The Great Art Show Debate

art show debate
I was photographing my students’ maze drawings when, suddenly, I was overwhelmed with sadness. These drawings were nicely done. They emphasized the use of line. They helped me learn my 300+ students names. BUT they would never hold up in an art show.
It didn’t matter how much fun my students had creating them. It didn’t matter that they were still drawing mazes two weeks later, trying to outdo each other. The fact that they would be unsuccessful and overlooked at art shows had me questioning why we created them.

This had me thinking about the great debate that rages inside me with the planning of every lesson.

How do we balance having students create artwork that
is “art show worthy” with artwork that they love?

It really doesn’t matter how your classroom is structured. Every teacher, regardless of if they identify with TAB, teacher-guided lessons or anywhere in between, probably knows this struggle. The art show is how we are most often judged as successful or unsuccessful. We count blue, red, and white ribbons from the images we sent to all the contests and shows we entered. We question why the same lessons from the same teachers win year after year when our students are creating unique and wonderful images that reflect who they are.

If you are waiting for this article to provide the perfect answer to this great debate then you can stop reading now. There are no easy answers. However, we can dig a little deeper in order to find what we truly feel is most important.

Creating Artwork For SHOW

art show
In the teacher-guided art room, art show artwork usually involves teaching a special lesson that takes a few weeks to complete. It is well-structured and well-tested. Most of the students are successful. The images are eye-catching and beautiful. Parents and school board members ooh and aah over what your students were able to create. Your students remember this lesson because of the way they felt when others honored what they had created.

In the TAB or modified choice room, this lesson is sometimes called a WOW project. Students reflect on what they have done earlier in the year and share their ideas with the teacher or classmates for critique and guidance before creating a larger, more finished piece. They work on their project until it is ready for display and then parents and school board members will ooh and aah over what the students were able to create. Your students remember this lesson because of the way they felt when others honored what they had created.

Creating Artwork For JOY

maze drawing
In all classrooms, TAB, modified choice and teacher-guided, these projects are usually smaller, easier projects that help the students build their skills. They are fun to do. These are the days that kids explore mixing paint colors and create piles of colorful paper but nothing more. These are the lessons that end with 5-second animation videos that only serve to get kids excited to explore further. These are the lessons filled with gesture drawing, giggles, and blind contour portraits. They won’t be winning any awards, but they will be filling our students with memories of the enjoyment found in creating.
I know that in my classroom this will forever be a topic I argue with myself about, although not out loud because that would be weird, right? I believe in the power of both types of lessons. I can name former students who never had a single piece of artwork sent to an art show but who still, to this day, love to tell me about what they are currently creating for enjoyment. I can also name former students who can still tell me the exact drawing they did in 5th grade that went to the fair and got a blue ribbon.

I believe that while this debate rages on, the best answer is probably found in making sure that we offer both kinds of lessons to our students. Then, we give them the joy that comes from creating art and the wonderful feeling of others recognizing their hard work and talents.

I’m curious. How do you plan your lessons? Do you…

A. Plan mostly with art shows and contests in mind

B. Plan mostly with the joy of creation in mind

C. Plan to honor a balance of joy and show


Jennifer Carlisle

Jen is a middle school art teacher from Norfolk, NE who loves exploring and teaching art through traditional and digital art mediums.


  • Karen Steen Olaussen

    This is perfect….I struggle with this all the time and to actually read about it is the best thing ever and I love your answer, offering both kinds of lessons. Thank You!

  • Matthew Martinez

    Most of my lessons are geared towards show. I say at the beginning of the school year that the art created during the year should be for a museum, not a fridge meaning that it should be art show worthy to display to the community at large and not their family at the end of the school year. For joy, that is the outside the classroom sketch book drawings I assign that are pretty student centered. Some of my students in the past have told me “why aren’t these our assignments!”

    • can’t afford a good camera

      for joy, the sketchbooks, for misery, the art show??
      (sorry that’s just how I read it)

    • Audrey

      I’m guessing you are a high school teacher with mostly advanced art classes… I see how you could work that is such a setting. They have a lot of basics and are able to work through ideas and problems in their sketchbooks then have extended time to create “museum” pieces.

  • Audrey

    I work for a balance. However I teach Art privately so parents expect a presentation worthy project every time. They are paying me after all. On the other hand I need the students to WANT to take more classes. It’s a tightrope walk. I may not always be too steady on that rope but I do love what I’m doing!

    • Jennifer Carlisle

      and I am sure if you love what you are doing… so will they!

    • can’t afford a good camera

      if you can sell the idea that the students are there to learn creativity rather than produce a fridge-worthy art product, the parents may see the value of experimental work, etc. It’s more of a long-term approach, but could end up with children who could become designers, real artists, etc.

      • Audrey

        We just finished up a Building Creativity series. Not much “show-worthy”. Everything was done in their sketchbooks. Goal was to get them to push past their comfort zone to try new things. Also wanted them to have pages in their sketchbook they could come back to and add to. Mainly to keep them creating on their own time.

        I sent an email to parents. Just a “thank you” for signing up and an overview of what we were doing and our goals. Let them know that through the series they should see their kids do more “art” on their own, start to venture out of comfort zone (those who always draw cat will start to do more), and their confidence with art would grow.

        I got some positive feedback so I think I’ll send a quick email like that every series…

  • Rebecca

    Balance between the 2 is so difficult and I never feel like I successfully achieve it. I teach 6th & 7th grades. We are on a 9 week rotation. We have a HUGE fine arts festival in March, so the pressure is on to produce a large variety of quality work from the students to display. However, I’ve taught some super cool units and I’m proud of the depth of learning and critical thinking I was able to achieve with them, but not much to show for it and definitely not display worthy. Festival time, I’m stressing out over not enough artwork
    and/or variety I have for my display.

    • Jennifer Carlisle

      It seems to that some lessons just produce a ton of quality images but you also want to showcase the variety of lessons. It is a tough thing to balance.

  • Elizabeth Castor

    I plan my lessons first on a scaffold of skills needed for students to be independently creative once done with the class. Next, I select a projects that students enjoy creating — as a HS teacher I try to use rubrics and end of project (& EOY) feedback to gauge satisfaction. If I get those two needs addressed I can count on having projects that are “show worthy.”

    One of my pet peeves of the art show is that there is far too much that I want to champion/display that I need more entries. It’s sad and tough having 300 kids throughout the year and only 10 images/works to bring to represent all of that growth and effort.

    • Jennifer Carlisle

      I agree…

  • Leslie Burwell

    Balanced.I use skill building to scaffold as well. My Level 2-4 art classes use modified choice based learning. Since I have 2 student shows a year, I show all the work of my students. I also exhibit work in county and state venues. These are more selective. I feel that having a student show I can show those “Joy” moments. I am trying to hold art shows earlier in the semester, so that the the end of the year can be more JOY! Why not have an exhibit in a local coffee shop with your mazes?

  • Phyllis Bloxson

    I show examples of artwork from every project in the hallway at my school. plus do a special show. In the past I have put some students work in shows outside the school only to find politics in play. I don’t worry about that anymore. I have over 600 students so obviously I can’t show every students work but I find it important to the artsy kids most of whom don’t get recognition any where else for their work to be seen. We also have a show in town each year.

  • ElizTownsend

    I have to admit, one of my motives for hanging art, is to “wow” the observers… a natural built-in-way to promote the art program; therefore, I guess I select art projects that promise the liklihood of a high degree of success for the grade school student–sort of no-fail art projects. Of course, these projects do not neglect to teach skills , while definitely look good on paper (i.e. when they’re done and hanging on the wall). I try to have mini progression projects between the major projects. That means, we obviously don’t hang everything up. The progression step may simply be a practice or dummy copy of the main project we are anticipating displaying, or, it might be just one important step in the entire process that we practice first, before committing it to the final project. We may play an art game or read a book to emphasize a step in a forthcoming project, or be exposed to a famous artist’s take, etc. Maybe the purpose for that will be to simply whet our appetites and leave us chomping at the bit to get going on the main project. So, when I plan my units, I like to use progression–start with small steps–and find the one final art project that will employ what we’ve learned from the small steps–and “wow” our viewers when we put it all together. It usually means no more than 3 major projects on the wall, per student, per quarter.

  • Bluejeanne

    Hi Jennifer, What great topic. My curricula is balanced. I used to be one of those teachers that “played to the show.” It looked great winning all the time but the students were not getting what they were supposed to get, and I changed about 6 years ago to a “process is more important than product” ideal in my classes. We still have two major shows a year; but have dropped the ones that are judged. Students (I teach 7th a and 8th grade)are relaxed , happy and definitely learning a lot. And their teacher is happier doing what I am trained and paid to do.