 6thI broke a guillotine paper cutter once cutting rolls of newspaper. A paper cutter is an expensive piece of equipment for a public school, and they are remarkably durable  so I was shocked when the bolt that holds the cutting arm just flat sheared off and the arm came away in my hand. My first thought was “Hmmm….how am I going to explain this one.”

A hush fell over the classroom, broken finally by a student with a penchant for the obvious. “Well, we’re gonna need a new paper cutter.” I was still counting my fingers. I blame Pinterest. See a more sensible lesson plan here that uses smaller tubes.

We were making icosahedrons out of newspaper in my 6th grade art classes. An icosahedron is a geometric form; a polyhedron with twenty faces. Per Wikipedia each regular icosahedron has thirty edges and twenty equilateral triangle faces with five meeting at each of its twelve vertices. This requires a LOT of newspaper tubes. A LOT that have to be cut to equal lengths. Twenty-five tubes per student. Of course a paper cutter is not designed to cut that many thick paper tubes. But it did for a while.

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I was proud I could even pronounce icosahedron, since saying I am mathematically challenged is like saying the Titanic had a small leak. But newspaper was cheap and readily available from the library and classrooms. Ahhh…the digital world is changing that now.

I also was proving to my students how incredibly strong layers of newspaper are when rolled into a tube and taped into triangle faces. They worked together to construct their icosahedrons which were pretty impressive when they got them done. We had a blast making these, and I always wondered where they ended up when the students got them home.



There is a lovely book out there called Secrets to Drawing Realistic Faces by Carrie Stuart Parks. She is an author, watercolorist and forensic artist and instructor.

The images you see are drawn by sixth graders after exploring her drawing methods in my class in 2009. I’ve read that the arts are not important in the grand scheme of things these days in public schools. I’ve also heard that on average, people give up drawing after the sixth grade. That is so sad.

I look at the beautiful work by these students and it haunts me that some people may think this is not a skill worth teaching. Look in the eyes of these portraits and I dare you not to see the intensity there. They are amazingly telling about the artist and the subject.

Bad Hair Day


Repetition of shapes, lines and colors is one of the strongest organizing principles in art and it takes practice to see it and create it.

A simple and fun drawing exercise called Bad Hair Day on The Incredible Art Department website helps bring this concept into focus.

Fun, because everyone can relate to “bad hair day” and useful because it emphasizes the use of a repeated shape as a pattern. The “hair” is divided into at least five sections. Each section must have a different pattern in it.

This started out as a sub project, but my 5th and 6th grade students enjoyed it so much we continued the project over several says. Here are the results.

Throwback Thursday – Geckos

My Throwback Thursday art project is one from 2010, where my teaching partner Skipper Bennett and I created giant Geckos with our 6th grade advanced art group. I have a love/hate relationship with papier-mâché. Love the results. Hate the mess.This was a BIG, MESSY project, but boy it was fun. It was like a mini-science fiction movie, when the giant geckos appeared on the front of our school building. It was great to see the parents reaction as they came around to pick up their kids at the front drive. Geckos!

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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

Is That What I Look Like?

Sixth graders are notoriously aware of their appearance. Fragile egos combined with growing bodies make for a tough sell when you ask students to do self-portraits. At first, this struck me as odd in this day of selfies. But then, here’s the difference; I am asking them to draw themselves, which is an entirely different matter than snapping away with a cell phone. Most people leave their portrait drawing abilities at the stick figure stage, so my first task is to make my students accept that fact and then move forward in small steps with contour line drawing.

This year I have combined previous lessons with a really nice contour drawing exercise I found on Pinterest.

  1. My students have already been contour drawing glue bottles, scissors and other objects in their sketchbooks. They know that a contour line is the line formed when space touches the edges of an object. So when they draw the contour lines of an object they are also looking at and drawing the space around, within and between objects.
  2. To judge my student’s current drawing abilities I ask that they draw a self-portrait in their sketchbooks. As we review these drawings I discuss with students the drawing symbols they have learned as a child and the difference between that and drawing what they really see. I rely heavily on the drawing theories here from Dr. Betty Edwards great book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain that completely changed the way I drew and how I taught drawing. Students begin to realize that stick figures and smiley faces do not look anything like them any more than a ball with sticks sticking out of it looks like the sun!
  3. Next I provide a warm-up exercise: Students choose a portrait of a person about their age I downloaded from the internet (Hair-style pages are great for this because they have close-ups with great detail.) The student places a clear transparency over the top of the photograph and traces the contour lines of the face in black sharpie. (Sharpie is great! No erasing!) They can check their work by sliding a piece of white paper under the transparency. Here’s a sample of a contour line drawing on a transparency. DSC08907
  4. I took a digital portrait of each student. They had their choice of pose. I took the photos, because of time-restraints and because I wanted clear focus and detail in their faces.
  5. The final project was two steps: First, trace your portrait using only contour lines. Second construct a collage background behind your portrait.
    Here’s an example:


The backgrounds really enhanced the line drawings and provided more choices for expression. The students really enjoyed the project, I believe it built confidence in their contour drawing abilities and when displayed with a black mat, the portraits made a very effective display. I think this project is a keeper. The next step is a self-portrait without a crutch!

DSC08903 DSC08893DSC08897 DSC08894  DSC08905

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

Dragons Invade Travis

I try to do at least one papier-mâché project a year. Only one, because the process takes a long time and I only have each group of students for twelve weeks before they rotate to another fine arts class. Only one because I can’t stand the mess for any longer than that. (I’m sure the cleaning staff at my school agrees.) But the results are always worth the mess. This year it is 6th grade papier-mâché dragons.G. Dragon Profile

There is not any more inexpensive and versatile sculpture medium for children than papier-mâché in my opinion. Newspaper, tape, flour, water, paint. That’s the basics of what you need. The only limit to what you can do is your imagination.

For this 6th grade project I started the process by simply offering a dragon as the subject. The size and demeanor of the dragon (cute or scary) was up to the student.

Small is good.
Small is good.

I demonstrated how to make a simple substructure using newspaper and masking tape. We had poster board, beads, tooling foil and other odds and ends from around the art room at the student’s disposal. We looked at dragon images on the internet and then I turned them loose.

I love the fact that sculpture is something you have to build with your hands and you don’t always know where you are going when you start. So the act of creating is very challenging and exciting. We ended up with some very awesome tiny dragons and some very spectacular large dragons. Hope you enjoy them too!

Learning to balance the substructure.
Learning to balance the substructure.
His is still in progress, but here is where he ended up.
Still in progress. Love the foil wings.
Inspiration happened quickly.
Inspiration happened quickly.


EXO good
Cute is good.
The messy stuff. Mixing flour and water paste.
The messy stuff. Mixing flour and water paste.

Bug Eye

Blue GuyBrandon

Love the teeth.
Love the teeth.
Looks like something from Finding Nemo.
Looks like something from Finding Nemo.

Nemo Fish 1





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!


Take a group of hand-selected 6th grade advanced art students. Add bubbles and shake. Stand back and watch the fun.

Then have the same group interpret those bubbles using oil pastels and haiku. My teaching partner, Skipper Bennett and I enjoyed this project with our Advanced Art group in October. What is it about bubbles that makes everyone smile? The display was in our District Service Center Board Room. The project was a great one posted on Pinterest by The Lost Sock.


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haiku 1

haiku 2

haiku 5 image