Fourth grade made simplified landscape paintings to round out their van Gogh unit. We had recently finished our stunning Starry Night mural and I still needed to reiterate their use of composition and we needed to work on some painting skills.
Several years ago I purchased some giant boards from Blick. My intention was to make portfolios for each student - but the boards were too heavy and cumbersome. I have been trying to use them for projects ever since. The 800 lbs. of boards have been stacked in my corner for too long! I imagined brightly painted landscapes on each dreary board. That was the catalyst for the toughest easy project I ever taught.
Our lesson began with a review of van Gogh's work. We dissected several of his paintings on the Promethean Board. Students came up and labeled the foregound, circled objects in the middleground, traced the horizon line, and labeled the background. We talked about the size of the kid sitting far in the back of the room, compared to the kid sitting right in front of me. All the classic means of teaching the parts of composition were in play.
Next, I gave each student a sketch paper. I demonstrated on the board drawing three lines - one for the foreground, one for the middleground, and the final for the horizon line. I asked what kind of objects would I find in a landscape. "A house!" "A tree!" "A bush! "A barn!" They understood - it was golden.
Then it turned weird.
Some were drawing straight lines, some were adding more outdoorsy details. That's okay. Then some started adding bizarre things to their landscape, like a disembodied head, or a large football. I wasn't discouraging this initially - because I still believed the students were on the right track... but I was wrong.
I was seeing some students drawing several horizontal lines and I would say "You are only going to get four colors of paint, do you think this could confuse your landscape?" An entire town was going into production on one paper. "Simple - simple - simple, you won't be able to paint all those details!"
I walked around several times, and again, I thought we were all on the right track, so I passed out the boards. Students transferred their drawings to the boards and traced with Sharpie. I started to see a few weird things popping up that weren't on sketches, like wiener-mobiles and banana busses. At this point, I just had to stop everyone.
"Fourth grade - we need to keep our landscapes simple. SIMPLE! We will be adding more to our picture after we paint. Please, keep your drawing to THREE LINES and ONE OBJECT. Please, some of our paintings are losing focus. We need to be able to see a foreground, middleground, and background."
Okay, good. They are nodding. They get it.
By the end of the hour I had two students with three lines and an object. I can not even explain what happened in the other paintings. I should've taken a picture.
Week two. We started from scratch. We began dissecting paintings on the Promethean Board. All the kids new their parts of composition. I was using call and response, active learning, integrating technology. All good strategies. We got back our paintings and I reviewed the directions again.
It was kind of like a collective "ah ha" moment. They got it. Really, this time they understood what the connection between the paintings on the board and their paintings actually was.
We redrew, traced, and repainted. We were on track. During week three, students added zentangle like patterns to each part of their composition. They turned out as beautiful as I imagined they would.
The project was simple. Three lines and an object. The objectives were not difficult. I struggled with my decision to squelch the students' creativity by having them return to their pictures and simplify them. In a general, when a student veers off track I encourage it! This time t was obvious that the majority of this class was just not understanding the basics of the assignment and they were not learning the objectives. If they are not understanding what I was teaching them, they are not learning.
The assignment took longer than initially intended for this group, but it was worth it.