Making Conversation a Cornerstone in the Art Classroom

Art of ConversationI know that getting kids to talk to each other about their art and the artwork of others is a powerful tool for learning, however, it was something that I felt I couldn’t manage very well. In my classroom, while some students enthusiastically talked over everyone in the group, others refused to speak or even look at anyone else. Sometimes students talked endlessly about anything but their art, and other times, the class just erupted into chaos that was hard to come back from. Eventually I realized that while I had been teaching students everything they needed to know about art, I wasn’t giving them the basic strategies needed for purposeful conversation.

Through some work presented by a Kennedy Center teaching artist, Eric Johnson, I have adapted some simple ways to make conversation a cornerstone in the art classroom. There are two key steps to setting up a positive environment for communication: setting up a consistent conversation sequence and setting consistent expectations.

Setting up a consistent conversation sequence allows students to build their conversation skills gradually. Here’s what you do.

Consistent Conversation Sequence

  1. Give students time to think on their own: This allows students some individual processing time. Less confident students can develop their thoughts more completely, rather than just relying on their more confident peers.
  2. Have students talk with a partner: If students are kept in pairs, rather than larger groups, no one is off the hook. Talking with one other person is less intimidating than sharing with a group.
  3. Have students talk in a small group or whole group: By this time, students have had time to build their thoughts and ideas and bounce them off each other. This is a wholly optional step, as you may have already met your instructional needs.

In addition to helping students feel more comfortable having discussions with one another, putting the following five Consistent Expectations into place when facilitating conversations will help create dynamic classroom discussions.

Consistent Expectations

  1. Set a clear task: By giving your students an explicit talking point (come up with a headline, compare/contrast, etc) you can focus their discussion. By just asking students to, “talk about” a topic, you give them an excuse to opt out.
  2. Build conversation norms: Sometimes kids don’t possess even the basic skills of talking with one another in a productive way. Model what conversations look like: eye contact, listening and contributing, respecting differing viewpoints, building the conversation and moving it forward.
  3. Limit time: A short time limit keeps the focus where it belongs, on the topic. As your students get better at adhering to norms, you can extend the time to allow deeper thoughts.
  4. Make students accountable: Walk around and really listen to what your students are saying. Ask students to share their talking points with you or paraphrase what their partners’ opinions were.
  5. Acknowledge by thanking: Always thank you students for their input and time spent thinking and sharing. When we praise students’ contributions, rather than a “correct” answer, we set the tone for learning in our classrooms.

By setting these conversation norms, over time, we were able to turn crazy conversation time into a powerful tool for developing critical thinking. My students were now reacting thoughtfully to artist choices and really thinking about the choices they made in their own work.



So tell us, how do you give students a voice in your classroom?

What struggles do you have during group discussion time?

Do you have any other advice for group discussions?


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Sarah Dougherty

My name is Sarah Dougherty, and I teach elementary art in a large urban district in central Iowa. I love working with our diverse population of K-5 students to bring art to their homes, communities, and everyday lives.


  • Sarah,
    These are great tips! I find many teachers (including myself) are afraid to ‘let loose’ and turn the conversation over to the students. I feared students wouldn’t take my request seriously or would just talk about recess, but when you give students the task, with lots of great parameters and starting points, they will rise to the challenge.

    • Agreed! I think that the art of conversation is something we expect students to naturally know, but when so much time is spent communicating through digital media, they don’t have the chance to practice. Explicit modeling is key!

  • Laura Allan

    I would love to hear more specifically what they are talking about. their own artwork? a peer’s art? famous artworks? Do you give them fill in the blank sentence starters? Do you give them a list of vocabulary to incorporate? do tell! :)

    • Great questions, Laura! Yes to all of the above. It just depends on the day and the lesson and my objectives.

  • Erica

    I love giving them time to think

    • You know, I think we often forget to give them that chance to formulate their thoughts. It is time well-spent!

  • Emily

    Your Conversation Sequence has often been described to me as “Think, Pair, Share.” I often use it to keep the whole class engaged, Rather than just listening to me talk, or asking a question and only calling on a few kids while others are zoning out, I can ask everyone to think about something (ex. What do the warm colors remind you of?), share it with their neighbor, then call on a few to share with the group. This way everyone should have had a chance to share with someone. I do have to walk around while they do it and encourage a few reluctant or shy ones. But most kids LOVE the chance to talk to someone, even about art.

    • Yes! I am glad you have had success with the Think-Pair-Share model. Often kids share their own thoughts at the end. I try to mix it up and ask them to report out their partner’s opinion (it adds a nice layer of accountability) and whether or not they agree.

  • Chelle Lu

    I recently invented a way to do this with my students in a game show format. It’s called Art Talk! I have learned from years of experience teaching many elementary grades and subjects that turning anything into a game amps up their enthusiasm.

    • Anything that makes kids more engaged is a great use of time!

  • Diane Koch

    After 16 years of teaching K-8 I finally moved to high school this year. I am loving the higher maturity level! I just finished my first unit and we did a critique of the final project. Critiques have always been hard for me to get the kids to do but this one was great. We have a lot of room to grow as many of the students in 9th grade have either never had art or only 2-3 years ever before now.The other art teacher and I developed a critique format based on socratic circles. First we had all students do a written reflection on the unit, what they learned, what they felt successful with and areas they still felt like they needed improvement. Then we had a small group critique artwork from the other students while the observing students were able to evaluate the critiquing students in their responses and feedback. This proces was then reversed and the observing students were then critiquing. Each student not only got feedback on their artwork, they also gave feedback on other artwork and got feedback on their input. I was impressed with the respectful and insightful way this went. It took three rotations and by the third rotation the thinking level had increased substantially! (they nor I have ever done this before) It was awesome. If any one would like the plan for doing this I would be more than happy to send it.

    • I love these ideas! Thanks so much for sharing. It is always inspiring when you watch kids grow in the coversation and critique process. Critiquing a critique is a great way for them to get even deeper into the process.

    • bluebell

      I would very much appreciate finding out how you planned this. It sounds awesome!

      • Diane Koch

        I am not sure how to reply to you personally (instead of a post) to send you the attachments. My personal e-mail is if you want to message me there I will send you the logistics and template we came up with.

  • Gena Bauer Smith

    I would love to hear more ideas on tasks for discussion.

    • Discussion tasks might include…
      -Comparing two pieces of art
      -Discussing content or subject matter
      -Making predictions
      -Coming up with MVPs (most valuable points)
      -Student Opinions
      -Connections to their personal lives

  • Elizabeth

    I introduce “critiques” in kindergarten. At that level, it is simply holding up your work and maybe telling what colors you used. In first grade, they might be able to talk about the art element or the medium we used etc.etc. By 4th grade, they can tell me about their work, decisions made, elements used successfully, what they might do differently next time, and how their work is or is not in the style of the artist just studied. We don’t do it for all works, but the kids are so familiar with it, there is no fear, and we all learn about their thinking processes.

  • Marilyn Terry

    I frequently use the think, pair share strategy…..with everyone speaking at the same time. I love the way this gets everyone involved. I’m about to do a full day of ‘Kagan strategies’ so will probably have some more ideas next week. Gallery walks….looking at all the work and standing behind their favourite piece, then explaining to a person near them what it was about that art work that appealed, using the modelled arts language that is a part of every lesson. Students enjoy this and even if they do stand behind their friend’s art, they’ve still got to explain the reason. If they’re all speaking at once no one feels threatened and there are more willing to share with the whole class after this exercise.

  • Brette

    In my art class we are using the whole brain teaching model which has a teach your partner piece to it. We use teach your partner to help remember new taught skills, review, and it works easily with critique of finished artwork as well when given a topic of discussion. I will walk around and assist during this time to ask questions and help guide some of their discussions!

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