Fourth graders recently finished a unit on abstract art. After creating Abstract Portraits with my student teacher, I wanted students to learn more about abstract art and to have some time to experiment with various materials.


For the first lesson of this unit, I played several instrumental songs and students tried painting the sounds they heard by using colors and brush strokes. At first, some students looked at me with confused looks–those looks that ask, “You want me to do what?” I asked students to try it out and told them that it would make more sense as class went on. As the music played, I asked questions like, “What color could you use to show how loud or quiet this instrument is?” and “Does the song sound fast or slow? How can you show the speed of the music using your brush?” After a few minutes, the students were dancing and painting along to the music!


During the next few classes, students could add to or change a painting they had started previously or create a new abstract drawing/painting. I limited the paper to 6″x9″ because I wanted students to be willing to try out new ideas and not be too precious with their work. We talked about different things that inspire abstract artists, like experiences, feelings, elements of art, favorite materials and new tools.

As inspiration, I read the book The Noisy Paint Box, by Barb Rosenstock, which tells the story of Vasily Kandinsky, an artist with synesthesia (who experienced sounds as colors), and who became one of the first abstract painters. The students were really interested in his story and had lots of questions about synesthesia. I also showed them footage from On a River, a short video about contemporary artist Heather Day. The video includes footage of Day traveling, sketching and working in her San Francisco home/studio.

In addition to learning about these two artists, I showed students images of abstract art created by Beatriz Milhazes, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Odili Donald Odita, and Shinique Smith.


On the last day of this unit, students were also given the option of creating their own abstract painting tool using old paintbrush handles and everyday objects like toothpicks, q-tips, plastic forks and string. Students came up with some very creative tools!

Below are some examples of the work that students created. I am so impressed with their willingness to try new materials and engage with this process! It can often be intimidating to create something abstract–something that you cannot quite put a finger on and name. I’m so grateful for students’ openness and willingness to try something new and learn from each other as they worked.


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Kindergartners started a line unit a few weeks ago. For the first lesson of this unit, I taught students different types of lines (straight, thick, thin, wavy, etc.) First I said the name of the line and drew it in the air with a “paintbrush” (my finger) as students repeated the words and gesture after me.

After learning each line, I told students that they would be creating a BIG drawing together. To do this, students needed to take turns drawing lines, so we practiced how to do this on the rug first. We talked about some of the skills we would be practicing–like collaboration, compromise and cooperation. As one student put it, “compromise means you take part of what one person wants and part of what the other person wants and put it together.” Once I felt students understood the rules of this drawing “game,” I split them into small groups and each child got a pencil.

Then I played a song from the Broken Flowers soundtrack and the first student in the group began to draw. When I stopped the music, the first person stopped. When the next group member was ready, I began the music again. Students had to start their line where the last person left off and try to fill the entire page without overlapping. I continued the rotation so that each student had about 3-4 turns and then I gave the next direction. Students also had reference pages at their tables with the different types of lines on them.



I passed out markers and told students that next they needed to trace their pencil lines with marker. This time they could work at the same time, but had to talk to each other so that everybody could participate.



The next day, when students got to class I told them that I had cut up their big drawing! Some students were shocked at first, but then got interested when I told them their next step… to choose one of the pieces and add to it. I put different materials at each table I told students that they could choose the materials they wanted to use today by going to different “stations.” We took a “field trip” around the room and I demonstrated how to use the materials at each station. After giving the instructions, students went to the rug to select a part of the drawing to add to.



Students could change stations as they worked, the only rule was that they couldn’t use Sharpie on top of the watercolors.


The following day, students began class with a pop quiz! I reviewed the different types of lines that students could use on the white board and students practiced drawing them one at a time. Then students got their artwork back and continued working. Check out some of the amazing results!


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The inspiration for my line handout came from Art is Basic.


Maria Sibylla Merian, Metamorphosis of a Butterfly, 1705

As inspiration for this lesson, Ms. Nemes showed first graders botanical illustrations by Maria Sibylla Merian, “one of the first naturalists to observe insects directly.”

Then students practiced being scientists and artists by observing an insect of their choice carefully. Students could choose to study: an insect preserved in resin, a non-fiction book about an insect or a scientific drawing. Each student created a sketch, labeled their drawing and wrote one sentence describing something interesting they noticed about their insect.

Next, students were challenged to translate (and simplify) their complex drawing into a collagraph using mixed-media materials. Students shopped for foam, wire, mesh, oak tag, buttons and string at the “art store” and then cut and arranged the materials to create their collagraph. The last step before printing was to paint a thin layer of mod podge over their collage.

Next, students learned how to print their collagrpah using ink. Each student painted their collagraph with ink and then used the printing press to create 3 copies of their image. After they printed, students added details to their prints using oil pastels and colored pencils.


To begin this lesson, Ms. Nemes read the book Rulers of the Playground, by Joseph Kuefler, about kids who imagine the playground as their own kingdom. The book features great illustrations of slides, tunnels, swings, maps, and other play equipment.

Next kindergarteners were asked, “If you could create your own kingdom, what would it look like?” and students sketched their ideas.


After creating a sketch, students used recycled materials, paper, tape and drawing materials to create a 3D version of their kingdom. Their first step was to create a base for their kingdom by covering a piece of cardboard with paper to mimic sand, water, grass, dirt or whatever students wanted on the ground of their kingdom. Ms. Nemes demonstrated how to measure paper with pencil and then cut with scissors so that it was the right size.

Next, students transformed recycled materials into buildings, towers, trees and more! They also added details like windows, waves, and animals to make their sculpture more interesting. Students had a blast with this project and I’m so impressed with the results!


As part of our discussion on visual culture, the grad students in my Elementary Methods class at BU were challenged to create a memorial or monument dedicated to someone or something important to them.

To begin the conversation, I showed students a few videos about the current debate over the removal of confederate monuments and a public art monument initiative in Philadelphia. The first videos I showed were from a lesson created by The Choices Program at Brown University called History in Dispute: Charlottesville and Confederate Monuments. I showed my students three of the videos and they answered a question about the content of each video after each one was over. Next, I showed students a six-minute video from the PBS New Hour about a city-wide public art project in Philadelphia called Monumental Lab.

I also showed students monuments created by contemporary artists including: Free at Last, by Sergio Castillo, Monument in Trafalgar Square, by Rachel Whiteread, Pedestal for Strangers and Pedestal for a Little Girl, by Miranda July and Public Figures by Do-Ho Suh.


Then I taught students how to create a pop-up box out of oak tag (inspired by my Not-a-Box lesson) and students brainstormed ideas for what they would create. My goal was to show my grad students how a lesson could be adapted for different age groups. This is a lesson I think would be amazing to teach middle school students right now.

After creating their monuments, my students also wrote a brief artist statement about their work. Here are a few pictures of their finished monuments…



Additional Links & Resources:

What the Removal of New Orleans’s White Supremacist Monuments Means to My Students

Spark Lab: Design Your Own Monument

Teaching for Big Ideas: Art Education for the 21st Century


For this lesson, Ms. Nemes taught students about the game Exquisite Corpse. After showing students a few examples of this drawing game, students created their own Exquisite Monsters by drawing the head of their creature and then switching papers to draw the body and the bottom (legs, tail, tentacles, etc.).

IMG_6146On the second day, students were allowed to edit their drawing by making minor changes like adding texture, drawing extra arms, or changing the feet of their monster.


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After drawing with pencil, students colored their monster and then created a background using their choice of materials.

Second graders had so much fun experimenting with different ways to print leaves. First, students went outside to create texture rubbings around school. Students made rubbings of bricks, the sidewalk, grass, trees, benches and more! Then, students collected 2 leaves and brought them inside to create a second layer of crayon rubbing.

On the second day of this lesson, students learned how to paint with watercolors over the crayon rubbings they had made. Students were also given the option of creating rubbings on tracing paper. On day three, students learned how to print leaves using ink. Students loved experimenting with the different techniques. Students’ finished prints needed to include at least two layers or techniques.

After learning about blind contour and contour drawing, students used their drawing skills to create an abstract self-portrait. Ms. Nemes taught students about abstract art and students discussed some of the reasons an artist might choose to make something abstract. After looking at images of abstract portraits as a group, students brainstormed ideas for their own Abstract Feeling Self-Portrait. During this unit, students thought about what colors, lines, shapes and features would describe their feeling best. I am so impressed with all of the portraits that students created!

As part of a fall drawing unit, I want to share three drawing prompts I use with 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders. I love teaching these lessons in the beginning of the year! It’s a great way to build students’ drawing skills, practice routines and build students’ drawing skills from year to year.

1st Grade Apples Drawings: I put one fake apple on each table before students arrive. On the first day, I walk through a few steps of how students might approach the drawing and give them a few tips along the way (like sketching lightly before pressing harder). After drawing for about 5-10 minutes, I do another short demo explaining how to blend colors. Then students have the rest of class and another two classes to finish their drawing.

2nd Grade Pumpkin Drawings: This lesson is similar to the first grade lesson. Before students arrive, I put one mini pumpkin on each table. On the first day, I walk through a few steps of how students might approach the drawing and give them a few tips along the way (sketch lightly before pressing harder). After drawing for about 5-10 minutes, I do another short demo explaining how to blend colors. Then students have another two classes to finish drawing their pumpkin and creating a background from observation or memory. This lesson usually falls around Halloween, and students love adding spider webs, ghosts, vampires, and other Halloween-themed ideas to their picture.


Third graders have been talking about how scientists and artists are similar. For this unit, students chose a colorful autumn leaf to observe carefully. Students made sketches of their leaf and labeled it with observations and questions they had. After reading the book My Name is Georgia and learning about how Georgia O’Keeffe made paintings large, so that viewers, “[would] be surprised into taking time to look at it,” students enlarged their scientific sketch onto a new piece of paper. Ms. Nemes taught students how to blend colors used colored pencils or mix colors using watercolors. Then, students colored or painted their drawing and created a background to unify their image.