How to Pare Your Lesson Plans Down to the Essentials

Ahhhh…the joys of lesson planning. Everyone’s favorite thing to do, right? (Only kidding!)

While lesson plans should be fun and relatively straightforward to write, they often aren’t.

Take, for example, the long lesson plans I had to submit when I was student teaching. I’m not sure any lesson plan needs to be twenty pages long! And, I know many teachers have to write and turn in these lengthy lesson plans well beyond their college days.

Personally, I knew I wanted to document successful lessons in a straightforward way. I began to type out one-page lesson plans to share with others. I felt it was necessary for my lessons to be easily adapted and shared.

This means I had to pare it down to the essentials. For me, that meant the purpose of the lesson, the concepts I wanted my students to learn, and what made the lesson relevant. I left out things like how many class periods a lesson would take because, of course, all schedules, teachers, and students are different!

Here are the 5 things every great lesson plan needs.

lesson plans

1. Strong Objectives

Your objectives should communicate why students are being asked to do the lesson and what you are hoping they learn from the process. As I write my objectives, I also write down a few questions I will ask my students to inspire them and get them thinking.

As you are writing your objectives, you will also want to consider the National Standards as well as your school or county standards. It’s a good idea to list the standards near the objectives in your lesson plan.

2. A Complete List of Materials

Here you’ll list the materials your students will use to complete the project. Creating this list will ensure you have the correct materials on hand. It will also help you think about your students’ familiarity with them or decide if you’ll need to demo new techniques. It’s a good idea to add this type of information to your lesson plan, so you don’t forget about specific demonstrations or to allow time for practice and experimentation.

art materials

3. Clear Procedures

Your procedures are the steps needed to complete the project; from the demo and explanation to the final product. Often, procedures can be open-ended, especially if you teach in a choice-based program.

Having a simple rundown can help you plan the time needed for the lesson. You may want to number your procedures so you can quickly see the steps needed to successfully walk students through the lesson. I have seen this described as the “student time on task” as well as “the actual artmaking time,” so this is one I recommend breaking down and thinking about carefully.

Here are a few questions you might want to ask yourself during this phase of your writing:

  • What are the steps your students will need to go through to successfully complete their work?
  • How much time will they need to do each step?
  • Will there be time for critiquing within these procedures?
  • Will you include the setup and take down/cleanup involved in the art lesson?

There is a lot to consider here. But if you’re just using these lessons for yourself, then perhaps you won’t have to write everything down. It’s completely up to you.

4. Meaningful Assessments

Assessments are a critical part of lesson planning because it is how students’ work will be graded. I like to include my students in the assessment portion of the lesson.

After all, they are the artists, and they know how well they did. Did they give it their all? Did they take risks and push themselves or did they settle and just do the minimum to complete the project?

I use a project evaluation form with every lesson I teach. Students are required to fill this out and turn it in with each lesson so I can see what they were thinking and how well they think they did. You can download a copy below to use in your classroom!

project evaluation formDownload Now!

5. Appropriate Extensions

Thinking about extensions is an important part of differentiating learning. Extensions can include additions to the lesson itself or ways to adapt the lesson to individual students.

If possible, I like to have student samples to show. These samples help students gauge success and can serve as inspiration.

student working on charcoal drawing

Other Things to Consider

The great thing about writing your own lesson plans is being able to customize them. You may have other sections you feel are important to add. Personally, I like to include resources, vocabulary lists, PowerPoints and any other teaching tools I’ll want to use. You can throw these in a “Miscellaneous” section, but I have seen lesson plans that include each of these.

This is the way I have been writing my lesson plans for years. It’s a simple approach that helps guide my lessons but doesn’t take away from the actual teaching, which is the most important thing we do!

Are you required to write lesson plans at your school?

How detailed do you feel lesson plans need to be?

Debi West

Debi West, Ed.S. and NBCT, is a retired art teacher with 25 years of experience. She loves sharing with others, and her motto is, “Together We ART Better!”

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  • Rich Pope

    Simple but thorough, nice article.
    For years I dreaded writing out traditional style plans. My current position is with a school that did not have a structured art curriculum in place when I was hired to teach K-12 three years ago. In order to juggle all of the diferent grade level plans I decided to approach plans differently in three ways: digitally, visually appealing, & a single course document projected daily in my classroom.

    I started building multiple Google classrooms at the same time I was building the art curriculum. I set up a single lesson plan google doc for each individual couse. With the approval & praise of my admin for going digital with my lesson plans I have been able to make the entire doc visually appealing which is very good for me as an artist. It makes it quick for me to edit, add, or delete projects each semester & easy for students to follow. I designed the doc to look very organized & eye-catching projected on the wall from the classroom desktop & it includes a weekly agenda that keeps everyone on track.

    By writing my lesson plans in a single course doc that is both visible in my classroom and accessible online by students, parents, & admin, it has positively changed the way I think about my plans (much enjoyment) and has expanded my admin’s concepts & expectations of lesson plans & how they are submitted each week (full of praise for my digital single course docs!).

    Similar to you, I also utilize a student self eval template that includes a column for my eval next to theirs. It is based on my 5 point rubric & it is a standard project requirement to be submitted with all final compositions. It gives students a solid connection to the evaluation & ultimately they gain an important understanding of the grade that is recorded. Plus, parents & admin have been supportive of the self eval requirement.

    Side note: I am interested in your A.R.T.S. Series resources pictured with this article, are they available for purchase or download?

    I appreciate your veteran art teacher insight. Thank you for sharing.

    • suzanne sperl

      I’d love to see your plan doc and weekly agenda that you project to your class – that sounds like a great idea, @rrpope!

    • Debi West

      Thanks for this fabulous response!! I love everything about this! Several years ago our county moved to something similar to google called e-class so all of our lessons and visual references, samples, etc…moved to that and it was a dream!
      Since many of my lessons were already written I just cut and pasted them in for my student’s to see but I added any area on there for students to give feedback!

      And I love that your admin was into your lesson ideas! That’s the key!

      My teaching guides for the secondary level are yearlong curriculum ideas and include syllabi, lessons, assessments, visual journal prompts and ideas, student samples and as one of my kiddos said, it’s like a full on “how to teach art” guide! Lol!

      I have intro 2d
      Intro 3d
      Art II
      Advanced

      And will have an NAHS / Art with Purpose soon!

      They are $25 each or all 4 for $80
      I generally sell them at conferences and they come on a flash drive and that way you can download them, print them and bind them.

      Thanks again for your reply!

      • Laura Rappard

        Do you have these available for sale directly or on TPT or other site?

        • Debi West

          I have a few single lessons on TPT but they take almost half so I sell these full guides primarily through word of mouth and at conferences.

          Let me know if you’re interested!
          dewestudio@gmail.com

    • Laura Rappard

      I too would love to know how you set up your multiple Google Classrooms, making them “eye-catching”, etc. I’m hoping to get students to write their reflections on a doc in google classroom. Most students printing/handwriting is difficult to read even at the high school level.

    • Drew Brown

      I personally used (and highly recommend) many of Debi’s lesson plans last year upon returning to HS, after many years as an elementary level art teacher. Her format was straightforward and easily accessible, so that I did not get bogged down in the details of “how-to’s”. She captures the essentials of the lesson, and I was able to springboard from her ideas and meet the needs of my students. I must say that having visual examples is key, as well! I now take photos daily so that I can stock my own PowerPoints and lesson plans with a big range of student samples. Thank you, Debi, for always being willing to share your ideas through AOE!

      • Debi West

        Thank you Drew! I’m so excited to hear that the lessons worked for you and your students!! #togetherweARTbetter

  • Helen Lowery

    Fantastic article! My first year teaching HS Art was really rough. I had very few teaching materials… it was truly sink or swim! I spent my first few years building projects that are satisfying for the students and myself. Now, I am sharing these projects on my blog. Here is one of my favorites :
    http://helenlowery.com/art-i/2018/4/4/pastels

    • Debi West

      Thanks so much for writing Helen and I’m so happy that you’re sharing on your blog! My line has always been #togetherweARTbetter so I really love meeting others who feel the same way!

      I look forward to reading your blog!

  • Lucinda Phillippi

    My assessments have to be standards-based. I cannot grade on anything outside of my visual arts standards. Sometimes difficult to do. The article is good, and something I have been doing for years now.

    • Debi West

      Thanks! It seems as though more and more school districts are leaning this way – I find that to be unfortunate since we tend to be forgetting those crucial life skills!

      I appreciate you taking the time to reply!

  • Papo

    Hi Debi,

    Love this article! Very helpful!!!
    I would like to learn more about how to get your teaching guides. I will be teaching Middle school next September and am trying to put together lessons now and could use some good resources!

    • Debi West

      Thanks so much – please email me at dewestudio@gmail.com and I’ll get you all of the info!