“Less is More” during a PYP Unit on the Arts

Objective / Inspiration

One of my goals this year is to plan less and instead have the students do just a few, more meaningful, learning engagements. During a unit with the central idea “People express themselves through the arts in many ways” there was so much we could have done, but I was happy that my class completed the unit with just four major learning engagements.

Note that during play-based learning time (“choice time”), I always had art materials out and many children chose different media to try at this time.  I think my hands are still recovering from all the stapling, taping, and EZ cutter-ing I helped out with!  One quarter of the classroom became the “art studio” where we had newspaper readily available to cover the floor, and lots of artwork drying or waiting to be finished.  While I feel that this exploration was essential to student learning, here I write about just the teacher-planned learning experiences.


What we did

The unit started with a flash mob dance to get the students’ attention.  At the end of the teachers’ surprise dance to “I like to move it,” a colleague modeled viewing art by “thinking aloud” what he thought we were expressing in our dance and then showing a sculpture he made that represented his sadness about his long-term subbing position ending (as someone was returning from maternity leave).

Our provocation later that day was an “art gallery” set up in one room at school. The students toured the gallery, took photos of the pieces they liked, and then talked about what they liked about their favorite piece of artwork and what they thought the artist was feeling when he/she created it.  This helped teachers to find out how much the students already know about different forms of art and what they might be interested in making on their own.

(To help students acquire background vocabulary on feelings which they might use when creating and viewing art, I used interactive read-alouds with books such as the Knuffle Bunny stories, which prompted the class to discuss different feelings.  We used think-pair-share to discuss times we have felt anger, panic, frustration, excitement, etc.)

Next the students gained exposure to different forms of art by rotating through six stations, each led by a teacher or TA. The students created self-portraits through painting and photography, danced, engaged in drama, used clay, and created collages. After each station they reflected on what they expressed through their art and what creative choices they made. For example, after creating photography self-portraits the students explained what feeling or like/dislike the dress-up clothes, background, and pose that they chose conveyed.

After this “tuning in,” I wanted my students to engage in a long-term art project that would help them become more reflective as creators. Since so many students admired a mobile at the “art gallery” provocation, I decided they could create their own mobiles. I asked the class whether this was interesting to them or if they would rather do something else, and everyone was eager to create a mobile. We gathered and painted large tree branches to be the pillars of the mobiles. Parents sent in bits of “junk” materials (bottle caps, old jewelry, keys, corks, etc.) for us to use. I found a bunch of clear plastic boxes to hold these materials and the students helped me sort them by color (like you see in a Reggio Emilia atelier).

Over the next three weeks, students created small collages on pieces of cardboard to hang on their mobiles. Students started to become more involved in their creations and began the cardboard before gluing stuff on, made more elaborate 3D sculptures on the cardboard, etc. I could see that students were really reflecting and improving in their art each time they created a mini-collage and I questioned them about their creative choices and what they wanted to express. Once everyone had a large Ziploc bag full of mini collages, I worked one-on-one with each child to assemble their mobile.

The mobiles looked amazing and students were so proud to bring them home. I asked parents to come in during pickup time one day so that each child could hold up his or her mobile and answer questions about it. This helped students develop the transdiscipinary skills of viewing and presenting.

(Throughout the unit students also developed communication skills by engaging in the “See Think Wonder” thinking routine while looking at works of art.)

The next long-term learning engagement was an exploration of performance art. My class created a short ballet (about 90 seconds long) to tell the story of The Ugly Duckling. (You can read more about this on its own blog post.)

Finally, I wanted students to initiate and carry out their own art projects. In my school, we have 3 classes at my grade level. We collaborated so that each teacher and TA offered space and supplies for a given media (photography, painting, junk modeling, clay sculpture, and collage). The students chose one area in which to create. Over four days, students created one piece of artwork to share at an art gallery. Teachers acted as facilitators, helping only where necessary and then typing students’ descriptions of their artwork.

The day before the art gallery, my students presented their artwork to one another in groups of four. (I deliberately did this in groups of four understanding that young children would struggle to sit through 16 short presentations.) The “audience” asked questions. The students could use these prompts when presenting their work:


I made _______________________.

I decided to ___________________ because _________________.

I really like _______________________.

It was difficult to _______________________.

(I sent the prompts home to parents in my weekly update before this learning experience so that students learning English could receive some support at home if there was an interest.)

Several other classes, as well as parents, visited our art gallery. It was a fun celebration of the students’ learning and individuality.

We ended the unit by reflecting on the four major learning engagements: Rotating through an introduction to six art forms; creating mobiles; performing in a ballet; and creating and presenting artwork at the art gallery. Students indicated which experience was the most fun, which was the most beneficial to their learning, and which was their overall favorite.


Photo: Thinking routine


Photo: Painted self-portrait created during the first week of the unit.


Photo: In this learning experience, the students organized photography portraits by choosing dress up outfits, poses, and backgrounds.  I printed their photos and added a caption with their words sharing what they wanted their portrait to express.  This child said, “It shows I’m silly.”


Photo: Students paint toilet paper rolls for making 3D sculptures to add to their mobiles.


Photo: We were running out of places to store the mobiles as students worked on them!  Here are two works in progress, hanging wherever we could find a spot.


Photo: Creations on display in the art gallery


I was really proud of myself for NOT getting tempted to do many other activities that would have been fun but would have turned the unit into a series of short “crafts”. The students were so proud of their mobiles, especially children who aren’t typically very strong with art or fine motor activities.

If I could change something we did it would have been to ask parents to send in pieces of artwork that children could use for the “See Think Wonder” routine instead of my finding pictures of artwork online.

Another way I could have improved in my teaching is to display the prompts for reflecting on artwork throughout the unit.  This seems so obvious now, but just did not occur to me while I was teaching the unit.

This unit leant itself to an integrated math study about shape. In another post I will blog about the math learning experiences.


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