No-Fail Formula for Great Lesson Plans

Teaching is a balancing act when it comes to designing successful art lessons for students.  Maybe the lesson you taught had a really beautiful ending product, but it lacked in creativity.  Perhaps the project allowed students tons of creative choices, but the results were less than hall-worthy.  Maybe you added a rich cultural connection, but WHOPS, you forget to talk about the Elements and Principles of Design. It seems very few lessons have the home run effect.

Great Product  + Creative Processes + Cultural Connections + Elements and Principles of Design

Whew. Does it make you tired just thinking of it?  No fear! I have come up with a simple formula to help you check your lessons to make sure they are encompassing a reasonable balance of all of the things you know you want each lesson to have, but sometimes the quality check just fails.

Use this formula and I guarantee a home run lesson every time.

1.  Start with the Elements and Principles of Design

The boring starts first. I am sorry, but I do think the Elements can be brutally boring. Unfortunately the entire curriculum I teach is based upon the elements and principles of design.  This is not by chance.  As artists, we know they are the building blocks of all great art and valuable for students to know and understand. We must teach the Elements and Principles but not in solitude.  So let’s get started.  For example, let’s start with TEXTURE in Kindergarten. 

2. Next, Choose an Artist, Culture, or Art History 

Look at the element you chose in Step 1. What artist, culture or time period in art history best represents use of this element that is developmentally appropriate for the grade level you want to teach?  Why include an artist or culture? Isn’t teaching the Element of Design enough? NO. It’s not. I firmly belive the element is the foundation, but the artist is the HOOK that gets kids interested.  Let me elaborate. Imagine the following as you introduce your lesson:

Exhibit A : Today boys and girls we are going to learn about Texture. Texture is the way something feels. (Snor)

Exhibit B: Today we are going to learn about an artist who pained with so much paint, sometimes he didn’t even buy food because he couldn’t afford it. He would rather starve than quit painting. WOW. Kids are listening now, aren’t they?  … “Well, Van Gogh needed SO MUCH expensive paint, because he painted with a lot of texture.  His paint was very thick….”

So I choose Van Gogh to talk about Texture with Kindergarten because of the wonderful hook it provides as an introduction to the art element. Perfect Pair! Lets move on.

3. What are the Non- Negotiable Parts of the Lesson?

What parts of your lesson are not negotiate  These are the steps the students must follow.  Maybe all students must have 4 flowers in their Sunflowers vase, or maybe all students must tear the paper, not cut the paper, in order to gain a fine motor skill.  For so many of us, and so many lessons I see out there, every single part of  lesson is a nonnegotiable. First draw this, then this, and we’ll all use the same colors and have 20 beautiful birds but they all look the same.  I don’t like to teach this way. It makes me lose sleep at night because my job is to cultivate learners who can make artistic decisions.  We all know, though, our students aren’t professional artists with the ability to sit in their studio and make all kinds of  adult like artistic decisions. They are still learning the basic skills, in which we need to teach, which is also our job. Decide in your lesson what those basic things are that kids can’t really change about your lesson.  These items will be the foundation in which creativity is built.

3. Give Opportunity for Artistic Choices.

A great lesson balances explicit instruction. (I do, we do, you do) with creative choice.  For example,  I could provide a tracer and tell students to trace a vase for the sunflower pot in my Van Gogh Sunflower’s Lesson. They would all look great, for sure. But then I go back to that guilt of not providing and teaching divergent and creative thinking whenever I can in a lesson.  Besides fine motor, what did the students learn from tracing? What artistic choices were they able to make? Not many. SO, for this lesson I will let them draw a vase in any shape they want, and any size as long as it fits on the paper. You’ll get student choice in each little vase and each product will start to look very unique and take on the personality of the artist. Objective met. I gave them a creative choice WITHIN a structure that sets them up for success.  THIS IS THE BEST TRICK I have ever found for my lessons.  Creativity Within Structure.

Even though you may not be able to add all of these things into every single lesson, becoming aware of your lesson design, and attempting to combine these simple steps in your lessons, hopefully you can find that perfect balance that will propel your average lessons into you best lessons!

Do you find your lessons are lacking balance?

If you could work on one aspect of teaching your lessons, what would you work on?

Jessica Balsley

Jessica Balsley is the Founder and President at AOE. She is passionate about helping art teachers enhance their lives and careers through relevant professional development.


  • lauralee

    I could not agree more on this idea of creativity within structure! We don’t come to work to get the same result from every student! Looking at each unique outcome makes my day. Great post.

  • Maria

    Time, time, time…..not enough to do what I feel we have GOT to do. I wish I had more time and feel I need it to be part of every finished project: a time to let the children explore and discuss each other’s work. They need more time allowing themselves to discover the strengths and weaknesses of each others art. When you only see them once a week for 45….it is so hard. Your post is a great one.

    • I am with you, Maria! Currently I do very little critique with my students, (another thing that keeps me up at night!) but time is the factor. I only see mine for 45 minutes a week, too. So, I think stepping stones are the key here. Start with what you can do, and do it well, then gradually add in what you can, even if it’s only once a year. Thank You for your honesty in addressing something we all struggle with- TIME!

  • I love this concept, but sometimes I switch up the Elements and Principles with artists and/or concepts.

    I -and my students- groove out more on concepts and artistic ideas. So, I usually research items/artists/concepts they will find interesting/should learn about etc. and then will decide which elements and principles best align.

    I also keep a checklist of my state’s standards -which also closely adhere to elements and principles- with each lesson plan. That way I can easily go back and see if I missing some elements and principles.

    If I find I am too “light” on an element or principle, I’ll work the other way and focus on that item first and then find an artist/concept to work around it.

    I LOVE your outline for great lesson plans, and I think there are lots of ways to reach a great end result. . .And, yeah, they all involve the elements and principles.

    I will say that one think a lot of students today -in a spoon fed culture of tv, video games, and teaching to tests- have a hard time brain storming. So, I often incorporate an opportunity for large creative deviations within a project, and actively encourage that. I think one of the most important parts of art is creativity.

    • Great tips, Amy! Thank you for sharing all of your great insight. I do have a question. How do you follow a curriculum in a larger district that is based on creativity? I have never seen a totally creative based curriculum that a large group can follow with integrity. Thoughts anyone?

  • S. Brooks

    WoW! I think of art lessons in the exact opposite way! As an artist, I would never think of an element or principle first, but rather an image or idea that inspires me. I do teach the elements and principles, but out of the context of a culture (Japan, Dutch, etc.), artist or medium…exactly for the reason you stated above, because they are boring! It is always so fascinating to learn what different school districts require and how the district interprets their core state art standards! I love your posts. Enjoy!

  • Maryldepalma

    I am like you in that I also seek “formulas” or systems that make me a more effective teacher. It must be a sign that my right and left brain are willing to work together. I have a similar formula though not as detailed as yours. I think of an art lesson containing 3 components – content or subject (what the artwork is about), media or material (what are you going to use to make it), and the style or concept (these are things like asymetrical or abstract) and I have found that with elementary age students, at least, if you control two of the three variables the result is that students have enough freedom to make an artwork that doesn’t look like everyone else’s but enough structure to be successful. Here is an example of this:
    Picasso Asymetrical Portraits
    1. Subject – must be a portrait
    2. Concept/Style – must be asymetrical and in the style of Picasso
    3. Material – up to the student. I provided a variety of fun papers and allowed marker
    The result was that no 2 looked alike and all demonstrated the students understood the concept of asymetry. Picasso is the “hook” as you described. Who doesn’t think Picasso is cool? And his work demonstrates use of the chosen concept.

  • Kiley Edington

    Hi Jessica, thank you so much for sharing your ideas with other art teachers… it is tremendously helpful! I am a first year art teacher with no education background (BFA in Art), and am having a hard time balancing my lessons. I have a curriculum that was left in my office, but I am realizing each lesson takes way too long  for my class time. I see Preschool through 3rd grade 20-25 minutes a week, and that’s it. I’m having a hard time implementing all the things you mentioned into my short time frame, and was wondering if you have any suggestions? I do see 4th and 5th grade for 40-45 minutes weekly, so it is much easier to accomplish things at a normal pace. But for the younger grades I feel like by the time I’m done talking, they have no time to work and then we spend several weeks on a project that wasn’t that exciting. Any suggestions?

    • Kiley,

      That is not very much time! I would say you may need to just focus on one skill (or two) for each project and do more, smaller projects. Keep your intros speedy and read stories that relate to the content during the work time (kids love this!) Another thing I have done is make the artwork smaller, this always seems to make the work go faster. Do what you can, with the time you have. Nothing will be “wrong” – But I agree, you don’t want one project to span over the course of months, or kids will get bored. I tend to talk the most the first class period and let kids get right to work, (with a quick intro) before. Are you able to set up supplies beforehand to save time? Good Luck!

  • SKT

    I have been looking for others ideas about teaching the Elements or the Principles first. I have done the Elements first then moved to how they are used in a composition, but I’m thinking of swapping it. Any ideas on that?

    It is truly helpful looking at what other art teachers have to say about how they do their lessons. I thing I do differently when writing my lessons is star with the objective: what do I want the children to remember. I work from there deciding on what to cover and what project. Always have a good opener to get their attention then move into the ‘boring’ stuff but keep it quick as you want to get into hands on as soon as possible.

    Thinking about texture isn’t boring for me, so I chuckled a bit at that idea. I think children LOVE texture. For younger students especially, bring in some samples of the things that are in a painting you will be observing for texture. Introduce the lesson by letting them feel these items. Then move on to a brief discussion of how an artist can show texture.

    By the way, I have found so many helpful discussions and ideas on this site. Thank you!