Art Curriculum Planning Idea

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Planning an art curriculum?  I'll show you my idea to organize your elementary art curriculum with "Big Ideas" to help your lessons be more meaningful.

So… How’s Your Art Curriculum Planning Coming Along?

Do you feel like your lessons just happen in random order? Do students ever ask, “Why are we learning about this?” If so, take a look at how I organized my art curriculum using Big Ideas. Using Big Ideas helped me plan my lessons and made the lessons more meaningful by making connections to students’ lives.

When teaching with Big Ideas at the elementary level, I cycled through 3 big ideas each year and taught using the same Big Idea with all grade levels at the same time. Cycling helped me organize my art curriculum and, at the same time, helped students see how art plays a part in every area of our lives.

For example, during year 1 of the rotation, we cover Feelings, Identity & Culture and

Year 2 covers Society, Environment, & Fantasy.

I found that anything meaningful that I wanted to teach could fit into one of the 6 Big Ideas. Teaching with Big Ideas also helped me find ways to have students incorporate personal connections to the art they made in art class which, in turn, made their art more meaningful to them.

I was inspired by Hundertwasser’s 5 Skins soon after learning about Big Ideas from Sydney Walker during my grad school work at The Ohio State University. Here is a book we used. (not an affiliate link)

Here is a brief idea of what could be covered for each Big Idea:

Big Idea – Feelings

Graphic diagram of the big idea - feelings.  The feeling is in the person's heart.

Students can explore ways to express their feelings through art and learn about expressive artists such as Vincent van Gogh. This Big Idea could also include artists that are inspired by music, such as Kandinsky and Klee. One way to start the year would be to review the elements of art, then a study of how artists use the elements of art to create feelings in their work. Without a doubt, this would be an excellent time to introduce the idea of an art critique and compare and contrast how two different artists or artworks create feelings using the elements of art.


Essential Questions about Feelings:

How can art express my emotions?
What emotions can I express through art?
How are the elements & principles of art used to create emotion in art?

Big Idea – Identity

Graphic design of the big idea - identity.  The identity shape encloses the person.

Students relate best to this Big Idea and enjoy making art about themselves. However, this can move beyond the self-portrait to include visual metaphors and descriptive words that express the identity of students. Indeed, this would also be a terrific time to get students writing about their art by writing an artist statement about their work.

You can read about designing an avatar and writing a mission statement as an “Identity” lesson in this Avatar Drawing blog post.

Essential Questions about Identity:

  • What do you dream about?
  • What words describe you?
  • How do you conceal/reveal your identity?
  • What’s your style?
  • How do you show your identity?
  • What is important to you?

Big Idea – Culture

Graphic design of the big idea - culture.  The house shape of culture encloses the person and their identity.

I define culture as the things that influence how we live. These things differentiate us from other cultures. By looking at the objects we create, it is easier to see how we’ve created a way of life different from the people living outside our culture. (Definitely, the word culture is used in many different ways!)

Some students are surprised to learn that they live in a culture. To them, a “culture” is something that people in different times and places live in. I want students to learn what it is that makes OUR culture unique. As a result, through their art, students get a chance to share something about their own culture.

Clearly, this is an awesome opportunity to use contemporary artists! This might also be the perfect time to talk about the purpose of art and how art should be judged with the purpose in mind. For example, is it functional, decorative, communicating a message, or creating an emotion.

Essential Questions about Culture: 

  • What can we learn about a culture from the things that they make and eat?
  • How can you improve the design of something you use?
  • Who designs the things that we use?
  • How are celebrations and traditions part of our culture?
  • Where do our traditions and celebrations come from?

Big Idea – Society

Graphic diagram of the big idea - society. Society circles around the house shape of culture.

The people that surround us shape us and influence us. Art lessons about society show the groups we belong to and what makes them a part of our lives. Artists like Faith Ringgold and Aminah Robinson show the importance of community. This is also a perfect opportunity to teach lessons about having good character traits and encourage others to be productive members of our society. Artists like Keith Haring fit into this Big Idea. For example, students can also learn about the power of art to influence the behavior of a society.

Essential Questions about Society:

  • What makes you a unique member of your group?
  • Who inspires you?
  • Why is community important?
  • Who has had an influence on your life?

Big Idea – Environment

Graphic diagram of the big idea - environment.  The environment circles around the society area.

Lessons about the environment include artists such as Hundertwasser, M.C. Escher, Charley Harper, Andy Goldsworthy, and Georgia O’Keeffe. (To name a few!) Environment lessons could focus on appreciating the beauty of nature or focus on conserving the environment.

Essential Questions about Nature:

  • How does nature inspire us?
  • Why do we need nature?
  • How can we protect nature?
  • What kind of shapes do you find in nature?
  • How does nature create patterns?

Big Idea – Environment

Graphic diagram of the big idea -fantasy.  Fantasy is show in the head and outside the environment area.  Big Ideas help plan your art curriculum.

Lessons about fantasy (using our imagination) could include traditional fantasy images such as dragons and monsters. Fantasy lessons could also include dreams and surreal works of art, such as the work of Salvador Dali. This is a super Big Idea for ending the school year. Fantasy images attract the attention of students and students have a great deal of fun creating their own fantasy drawings, paintings, or sculptures. With all the excitement generated by fantasy works of art, students will be more willing to take the time to write about their work and maybe even write a short fantasy story.

Essential Questions about Fantasy:

  • What happens in your dreams?
  • How is your fantasy world better (or different) than reality?
  • What does your fantasy world look like?

Art Curriculum Planning Help

I shared the documents I used to create quick outlines of my year to help you get started organizing your year around these Big Ideas. I created the “Year at a Glance” in Word, and you can use it as a starting point. Try changing the artists, essential questions, or lessons to fit your needs. Download it before working on it to get all the correct formatting.

Year at a Glance – Year 1 – Feelings, Identity, Culture

Year at a Glance – Year 2 – Society, Environment, Fantasy

I would love to hear more about how you use Big Ideas in your classroom and art curriculum planning in the comments below!

Click on this image to get a free copy of this infographic.

Remind yourself and others of the social and emotional benefits of art. This is a great graphic to include in parent newsletters or display in your room.

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Don’t forget to pin this!

The outline of a child with arms stretched out. There is a red heart inside the body, a circle in the head, and 4 layers of shapes around the body. Each area represents a different "Big Idea" in art. The diagram is painted with watercolors. The text says, "Teaching with Big Ideas in Art".
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Stacey Peters

Stacey Peters

I create engaging drawing resources that help students build confidence and express themselves through art. I'm a former elementary art teacher of 25 years turned business owner. Giving you the tools you need to bring more drawing into your classroom brings me joy.

4 Responses

  1. Thank you so much for this article! I do have a question though…
    So if I understand you correctly, you alternate the Big Ideas between Year 1 and Year 2, right? So for example: 2018-19 (Year 1 Big Ideas), 2019-20 (Year 2 Big Ideas)…

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