HighSchool Art Room: instruction and providing choice to students

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: https://naitc-api.usu.edu/media/uploads/2015/09/01/Three_Sisters_Legends.pdf

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 Native American 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 about 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 go through 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.

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!