• Dave Dees

Art Lessons for Middle School (a simple 6-step guide)

Teaching Art in Middle School can be tough. Great art lessons can help a lot!!

Today I will be writing about the thing I do best. I have been a middle school art teacher for over a decade in Baltimore, MD. Over the course of that time I have developed a simple system for how to get the interest of the kids, keep it for as long as you need it, and then have them work as independently as they are capable of. It is a simple matter of deciding what will be made, why it is being made, how it will be made, and motivating them to try their best in the making process. The following questions must be answered if you are going to make it a lesson that matters.

1. What do you want your middle school artists to make?

There are a few ways to begin the process of creating an art lesson. One is to decide what will be made. This can be done by researching on google, pinterest, etc. Maybe you saw the other art teacher down the hall do something you really like, or maybe you saw something while you were shopping for antiques last weekend. It doesn't matter where the idea came from, it only matters that the idea is here now. If you have a good idea of the final product you have to work backwards from there making sure to answer all the questions in this article along the way.

2. What artist can you show them for historical/cultural examples?

This is a time honored tradition the power of which cannot be denied. You can feel free to branch out as widely as you wish, but you need to show young people the artists of the world and what they did. There is nothing that can equal the feeling inside a student's head when they think "I could do that!" looking at their first Jackson Pollock. Or the feeling of "I could never do that!" the first time they see a hyper realistic Chuck Close portrait. Or when they realize they can do it their own way after seeing the works of Basquiat. We owe it to them to connect the things we are teaching with the world and the time it came from, and to show them how it all connects with us... now.

3. What materials will your middle school art students use?

This part of the design of a project is all to often left to "what is easy to get to?" or "what will they not make a mess out of?" I will let you in on a little secret, everything is a potential mess and no mess is the end of the world. Choose artistic media based off what your students have been under-exposed to and they will be more engaged. A class that is more engaged does not misbehave in the same way a bored class might. No matter what you decide to use with them, try to make a day where they learn some skills in the use of the material. This will lead to more polished final products, and great artwork is the best classroom management tool there is in the middle school years.

4. What simple steps do they need to complete to create this artwork?

Students need to have the work broken down into steps and shown to them. They need these steps to always be visible, or at least available to them if they are going to be able to work independently. It also helps to foster a climate of fairness in your room, because students know what is expected of them and they are not going to be surprised with an expectation they cannot meet. I suggest either using video (like I do in all of my 5 minute lessons,) or at least having posters up in the room that show each step of the project. This also has a nice side effect of keeping the instructor from having to repeat the same simple directions over and over. Instead they can simply say "check the video," or "look at the posters."

5. What parts can you leave open so that they have control of what they create? (they like control.)

This is a simple instruction, but it is one of the most important. Do not tell them exactly what to do all along the way. Do not try to make everyone's work turn out the same. Let them be the individual human beings they really are. I have one student who would not work for me until the day I gave him the chance to build a cardboard boat. He built the most perfectly engineered ship of cardboard this world has ever seen. Since then we have a deal where if he can think of something he can build to do the same project as everyone else I will let him do that instead. He feels like he gets what he wants all the time and I have a kid who won't work for anyone doing awesome stuff in my class. Some hard-nosed vets think that makes me a bad teacher, but I think it just means they aren't nice :)

6. How can middle school artists express themselves with this work? (they really like themselves.)

This is probably every students favorite part of my class. The funniest thing is that every single one of them acts like they HATE it. When I was a new teacher I actually believed the front they would put on, "Oh Man Mr. D, Don't make me talk about myself and my feelings!!" Now they can't convince me of that because I have seen too many kids share the deepest parts of themselves with me through their artwork. I have seen family problems, self-esteem issues, depression, anxiety, death of loved ones, etc. etc. and I know they aint talking about that stuff in math class. We do the most special thing there is in the whole school so we might as well make sure we are doing it as well as it can possibly be done, right!

Thank you for reading and if this seems like too much, or if you just want to sample of some great art lessons click here!!

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