Save the Best for Last

No, this is not a song from the early 90’s…. It’s my method when planning lessons for April and May.  Let’s admit it, we know some of our lessons are just better than others. We know the lessons that engage the students in a special way because of the materials, content or even historical facts.  I’ve made it a point for some time now, to save some of  my favorite and the student’s favorite and most engaging lessons for the last month of school… Why? Because kids are antsy at the end of the year. They want to get outside, they are burnt out from testing in the classroom, they are done listening and have sometimes chosen to forget the school rules, they may be nervous about change of routine for summer, or just excited to cannon ball into the pool.

Whatever the reason for end of year distractions, at my school, slacking off is not an option as the year winds down. I have students in art class during the last hour of the last day of school. We are expected to be teaching the curriculum on this day. NOT playing a game or simply cleaning the room. Students are not allowed to help us clean our rooms or do anything of the sort. They are there to learn. I do agree with this, but I’ve had to really get some strategies under my belt to keep it interesting and engaging through that very last minute of art class.

My solution: Save Your Best Lessons for Last!

Here is how I came to this conclusion.  A few years ago, I decided to pass back art and do portfolios the last weeks of school. Mass Chaos. Kids were goofing off and disengaged. Not a great way to end the school year- PLUS – I had to endure managing the portfolio pass back over and over, 6 times a day for 5 days a week and it was exhausting.  I decided students would be better served if they were making art the last weeks of school.  So, this year I did portfolios earlier, included a reflection sheet during and staggered the pass backs in May and April and instead chose to do art projects up until the last day. No “wind” down, just curriculum until the end.

Here are some examples of my favorite lessons to use in May and why I think they qualify for this distinction. 

1. Ancient Egypt– Mummy’s tombs, a mysterious story and organs in a jar! What more would 4th graders want to learn about?  This historical unit is a winner with my students and keeps them wanting more each art time as I tell the story of the discovery of King Tut.

2. Printmaking– It’s messy but kids love it. I save some of my printmaking for May.

3. Pop Art – It’s colorful and kids get to use everyday objects as part of their art. Nothing like that real world connection to engage a bunch of 5th graders who are ready for middle school.

4. Self-Portraits– More on this lesson later, but I do a lesson called Royal Portraits with 1st grade. Students draw themselves as royalty (perfect connection to the royal wedding last week, too!)  Teaching 1st graders tricks for making 3D jewels is a winner every time!

5.  Van Gogh– I like to save Van Gogh for my 3rd graders, Cutting off an Ear! Now they are listening!

What are some strategies you have under your belt to help kiddos stay focused on learning art until the very last bell rings on the very last day?  

What are some of your most engaging lessons?

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.


  • I, also have difficulty with my students being attentive at the end of the year – and lets face it, I have a hard time concentrating as well. The sun, the grass, the warm breezes….

    I have learned over the last few years to save special projects for the end of the year. In my building there are A LOT of field trips and special event days that pull classes from the specials schedule. I found it very difficult to keep track of what classes were on what step of each project. So, last year I had a plan. For the last month of school (which I know sounds like a lot but when you only see the kids every 4 days it’s really not so crazy)I focus on ‘non-traditional art’.

    For example one rotation we will ‘chalk the walk’, one cycle we will be inspired by Andy Goldsworthy, and then for two rotations we do Light Graffiti. These are not only special projects but they are so different from what we normally do the kids are highly engaged. Also, since these are one class period projects if I miss a section of a grade I do not need to go back and teach it to them – we just move right along!

    • Amanda! I LOVE this idea. You are so right. Missing the students for trips, etc, is a problem, As long as the project is not assessed on our report card, I could totally do some of this non-traditional art the last month- especially something like a photo scavenger hunt outside, etc….Loving the Andy Goldsworthy idea, too. Wow, that Luther College must have given you a great art ed background to come up with such good ideas :) Great to hear from you.

      • The great thing is – is that they could be assessed. Maybe not in the traditional sense of writing it down on a piece of paper with a rubric. However, if you do the light graffiti (read how I set it up on my blog) you can actually see the kids making connections about how they move changes the picture — and then students learn from other students. It is an experiential learning and can not be assessed by a rubric – but no doubt learning goes on and there for assessment as well. I tend to assess these more on a credit/no credit philosophy. If they were engaged and did some of their own experiments then credit – if they were disengaged then no credit.

        The thing I really like about the non-traditional art is that it gives kids a better variety of art. A lot of art in the art room is pretty traditional: paint, draw, color, sculpt and kids get this idea that art is just that. So, to bring in some non-traditional ideas helps them get outside that box.

        • Valerie

          Can you post a link to your blog? I’d love to see how you do the light graffiti with kids that age

  • and this has nothing to do with it – but on the comment boxes on my computer the boxes for the email and website are not lined up and the boxes you check at the bottom are mixed up… I wasn’t sure how to let you know.

  • Hey! I was impressed by your last file post. good for you!

    As for end of the year, I too usually teach up until the end. However, I like to incorporate some observational drawing outside at the end of the year. Also, I do have the kids sometimes help me clean the room and organize supplies. My philosophy is that it is good for kids to take ownership of their school and help organize and clean. In Japan, (where one of our teachers taught too, so he is big on this philosophy) the kids help each day with tasks to clean the classroom. Builds responsibility. Anyways, you do what you can do within your school.

  • Yes! I’ve been saving the best and easiest for last too! Like paper sculptures with K’s and the marshmallow and toothpick sculpture challenge. . . and so many more. I really want to go outside and do some action painting with a kids swimming pool and a tennis ball. I love the book “action jackson” But I have to get a plan since the class schedule is sooo packed this year.

  • Terry

    Yes I also leave some of my best lessons for the end of the year. 5th grade is the toughest to work with because they have so many special activities that they do as a grade level. They also have music and band concerts to fit in as well.

  • Susan

    Great post! I during the month of May I use each week for some facinating art tips and tricks…like all the different ways you can use watercolor or fun things to do with glue. I will demonstrate several things and then set them free.

  • Sara Baird

    I love this idea! Students love having something to look forward to during testing season. I attempt “the best projects” with most grade levels, but keep other projects on hand in case they won’t be a good fit or we’re short on time. K-pendant making, 1- rainbow landscapes, 2- Ringgold quilts, 3- Goldsworthy outdoor sculptures, 4- Oldenburg food sculptures, 5- paper mache masks. Alternate projects- Cubist collages, sidewalk chalk murals, Zentangle drawings. Everyone wins!