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Author: artteachersmile

Hi! I'm Emily, an elementary art teacher ten years and counting. I studied fine arts at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, but found a real passion in visual arts education. I am excited to be sharing my experience with you and hope that you can share your own great ideas with me in return!
Three Sisters Art Lesson: Botany, Legend and Composition!

Three Sisters Art Lesson: Botany, Legend and Composition!

One of my favorite Fall art projects ties together lessons on botany, legend and art principles of composition.  If you are not familiar with the “three sisters”, it is a Native American (multiple tribes) name for corn, beans and squash.  This is a great grade 1-2 lesson to share with your students that will tie in with harvest time, but also teach them important concepts of overlapping, going ‘off the page’ and creating a dynamic composition.  

The three veggies are called sisters as they were planted together and each plant brought a sustaining element to the group.  It’s wonderful to draw students in with a story, so I put a visual up on my screen and then read aloud a Three Sisters Legend.  The University of Utah has provided three excellent versions of this legend and describes it in the following terms: 

The Native American stories of the Three Sisters vary from tribe to tribe. This story below is taken from an oral account by Lois Thomas of Cornwall Island, compiled by students at Centennial College and found in “Indian Legends of Eastern Canada.”

You can find the written account for you to print by following the link here:

This is one of my favorite passages of the tale, “These sisters were quite different from one another in their size and also in their way of dressing.  One of the three was a little sister, so young that she could only crawl at first, [Squash] and she was dressed in green.  The second of the three wore a frock of bright yelow, and she had a way of running off by herself when the sun shone and the soft wind blew in her face. [beans] The third was the eldest sister, standing always very straight and tall above the other sisters and trying to guard them.[corn]  She wore a pale green shawl and she had long, yellow hair that tossed about her head in the breezes”.

Discussion questions might include:

From the description, which sister is meant to represent corn? Which one beans? Which squash?  What makes you think this?

Who do you think the little Indian boy is?

What really happened when the sisters were discovered gone?


Once the storytelling is through, we examine the stencils. I don’t know how you feel 

stencils,sometimes I totally write them off and other times I find real value in the shortcut.  In this lesson, I want students to focus more on composition and later, color/pattern, so I find them valuable.  So we gothrough the stencils one by one naming their shape.

This is also a good time to have real or fake indian corn, squash and a string bean or two on hand.  There are always students who will benefit from seeing and feeling a real life example of the items you’re discussing! Remember all those multiple learning styles.  

Our next discussion is on composition.  This is the biggie in this lesson. I have a simple visual rubric illustrating composition.  What I’m looking for in their compositions is for students to:

-use a good balance of corn shapes, one bean shapes and one squash shapes.

-use two or three point of overlapping.

-use the idea of a shape going “off the page”.

Students complete their compositions in pencil within one class.  I ask students to check their work with me and they let me know what score they would give themselves based on the rubric. Great beginning self assessment skills!  I can also use that rubric to specifically discuss with students what could be improved.

In the next class, we talk about color. Bring out those real examples of indian corn and squash and have a good look at the colors and patterns observed. A visual resource is placed on the screen or board with various patterns of corn and colors of squash for students can refer back to.  In this lesson I am asking students to use realistic color.

Oil pastels give such beautiful vibrant color to the pieces.   They are my favorite material for this project.  The last thing I ask students to do on coloring their pieces is to choose an oil pastel color and trace the outline of their veggie shapes.  I ask them to choose a color they think will stand out nicely.



The last step on the artworks is to fill in the background.  I like to have students use watercolor or tempera cake to do this.  Choosing a single background color helps the beauty of the three sisters stand out best, so that’s what I encourage students to do.  The results are a beautiful Autumn display and the students are always really proud of the outcome.  The lessons on creating a more dynamic composition can be referenced as we go through the year.  Especially the piece about going “off the page”. I feel that’s a great artistic trick for children to have in their arsenal.

If you’re looking for other fun Autumn artworks, jump on over to my post about Voices From the Land! Click right here.  This is an awesome time of the year to make nature art and I think you’ll find that Voices from the Land is applicable to any age level and really brings a lot more to the table than just arranging some nature stuff.

Before I wrap it up, I have to give a shout out to my friend and former colleague, Renee Collins, from Positive Space Art, who first introduced the concept of the Three Sisters lesson to me. Thanks, Renee!

Thanks for reading as always! I love to hear from my readers if they use the project or have any useful tips!


Part 2 of Art Advocacy!: hosting a Family Art Night

Part 2 of Art Advocacy!: hosting a Family Art Night

Advocating for the importance of your art program is a big part of our jobs as art educators.  Without our extra efforts to communicate with families and administrators about all the great things happening in our classroom, art can too easily be overlooked in the face of the very demanding deadlines of academic benchmarks.  In my role as art teacher for the whole school population, I want to show that my program supports the goals of the academic subjects.

I started newsletters for each marking period last year after seeing how easy and successful it was for a colleague of mine.  But the best thing I did for my school community last year was to ask my principal if we could host a family art night instead of an evening art display.   

The district hosted a family art night for fourth graders in a previous year, but this would be solely for one elementary school. Last week I posted about the district wide family art night process. You can hop on over to that post here.  Talking with my principal, we decided to start with one grade level and possibly expand in the future if we had a good turnout.  It was decided that second graders and their families would be invited for one evening of family fun with three art making experiences planned.

My tips for the beginning planning stages

1.Ask for help!

Get volunteers, whether other teachers or parents to help run the activities the night of.  Once you know how much help you’ll have, you can plan the art activities.  If you have more help, you can do more complicated activities.  If not, scale back accordingly.

2. Make a list of your ideas.  Think of projects finished in 40 minutes or less. (unless your idea is to host just one activity! This can still be a great family event.)

3. Consider the available space.

   Will you use your classroom?  Other teachers’ classrooms?  The cafeteria? Can you use them all?

4. What materials will you need? What is your budget?

You’ll want to invite families at least a month ahead of time, especially if it’s a really busy time of year. I have used “Sign Up Genius” with success to manage RSVPs.  However families were invited through a more formal email explaining the events of the night with the sign up genius link attached.  I did make a paper flyer as well for the few families in my district who did not use email.

The Night Of

With around 70 families signed up, I decided to run three separate classrooms. I split the night into three time frames and created a list of participants for groups A, B and C. The night of the event, families checked in at a table up front, manned by my principal, to see which room they would be starting in. Throughout the evening, participants rotated among the three rooms at designated times.

Now how was I able to manage quality control given I could not be in three places at once? Video is the answer! Just as we all know about flipping a lesson in the classroom, I did it for my parent-child teams.

I can’t say I’m an expert video creator, but I am happy to share my videos with the descriptions of the activities below.

One classroom was still life drawing with watercolor pencils.  I wanted to include this practice, because I think it’s great to emphasize to families that you don’t need a lot of fancy (or messy) materials to make great art at home.  I collected a lot of random items, bought a couple of bouquets at TJ’s and set it at various levels on a rolling cart.  This was great, because I could push into the borrowed classroom right before and it did not take time to set up. A second grade teacher was able to run this room confidently with my video as introduction and then passing out simple materials.



Classroom B was another borrowed room, where I was able to provide simple materials with outstanding results! Water based marker printmaking was a fantastic family experience.  Again, I made a video of myself teaching the lesson just as I would to my students and my second grade teacher assistant was able to run the classroom.  I prepped the materials ahead of time.  We needed 4″x6″ sheets of styrofoam, 9×12 paper so that each family could pull two prints on one paper, pencils and water based markers.  I also purchased disposable aluminum baking pans from the grocery store for water trays and had newspaper on hand for blotting. My teacher helper was awesome! Families were able to work from the video with the teacher’s help to pull some fantastic prints!


I was in the cafeteria teaching the most materials intensive lesson- the clay initial plaques.  I was lucky to have another teacher agree to help me out the day before, because I was teaching the largest group, just welcoming everyone and managing the materials would have been a great challenge.  To make all those materials pieces easier, I had…you guessed it! A video of myself teaching the lesson.  Being that this was one night, students and parents created their pieces understanding that they would only be bisque fired when returned to them. Of course, we talked about how they could add color to them later.

Reflecting on the Night

My participants were thrilled! It was a wonderful opportunity for people to make some time for family, creativity and relaxation.  I hope that it also showed them that the practice of art making is as relaxing as it is enriching and not only for the children!

As I make more videos for my teaching practice, I have areas in my mind that I know need improvement. I had sound quality issues, for example, that I plan to work on.  Let me know if you have any advice.  A small mic?  A smaller room?

I hosted my family art night at the end of the school year.  I had been on maternity leave at the start, however, when I do it again, I would change it to be a Fall or Winter event to get the community really invested in art education for the year.

It is absolutely something I would do again. In fact, some of my families let me know that they enjoyed the hands on aspect of the night even more than a traditional art show. Wow.  That took me by surprise.  I put out a feedback questionnaire on the website, “Survey Monkey” just a couple of days after the event.  It was great to get input on what families thought of the scheduling, the content and the overall experience.   Wrapping up the event with a survey is highly recommended and I think, really lets families know that it has been a thoughtful process to put Family Art Night together and that your goal really is to make it enjoyable and engaging for them!

Want to see more? If you haven’t checked it out yet, see my previous post about a district-wide Fam Art Night!  Click on the graphic below.

Art Advocacy! Host a “Family Art Night” at School

Art Advocacy! Host a “Family Art Night” at School

Art Advocacy! Host a “Family Art Night” at School

As the school year starts, a great way to involve families in your curriculum is to consider hosting a family art night for your school.  I have two different experiences to share with you here- one as a district wide family art event and the other as a single school family art night.  Bringing families into the school to make art with their children is not only excellent advocacy for your program, but for practice of the arts overall.  Families responded so positively, I immediately started sharing the feedback with my colleagues and administration and brainstorming on how to make this experience even more meaningful.

In this first post I want to share with you the district wide experience.  In NJ, this means only your township, but I’m aware that other parts of country structure that differently so picture your immediate community.  Our administrator chose this as an outreach program for our families of fourth graders from our five elementary schools.  When approached with the idea, my art teacher colleagues and I settled in to talk over some ideas.  

We had the following constraints to work within:

– The district planned to host 3 different nights over two months, families would rotate through each art making experience.

-Each session would be two hours.

-We needed an activity engaging for both fourth graders and adults.

-Use of minimal supplies. We had a healthy budget, but nothing too crazy.

-It would be best if we planned experiences with no special facility needed.

-The ultimate goal being to create a finished product within one night.

Six teachers participated including myself, not all of the them were elementary teachers, which I think was a great idea.  It helped to shake things up in the planning stages and had it’s own benefits during the time with our child and adult participants.  The art activities were team taught, two teachers in a room with around fifteen to twenty families each.  We decided on the following art experiences:

  1. Painted Paper Collage
  2. Creating and Printing Collographs
  3. Still Life Study

A notice was sent home to the fourth grade families of the district that they were invited to sign up for this three series of nights.  It was elective how many of the three nights to attend, though most participants attended all of them.  Our administrator used Sign Up Genius, an internet based response service, to collect RSVPs.  If you haven’t used it before, it’s very easy to set up an account and customize the kind of information you want to collect from your invitees.  Participation was limited to a set number of people and “registration” closed at some point so we could better plan.

Each night of the event, families checked in at the front door where a list was posted to let them know which room/activity they were scheduled for that night. We had three classrooms going each night, with about fifteen to twenty families in each room.

I ran the painted paper collage room with another colleague and it was such an awesome experience! You might think that in an hour and half to two hours, there’s not way we could do it all, but it worked so well!  Most of us began with digital presentations and short demos to introduce the technique.  This was a great window into the kind of art instruction the students are receiving in school, which really impressed the adult participants.  

Use this time to show families some of your great teaching strategies!  Instead of just telling them about our studio habits of mind, questioning or growth mindset, involve parents in it.

For painted paper collage, instruction began with a brief introduction to children’s book illustrators who use paper collage as their main medium. I’m happy to share that powerpoint with you here:

An overview of our process for the evening and a finished project was shared with participants. We asked families to first discuss and then make a quick rough sketch of the image they’d like to illustrate that evening. Suggestions were animals, landmarks and botanicals as subjects, but it was left up to the creators in the end!

My team teacher and I then demonstrated some painted paper techniques.  I looooove to do painted paper with my students so I brought all my usual tools and have a set-up routine pretty much mapped out. (You can read more about that here in my post about painted paper the easy way).  Because I do it in my elementary room I have a healthy scrap box of painted paper I was also able to bring to the sessions.  This helped in later stages when participants found themselves looking for colors they didn’t paint.

We asked the parent-child duos to create at least four painted papers. Beforehand, 12″x18” papers were folded in half so one color went on each side. This size paper is easier to get into the drying rack.  To get a nice thin coat of paint, we had foam brushes. This really prevented anyone from glopping it on.  In fact, after our next step, families were able to use the paper we had just created not twenty minutes earlier.


While the paper dried, families transferred the contour drawing to a canvas board. Cardboard would also certainly work if you were in a supply crunch. I used a chameleon as an example and emphasized using a simple, large scale image. Most families broke out their cell phones for images.  We also had a collection of books from the inspirational children’s book illustrators on hand for reference.

Before we released families to start collaging in their image, we split into two groups and did a quick demo on different collage techniques like torn vs. cut paper and how to use mod podge.

The collage process went pretty quickly. My team teacher and I whisked away all the paint while the families were first drawing their images and replaced them with cups of mod podge and foam brushes. Because each artwork was a collaborative effort, it went much faster than it would in the classroom.  We also allowed families access to the paint again if they had some details they wished to add in.  

  It might seem crazy to do something with so many steps in a single night, but I think the complexity of it kept everyone engaged and the final products were beautiful.  I think many families were really impressed with their collages and were excited to display them in their homes.  It was also fascinating to observe all the choices in imagery. We had hardly any repeats, even doing it three separate nights.   

The positive feedback from families was also wonderful.  They had a chance to further get to know their children’s teachers, experience a bit of our art education style and have a fun bonding experience with their child.  We had many requests to continue it on.  It is an experience I would strongly recommend you try for your own school or district.  I’ve covered how the district wide family art night was structured in this post, but I’ve done family  art night as a single school in just one night as well.

Check back next week for detailed information on how to plan one for yourself. Again it can be a great Fall kickoff!

Thanks for reading!

Update on Voices from the Land, 2017

Update on Voices from the Land, 2017

I am excited to share that I was able to do Voices from the Land with my Pre-K (four year old) students this year.  If you missed my previous post about the Voices experience, you can find it here:

* A further update, you can now find Voices from the Land programs in your own area by visiting the group’s new site:

With the help of the awesome Mrs. M and her para, Mrs. T, we first had the students practice indoors.  Here I was able to use my art period to show the students examples from the Voices catalog, provided when you take the workshop, and then have natural materials available for creating at each table.  Slightly different materials were provided at each table and after about eight minutes, the groups would switch to a different table.

Each time a group switched they were encouraged to talk more, to work with one another on the same idea.  This comes naturally to some children and is difficult for others.  The adults were present to prompt more language and teamwork from the children.

By the third round, the children were spending longer on their constructions and communicating with their team much more effectively.  This practice really helped prepare them for their experience out in the garden area.

The following session, we brought the children out to the school butterfly garden area and split them into groups. Their first task was collection.  When you are able to do Voices at a wholly natural site, the students can go off with their buckets to collect from the land around them.  In this case, we were on school grounds, which is mowed land except for our garden area.  To make up for this, some natural materials were brought in, such as pinecones, daisy flowers and sticks.  Some items I actually just brought around from the front of the school, so only minor relocation was needed!

Students chose their materials from our available piles as well as from invasive species in the garden (like clover) and brought them back to their building site.  From there, they knew what to do!  Students still needed to be prompted to talk with one another, but overall they were great teams.  They built upon each other’s ideas and allowed everyone to contribute.

One adult per group was assigned the role of recorder to take down the language of the children as they were building.  This language along with what they said during their short presentation of their art is what’s used to craft the poetry.

The poetry happened back in their classrooms with Mrs. M this time.  The one year I did the poetry with the students, I had all the words of the students on paper strips.  Working with one group at a time, I helped the children to arrange the words and phrases the way that pleased them.  This becomes their poem!

See a couple more of our finished posters from this year below. The artworks can be incorporated into photo books or instagram/twitter graphics or simple posters like we opted to do this year.

We were squeezing this in at the last possible moment this year- ha! I was working on the last of these on our final day of school so we could share them with parents digitally.  For expediency’s sake, I used a pre-formatted Microsoft Word poster file.  I was able to just change the color the scheme for each poster.  They are a nice little collection for our 2017 Voices experience.  Thanks for reading!



Art Unit on the House with Special Needs and Pre K

Art Unit on the House with Special Needs and Pre K


The House

I am always trying to come up with engaging  and meaningful theme units for my special needs art students.  This year I have a class of special needs students with very low fine motor capabilities as well as two preschool classes with a mixed population.

This art unit on The House has been creating excitement and interest with my students week after week!  I have also been able to incorporate books into each segment of the unit, which makes an important literacy connection.  It ties in great with pre school classes, who focus on buildings through one of their creative curriculum studies.

In this post I’ll outline the books and projects I used throughout the unit.

  1. book: Vincent Paints his House. by Ted Arnold

The book is a great little pattern book that focuses on color identification and a fun play on Vincent van Gogh.  As I read aloud to students I adapted their level of participation asking students to either vocalize the new color or identify different shades of that color.

My Pre K students really enjoyed calling out the new color on each page.  While my special needs students were prompted to name or just repeat the color.  Using speech in class is one of my goals with that group.

Art Activity: collaging collograph plates

For our art project we created the collograph plates, although I didn’t tell the students that’s what they would become.  We began with a house outline in pop sticks on our paper. Then talked about texture as corrugated paper and burlap were added to fill the house frame.

In the special needs group I really stop to focus on the texture of each piece.  Children are encourage to  pet the materials and really feel the texture. I also ask them to repeat the description of the texture- bumpy or rough, etc.

Next we spoke about features a house might have, such as doors and windows.  Students were given trays of loose parts to create these.  Then art was put on the drying rack until the next week.


  1. book:  Building our House. by Johnathan Bean

In Building our House, we watch a family go through the steps to build their own home beginning with mining rock for the foundation and ending with moving in the furniture.

Students enjoy spotting all the construction vehicles in the illustrations as well as pointing out tools they know.  I used the opportunity to ask the special needs class to repeat the names of the tools. If you have toy tools, it would be great to incorporate them into the experience.

Art Activity: Printing the Collographs

In this class I print the collographs with the students by working in small groups.  Now you should know that my pre K classes come with one aide and the special needs class comes with four aides, so I am all set on extra adults! Anyway, I pull two to three students at a time, allow the kids to roll black paint over their printing plate and then lay the paper on top of the plate, instructing the kids to rub the paper.

While the children are rubbing, take the opportunity to review vocabulary by stating, we are making a print of your collograph.  Can you feel your printing plate through the paper? I feel the texture of the sticks and burlap through the paper.

When they peel up the paper, it’s like magic for them!  What great fun to watch their faces.

While I’m printing with small groups, I have the other children acting as architects, building with blocks. They can select a house photograph to “replicate”.  When I have a moment or two in between I ask the builders about their creations.  Where is the bedroom?  How do the people get in? etc. Children love explaining their thinking!

  1. book:  The House in the Night.  by Susan Marie Swanson

This book has beautiful scratch board illustrations with yellow additions that pop out.  Kids can work on speech by identifying common items inside the house or naming the items that are emphasized with yellow.

There is also a video of this book that I really think is well done. I enjoy the extra sound effects added into the story.  You can find that link here:

Click here for a You Tube video read aloud of book by “One More Story”:

Art Activity:  The Night House artwork

We are adding to the collographs today, but going back to the printing plate rather than the print.The printing plate is all black now from our activity in the last class.  I mount the printing plates on 12×18 black construction paper.

sequin or foam stars from a craft supply place make this next step easier. After reading or watching the read aloud of the book, students will make their printing plates their nighttime house by adding stars and moon in the sky.  I use scraps of metallic paper to create a border design.

Depending on the class’ capabilities, students can cut smaller squares off of long strips of paper to collage a border or they can use pre-cut shapes.

As an extension activity, students work on scratch art paper to mimic the illustrations of the storybook. With my special needs class, we used star shaped cookie cutters as stencils and scratched inside the shape.

  1. book: Roberto the Insect Architect. by Nina Laden

This is one of those books that entertains the adults reading it as well as the children listening! With the references to famous architects and styles from the canon of art history, the book puts a twist on each name, morphing it into a bug name.  Roberto draws up blueprints for a bug city to house all the displaced bugs of the world!  It’s a good story for the last art project of the unit, a blueprint. 

Art Activity: “Blue prints” with plastic play blocks.  

This is done on large navy blue construction paper with carboard pieces and blocks dipped in white paint.  I used megablocks, because I have a ton of them and like that they are so large and sturdy. The edge of a piece of newsboard or cardboard makes a nice line.  I introduce the lesson and show an example before doing a quick demonstration of the printing.  It is useful to emphasize that students can build up the printing from the bottom just like one would do with real blocks.  Start stamping shapes at the bottom and go up.


Students can go back into the middle after they have the structure outlined.  You can prompt more work or responses from them by asking, Where would you put the bathroom? Where will the bedrooms be? This activity echoes the work they did when they were “playing” with the blocks in the class when we printed the collographs.  It is an extension of that activity and allows students to approach the same idea in 2-D.


If you have enough adults in the room, it would be fun to label the parts of the blueprint!  

Just for fun, here is a link to a musical number from the Nickelodeon kid’s show, Phinneas and Ferb, all about blueprints!  My special ed students were old enough to recognize the show, but I don’t think the pre school kids will know the show! 


Final Thoughts

Although I’ve never approached the special ed classes or pre K classes with a unit before, I am anxious ot do it again.  I’ve displayed the whole unit together and it is a beautiful culmination of work!  I really enjoyed extending the theme out so far and felt that each class was a meaningful addition to our experience.  It is for sure something I’ll repeat next year and I hope to add more art units to my repertoire for this level.  I’m thinking something about shadows next…