Thursday, November 9, 2017

Art teaching in the PYP: from Art Activities to Big Ideas

For years, I planned integrated PYP art units pretty much the same way: looked at the homeroom units in the POI and planned art activities that seemed to match.  The older entries on this blog are full of examples of this.

Where We Are in Place and Time: Greek vases, Egyptian masks, "Magic Carpets"
Who We Are: Self Portraits or Personal Mandalas
How the World Works:  Landscapes

This kind of teacher directed artwork is sure to create beautiful decoration for the walls of the school and it also gives the impression of strong single subject integration with the homeroom UOI's.  But when you look deeper, one wonders who did the cognitive work to create this piece of art, the student or the teacher?  Does a Greek vase that was 80% planned and designed by the teacher really demonstrate student understanding of the Big Ideas of a unit?

Over the past few years, I've worked on taking existing art units and opening them up from teacher directed art activities to concept driven units that give learners an opportunity to choose how to demonstrate their understanding. The key to doing this is to focus on the universal and timeless concept rather than the topic, which is more appropriately used as an example of the concept rather than the driving force behind the unit.

For example, Mandalas are topic which can fall under a variety of concepts.  In the past I used mandalas to fit into a Who We Are unit, you can find the lesson here. This year, instead of focusing on the topic of mandalas, I focused on the concepts of pattern and repetition.  This allowed for a natural integration with a Grade 4 Unit on personal well-being.  Some questions we explored included: how do artists use pattern and repetition, why do artists use pattern and repetition, what connections can we make between patterns in our daily activities and our own feeling of well being?

The provocation for the unit was the same as in the past-- a video of Buddhist monks creating a sand mandala. However, mandalas were used as one example of many artistic interpretations of pattern and repetition rather than a model for students to emulate.

The next step was introducing the children to four specific types of pattern and having them complete a sorting and labeling activity in small groups.  This was a good opportunity to introduce them to other exemplars of pattern like Warhol's soup cans, Islamic art and MC Escher.

Following this, the students independently practiced creating simple patterns with pencil in their sketchbooks using a worksheet I created. This gave me a chance to walk around the room as they were working to check for understanding.

Once everyone was confident, students filled "WOW" proposals for their final project.  I created a Youtube video that took each child step by step through the whole process (we are a 1:1 school and each child has their own iPad.)  That way everyone can work at their own pace and I can walk around and conference individually with children who need some guidance.  It also makes it a lot easier to catch a child up who was absent on art day.

If a child chose to use a media that they didn't have experience with, they needed to get a "driver's license" for that particular media by independently following an instructional video and having me check for basic skills.  One example of the skill based videos we use for in class instruction can be found here.  I also track which media they have experience with and what media they choose to use for WOW projects with a tracking sheet that is in their sketchbook.  This "in class flipping" was a lot of work to put in place but it allows the children to have the freedom to use various media without the chaos of me trying to teach five different types of media skills at one time.

If you are interested in incorporating a more choice based approach to your PYP Visual Arts classroom, please look for our PYP/TAB Art Teachers Facebook group, we would love to hear your ideas.  Thanks for reading.


  1. Hi there! Loving the blog! We're trying to move towards UbD planning in specialist areas, in a school based in Jubail, Eastern Province. Could you confirm which school in Saudi you're in? I was wondering if we could communicate further.

  2. Hi Shan, I am at the KAUST School near Jeddah. I don't have UbD specific experience but we certainly use backwards planning in the PYP. Happy to connect further, send me an email if you're interested.

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