The Fifth Grade Curriculum:
My first goal with fifth grade students is to lengthen their attention span as it relates to art-making. Previously, students have focused more on short term projects that emphasize materials skillbuilding. As an artist and teacher, I want students to understand that art making is an important activity that requires concentration and perseverance, and which deserves their best efforts. The projects and exercises developed for this grade level have what I like to call ‘guaranteed success’. They are open ended, focused experiences that are designed to increase artistic self-confidence while also extending attention span. Each of the projects function as building blocks for the next project. Consequently, students don’t take artwork home regularly, but keep their work in their folder as reference for the next assignment.I introduce (and provide) a sketchbook at the beginning of the semester, using it to develop and experiment with ideas. Students begin with a skill-building color-blending exercise that is mounted on the cover of their sketchbook. We talk about becoming ‘color inventors’, a concept that appeals to this age group. As students learn basic color theory, shading and craftsmanship, they are also working with design concepts (emphasis and layout), and craftsmanship. The skills they master in this exercise will be used in their Mandala (the final project).Simultaneously, students also begin work on developing personal imagery;making lists of people, places, animals, objects and ideas that are personally important. After populating those lists, students then develop symbols for each one of those entries.Once students have completed their hand drawings (their first ‘guaranteed success’ project), they begin work on progressive drawing and design exercises that emphasize basic principles of design, including line quality, shape exploration, form, and space.
I pay careful attention to direct instruction and observation during these exercises, building specific skills and emphasizing individuality. These drawings use small square papers, which are bound into a simple accordion foldbook. Students then use printmaking techniques to make a cover for their books. The books themselves are beautiful, and the individual drawings are both engaging and informative.At this point, we begin working toward our final project, the mandala. Painting is often a frustrating skill for students at this age, because their desire is to have better craftsmanship than they actually do have. This is where I talk about painting tips . Once students realize that artists use a variety of ‘tricks’ to accomplish their goals, they begin to understand that art is not a ‘gift’ that only a special few individuals are granted, but that they can indeed learn the techniques that artists use and be successful in their own right. This is an ‘aha’ moment for many students. We then do exercises to learn brush control, and color theory related to paints. Here, I begin to talk about patience and attention span, helping students become more discriminating and hold themselves to a higher standard. I talk a lot about art being a process that takes time, rather than a ‘race to the finish’.
After completing the painting practice exercises, we look to mathematics for instruction. I do a guided hands-on lesson on basic geometry tools (with an amusing, engaging story to illustrate the concepts). We learn the correct way to measure with a ruler, and how to manipulate bow compasses and protractors. We use these tools to divide circles into 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12 equal parts.I use the mandala project to bring in the last of the important concepts in 5th grade art, that of art as a vehicle for the expression of ideas, beliefs and feelings. We look at the historical meaning and examples of the mandala, and then look at a wide variety of student examples. I emphasize personal expression…the idea that art is ‘vision made visual’. This is a critical concept for students at this age, because it is now that they need to understand that they can express themselves in art in their own unique way. Because students often compare their efforts to others around them, and make negative judgments about their own work, it is important for them to understand that there is no one ‘right way’ to make art.At the end of the mandala presentation, I give students their project parameters in the form of three simple instructions.They must use:
- circles within circles;
- at least three symbols from their important people, etc. grids;
- and repetition of designs and symbols.
I emphasize that ALL other decisions are theirs to make. This gives students permission to make their mandala a true personal expression of their own ideas, beliefs and feelings. When I question students later about what they enjoyed most about making their mandala, I often hear that they valued the freedom to express themselves as individuals, and not have to follow an externally mandated concept.
At the end of the semester, we prepare our final project for exhibit at the Arts Open House night. This is an important part of the curriculum, where students have the opportunity to show their hard work,and get feedback from family and friends.